When you heard the reading from Mark’s Gospel, you might have wondered if we had entered the season of reruns. We touched on the story of Peter’s confrontation with Jesus a few weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday. Although it wasn’t the focus that week, it provided a backdrop for the story of the Transfiguration. The state of Peter’s heart, and likely that of the other disciples too, was what made the Transfiguration necessary. So, you might think of this as kind of a “prequel” to that event, kind of like when the Star Wars series started out with Episode IV, and then we got the prequels: Episodes I, II, and III.
During the season of Lent, we may need to consider prequels of our own. This is a season of reflection and repentance. We focus on the goal that was described this way in a video our Bible study group watched on Thursday: Lent is a time when we focus on “enhancing the discipline of the whole body for conversion from sin and death to love and life in Jesus Christ.” Each of us has a prequel to our Lenten observance—the story of who we are and what we would like to change in ourselves so that we might live more faithfully in Christ. Often, that means having to look at what tempts us to live less than faithful lives.
The word “tempted” doesn’t show up at all in our passage for today. And yet, Peter is facing what is perhaps the most difficult temptation—the temptation to focus on human things rather than divine things, a temptation that we all face, every day.
Peter and the other disciples had been travelling with Jesus throughout the country. They had watched Jesus exorcise demons and heal the sick and even raise the dead. He had calmed a storm at sea that terrified the disciples. He’d fed thousands on a hillside with a handful of bread and fish, and he’d walked on water as though he were taking a stroll in the park.
He had taught the crowds that gathered around him about the nearness of the kingdom of God, and it never dawned on them that it was the King himself speaking. He was just the guy who could take care of the rumbling in their stomachs, relieve their pain, and calm their fears. In the passage just before ours, Jesus asks the disciples who the people thought he was. The disciples reported what they had heard: that he was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the other prophets. But when he asked the disciples directly, Peter answered for all of them: “You are the Messiah.”
What weight that word carried for the disciples! The Messiah was the one who would free the people of Israel from the oppressive Roman occupiers. The Messiah was the one would return the Promised Land to the Jewish people—God’s people. The Messiah was the one who would reign in uncontested glory and power. But then Jesus tells his disciples some very strange things, things that don’t fit with their idea of a Messiah: that he 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.
What a roller coaster Peter and the others must have been on—to be riding so high, knowing that they were in the presence of God’s anointed one, and then to hear him speak openly of what is completely unthinkable. And so, Peter does something that would have been shocking in that time and place. He takes Jesus aside and “rebukes” him. This is not a mild reprimand; it’s a serious scolding. That’s bad enough. No disciple in that time and place would ever be so bold as to scold his teacher.
But it’s even more serious than that. Mark’s Gospel uses the word “rebuke” in a very particular way. This is the word Mark uses when Jesus confronts evil spirits. Jesus rebukes the demons of insanity and physical illness and even those that disrupt nature with gale-force winds and violent waves. Jesus reserves his rebuke for evil spirits who turn lives upside down and inside out.
So, for Peter to rebuke Jesus suggests that Peter is questioning Jesus’ own sanity. It implies that Peter thinks Jesus may be going off the deep end—that a demon has taken hold of him. And that wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption, because no messiah that Peter could imagine could possibly suffer the fate that Jesus was describing. Peter doesn’t want to imagine the political catastrophe of a vulnerable Messiah. He doesn’t want to face the suffering and death of his teacher, whom he loves. And so, Peter rebukes Jesus and whatever evil spirit he assumes is moving in Jesus’ soul.
How that must have stung Jesus. Surely, he remembered being at home and having the neighbors say that he had gone out of his mind. Surely, he remembered that his own family tried to restrain him, apparently thinking the neighbors might be on to something. And now, to have Peter attempt to do to him what Jesus had only done to the evil demons—how must he have felt?
But we can understand why Peter did what he did. Because, like Peter, we sometimes want Jesus to be something less than who he truly is. We each have a vision of Jesus that we cling to—one that satisfies our very human needs. We cling to the Jesus who is our buddy—the Jesus of easy companionship. We want the Jesus who is our support system, ready to listen and hold our hands when life gets tough. We want Jesus the super-hero, who will right all the wrongs in the world while we stand by and watch with open-mouthed wonder. We want a Jesus who will walk quietly in the background of our lives until the day he whisks us away to heaven.
Like Peter, we are not so eager to follow a Savior who accepts suffering and even death on behalf of those he came to save, and expects the same of his disciples. We aren’t so keen on the thought of standing up to those who have power over us: the power to make the laws that define who we are as a country, or (closer to home) the power to speak to and about us in order to define who we are. When Jesus calls us to be prophets in this world which is moving further and further away from the kingdom values of justice and compassion for the vulnerable, we may want to do some rebuking of our own.
Hearing Peter’s words, Jesus turned around. He looked at the whole group—Peter and the other disciples with him. And he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
How that must have stung Peter. To have Jesus address him as Satan! To have Jesus name him as his Adversary—one who was disrupting his divinely-appointed ministry in the world. On the face of it, this seems like a brutal way of speaking to Peter—a scolding that seems kind of over-the-top for a disciple who was just trying to do what he thought was right.
