Not many people can say they have rebuked Jesus. But the leader of the early Church can.
In a fascinating exchange in Mark 8:27-33, Peter rebukes Jesus for a teaching Peter does not understand and will not accept. The drama of that moment is fascinating: a human soul, standing before God, saying “No, Lord. Not your way. Let’s go my way.”
Let’s look at this story and see if we can relate to Peter. Maybe we all have a little bit of this Peter in us. And maybe we can all change our hearts, as he did.
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Here’s the scene. Jesus sets out one day with his disciples for the village of Caesarea Phillipi. It’s a strange destination. Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient Roman city located north of Israel, at the southwestern base of Mt. Hermon, the tallest mountain in the region. This was pagan territory, not on the way to anything obvious, other than Mt. Hermon. It was an out of the way place.
So here’s Jesus, drawing his disciples to an out of the way place, at the foot of the highest mountain in the region, a good distance from all Jewish settlements.
Here, with the mountain looming behind them, he asks a question. “Who do men say that I am?”
Not a hard question for the disciples. Many people were speaking about Jesus. Many people had opinions about who he was.
“John the Baptist,” came one answer from the disciples.
“Elijah, or one of the prophets,” was another answer.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked.
Here was the reason Jesus brought them to this secluded place. To ask them this question. Apparently, he had not asked them this question before. They had talked about it with one another, of course. Everyone who knew Jesus talked about it: Who was he?
On day one, John the Baptist had called him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” After an early encounter in a synagogue, the crowds wondered: “Who was this man who commands even the evil spirits and they obey him?” And the disciples themselves, after Jesus had stilled the storm at sea, asked one another: “Who is this man that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Miracle after miracle, teaching after teaching, the disciples deepened their sense of wonder in Jesus. But this was the first time he had asked them: “Who do you say that I am?”
It was a defining moment in their path as his disciples.
The question hung there – “Who do you say that I am?” They held their tongues. They didn’t want to be wrong.
Peter spoke for them: “You are the Christ.”
This word, this title, carried all the hopes of the Jewish people. No self-respecting Rabbi would allow himself to be called it. Unless it were true.
Jesus did not affirm or deny what Peter said. But he commanded them not to tell anyone. Then he began to teach them about the mission he came to fulfill. If we could put words into his mouth, it’s as though he said:
“Yes, you are correct. But don’t misunderstand who the Christ is. Don’t spread the word just yet, lest others misunderstand. Let me teach you who the suffering Christ is. My mission is different than what you think it is.”
He then proceeds to explain. He refers to himself as the Son of Man, the mysterious figure in Daniel who is given dominion by the Ancient of Days. But he describes a difficult road ahead.
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly,” he says, “be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, be killed, and, after three days, rise.”
The Disciple Rebukes The Master
Now we arrive at the moment I want to capture.
Essentially what Jesus has done here is to give the disciples a condensed re-telling of Isaiah 54. He is telling them the story of the Suffering Servant. The one who Isaiah says will be the “light of the nations” and “a covenant to the people.” But who will suffer in his mission: “being wounded for our transgressions…like a lamb led to the slaughter … cut off from the land of the living … despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering” (Is 54: 3-8).
Picture this scene: Jesus, the Suffering Servant himself, is disclosing the mission of the Suffering Servant to his disciples. How do they take it?
Not well. Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. No, Lord, this is not the way it will be for you!
Think of it. In one moment, Peter is a spokesman of grace; in the next, he speaks forcefully against Jesus and his mission. In the heart of Peter is this capacity to welcome grace and to resist it.
Aren’t we all a little like that?
It looks a little different for us today, but don’t I also hear Jesus explain his word and then settle in my preferred interpretation of it?
This is the drama of discipleship. We all have this choice; we all have this tendency. In the scene we hear today, Jesus corrects Peter – he rebukes him – and then issues a fuller articulation of what it means to follow him. Words that are uncomfortable to hear.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” Mk. 8:34-35.
The question is: will we take in these words or will we follow Peter’s example and explain away the message of the Cross and the Suffering Servant?
Jesus, I am like Peter. I am turned off by the message of the Cross. It frightens me. I prefer to carve out a way of following you that removes the path of suffering that you embraced. Have mercy on me. Call me out, as you do Peter, lest I be scandalized by the message of the Cross.