Scripture – Mark 8:31-38 – Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018
They are very careful at Disney World. Those are real people inside those characters’ costumes but you will never see them. When his work shift ends in the Magic Kingdom, Goofy simply goes through a door unnoticed, somewhere behind a concession stand or a tree or around the side of a ride. He retreats to the bowels of the Disney underworld where he (or she!) will remove the familiar costume sight unseen, never ever taking the chance of startling the public with the staggering revelation that those Disney characters are figments of Walt’s and our imaginations.
I had my expectations unexpectedly dashed in 1981 on my first trip to Disney World as I eagerly approached Minnie Mouse. I was thirty years old, just a few months away from delivering my first baby. My favorite Disney character was just a few yards away when I spotted her, surrounded by small children, sassily and silently posing in her bright yellow high heels and her polka dotted dress. (Those characters never talk in person, you know. There is no human voice which can accurately represent them. Our potentially hearing something other than the voice of the cartoon would ruin our images entirely.) But there she was as I quickened my step toward her, calling to her in a raised voice, “Minnie!” The children by then had dispersed so I was in prime position for a solo encounter and a perfect photo opportunity. “Minne!” She looked right at me, at least it appeared that she looked right at me, but instead of outstretched mouse arms, I was met with a visible adjustment of her costumed head, a pivot to the left, and off she went around the building.
It was the head adjustment in plain view that brought me back to earth, that reminded my crestfallen self that the Minnie I had looked forward to meeting was my own version of Minnie based on cartoon images and stories, what we all would have expected to be Minnie. I will never forget that moment (obviously) and it’s interesting to me how I remember my emotional reactions quickly moving through disbelief, disappointment and anger. How dare she! How dare she even give me a hint that what I thought of as Minnie was a mere costumed façade!
In the scripture passage right before our gospel reading this morning, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. By this time, the disciples have witnessed his healings, heard his preaching and very recently came up with multiple baskets of miraculous leftovers after feeding a crowd of five thousand with just a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread. They’re on their way now from Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And scripture says, “…they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
Peter has just correctly and quite dramatically announced who Jesus is, when in the very next verse, the first verse of our passage, we read that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again.”
Wha-at? This is not what happens to the Messiah according to the image the disciples held at that time. No, the Messiah is a king in purple robes with a mighty hand who will deliver God’s people. And certainly up to now, Jesus’ miracles, his growing following, his message of hope, all fit right in with one’s expectations of a great prophet and Peter has watched and weighed and witnessed and now has nailed it on the head: You are the Messiah.
But now this staggering revelation about suffering and death and no attempt on the part of Jesus to gloss it over, no attempt to cover it over with the expected Messiah purple costume. No, verse 32 says, “He said all this quite openly.” And Peter cannot handle it. Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. One commentator writes, “Peter cannot imagine a Messiah who suffers and dies…” Another says, “…it is hardly the appropriate way for a disciple to treat his teacher….[but] the context indicates that he was objecting to Jesus’ suggestion that the Messiah …must suffer and die. Peter seems to have assumed that Jesus’ messiahship would follow more traditional expectations: kingship, might and victory.”
Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him but then Jesus rebukes Peter: Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Apparently Peter can’t get by the “suffer-and-die” prediction and so appears not to hear at all, much less believe, the rising from the dead part three days later. Messiahs don’t suffer and die and…see, neither do their followers.
So Jesus calls everybody over – the crowd with his disciples. If any want to become my followers, we’re talking high stakes here, the potential of persecution, of losing your lives – you need to decide. Your own self-preservation cannot be your highest value. But those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Scholar Lawrence Wills says, “Jesus’ sharp response defines this passage as a central, defining moment in the Gospel.”
Friends, we have been disappointed over and over again by revelations about the hidden lives of politicians and athletes and actors and artists. Disney characters revealed as mere humans in costume is the least of it. And as much as we profess a faith in Jesus and as much as we say we subscribe to his way, we still need to be reminded repeatedly what he asks of his followers…what he asks of us…because it is counterintuitive, countercultural and counter to our tendencies to put our own earthly human preservation above our own salvation. We don’t want to give up our privilege, our parking places, our power, our money, our status. We don’t want to give up our preconceived notions, our campaign contributions or our political positions. We don’t want to give up our hold on a planet suffering in its submission to human will. We don’t even want to give up our guns when the Son of God we seek to follow taught us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek and, when offered the aid of a sword on the night of his arrest, said in no uncertain terms, “No more of this!” “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
We, like Peter, have a really hard time conceiving of a Savior of the World who would do it by love and with humility and without violence, who encourages us to set our minds not on human things, who tells us openly that His Way is not easy, not always pleasant. With Jesus there is no politely mincing words to keep his followers from getting angry and taking away their support. With Jesus, there is no attempt to appear one way while carrying on in another behind the curtain. With Jesus, you get the hard truth of how we must live AND the glorious, saving, loving, never-ending eternal truth that the divine things are worth our letting go of the human ones.
My friends, it is never easy to be on the receiving end of that jolt of reality that all is not as it appears or as we expected. Peter was no exception as his expectations were dashed by Jesus’ prediction. It is not easy to follow the way of Jesus and Peter was no exception to that as he denied his Teacher, Friend, Messiah three times after his arrest. Yet it was Peter who ran to the empty tomb. It was Peter who led the formation of the church of Jesus Christ. It was Peter who lost his life for the sake of the gospel. May we adjust our heads and our hearts to take up our crosses and follow for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of our hurting human world. Amen.