But, Jesus’ disciples need to see beyond what they want to Jesus to be. To see Jesus as anything less than who he truly is, is to jeopardize Jesus’ mission. Clinging to the notion of a Messiah as a powerful, military leader who would take back the Promised Land from the Roman oppressor was clinging to a human thing. Clinging to a comfortable companion/ cheerleader kind of Jesus is clinging to a human thing. But Jesus’ disciples need to embrace a Messiah who came to live our life and die our death, because that’s where faithfulness took him. Jesus’ disciples need to embrace a Messiah whose hallmarks are bold acts of love and humility and compassion and justice for the powerless.
Peter needed a thorough scolding—one that the other disciples, including us, could learn from as well. But, there is much more to Jesus’ rebuke than what we read on the surface. And the “more” can help us be the kind of disciples we want to be—ones who can resist the temptation to set our minds on human things rather than divine things. We find this “more” in Jesus’ use of the name Satan, and in his command to “get behind him.”
On the surface, Jesus addressing Peter as Satan seems like pretty harsh name-calling. But I wonder if, in that moment, Jesus was not simply using the name of Satan as a painful metaphor, or even addressing only Peter. Instead, I wonder if Jesus was also speaking directly to Satan, just as he had to other evil spirits. I wonder if Jesus recognized that Peter was dealing with an evil spirit—an adversary—who was exploiting Peter’s love for Jesus in an attempt to undermine Jesus’ divine mission.
Jesus was speaking truths that were upsetting to Peter. And perhaps Satan saw this as a chance to gain the foothold he was looking for to sabotage Jesus’ saving work on earth. Perhaps Jesus saw that it was Satan who was tempting Peter to set his mind on human things rather than the divine mission Jesus had invited him to share. Satan just needed to get Peter to set his mind on his human idea of a Messiah to steer him away from what the true Messiah required. But Jesus could see the Adversary at work and, looking at Peter and the others, he rebuked Satan, ordering him out of the way.
During Lent, we may come to recognize that Satan is doing his best to worm his way into us as well, tempting us to cling to our human idea of who Jesus is and who we want him to be, and to ignore the harder ways of discipleship. In those moments, we can ask Jesus to rebuke the sinful spirit that is in us. We can turn to Jesus and ask him to speak again to the adversary in us just as he did to the Satan in Peter.
And then there’s that phrase, “Get behind me.” Now, maybe he was just saying, “Get out of my sight,” especially if he was speaking directly to Satan. But as far as Peter himself is concerned, I think there’s more to it than that. It is an instruction that any disciple of any rabbi in that time and place would have understood. It is an instruction for Peter to take the place that all disciples took, the place that Peter and the others had been walking in for months—behind their rabbi. Where a teacher went, his disciples followed. In fact, there’s an ancient saying about faithful disciples: that they are covered in their rabbi’s dust. Disciples follow their teacher so closely, that they are literally covered in the dust that rises from each footstep their teacher takes.
But it also means that they are figuratively covered in their master’s dust—that they are always in the sphere of his influence, always listening to his teachings, going where the rabbi went, doing what the rabbi did, seeing what the rabbi saw. So, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, perhaps what Jesus is telling him to do is to return to the place where he can again focus on the things that are truly important—divine things. When Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, he is inviting Peter to be covered in the dust of the Messiah—to follow Jesus as Jesus had called him to do along the Sea of Galilee.
Following is exactly what Jesus speaks of right after his face-off with Peter. Jesus calls the crowd to join the disciples as he speaks the hard truths about what following Jesus means. It means denying ourselves and taking up a cross. It means shifting our focus from our own human desires to Jesus’ divine plan. When we get behind Jesus, we look out at the world from his perspective. We look squarely at what is ahead of us, without flinching. We live the life that our humble Messiah, who faced pain and death for the sake of faithfulness, taught and lived.
Following requires not just dust-wearing but cross-bearing. We are to look at the needs of our community, and we step out in faith to meet them. We dare to speak the truth in love to those around us. We stand with those who are unfairly targeted because of who they are. We listen to what is being said and done in our name by those who would lead this country, and we speak out when it is wrong. We speak the truth of the Gospel to those who stick a cross on their lapels and end every speech with a “God bless America,” and then enact policies that directly contradict God’s command to care for the poor and the stranger. As tempting as it is, we cannot get behind Jesus and walk there unburdened by the cross.
Peter had succumbed to the temptation we all face—to look at the world through the lenses of our human need and experience and expectation rather than the divine lens of God’s intention. As Paul said to the Corinthians, we see in a mirror dimly. A mirror simply reflects what we already know, and we don’t see that very clearly. Too often, we are willing to settle for that dim and fuzzy human view, because it can be so much easier to accept than reality from Jesus’ divine perspective.
But we do not have to settle for that. We have a Savior who understands what tempts us. We have the power of the Holy Spirit who enable us to rebuke the spirit of sinfulness in us. We have a Messiah who invites us to get behind him and be part of his saving work in the world.
During Lent, we have a new opportunity to uncover the places in our hearts where we been tempted to cling to human things rather than divine things. As we observe this holy season of reflection and repentance, let this be our prayer: that the power of the Holy Spirit will strengthen our hearts against all that would tempt us away from Christ’s mission and direct our steps in our cross-bearing walk behind Jesus. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young