What is God doing?
Lent is a time of penitence - a time when we examine our hearts. A time where we intentionally seek God’s will as opposed to our will. A time when it is traditional to face up to some of the demands of discipleship, by focussing on Gospel passages such as today’s
And there is no more demanding passage than today’s Gospel reading - where Jesus says ‘Whoever wants to be my follower, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’.
But today I don’t so much want to look at what Jesus said in this famous passage, but rather why he said it. Why he reacted so strongly. And to do that, we need to look a little further back.
But before we do, let me lighten the mood by mentioning this… When I read the Gospel passage for this Sunday, I am put in mind of one of my very favourite films; The Princess Bride. Now I don’t know if you have seen this rather silly (but completely wonderful) film, but I would highly recommend watching it if you haven’t. And if you have seen it, but not for a while, well I would say that it is perhaps time to re-visit it! I couldn’t think of a better ‘Lockdown Sunday afternoon’ type movie.
For those who don’t know it; it’s a fairy tale. A fairy tale told by a Grandfather (played by Peter Falk of Columbo fame) to his Grandson. The film starts with the Grandson poorly in bed, and the Grandfather offering to read him a story, called ‘The Princess Bride’ - a story to which the viewer soon enters in. The Grandson is initially suspicious that he is being conned into hearing a love story, but he is soon won over by the story’s gripping combination of intrigue, mystery, sword-fighting, giants, danger and heroism. And yes - also a bit of love - True Love, in fact.
It’s actually a rather silly film in many ways (Rob Reiner, the director, is also responsible for ‘This is Spinal Tap’ – so that might explain something) but it has a heart of gold, and I defy anyone not to shed a tear – or a cheer – during the final scenes. If you know the film, all I have to say is ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya’ and you will know what I mean!
Anyway – the scene that this Sunday’s reading (Mark 8.31-end) reminds me of is the part where one of the characters (a swashbuckling, sword-fighting Spaniard) challenges another character on his repeated and slightly puzzling use of a particular word (the word in questions is ‘Inconceivable’).
‘You keep using that word’ (You’ll have to image the thick Spanish Accent) he says. ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’.
Now – this may not seem very funny or amusing, but something of the cadence and delivery of these lines (by the wonderful actor Mandy Patinkin) together with his puzzled expression has always stood out, and in my family has become a bit of a well-known phrase.
‘You keep using that word’; one of us might say to another who brings out an unusual or surprising term… ‘I do not think it means what you think it means…’.
But what has this got to do with Mark 8 and those famous, difficult and challenging words of Jesus to Peter; ‘Get behind me Satan, for you have in mind the things of man, rather than the things of God’? Well, in this passage, we find Peter using a particular word and Jesus, in effect, responding with ‘it does not mean what you think it means’!
Let me explain. Before we hear Jesus say ‘Get behind me Satan’, we find that he has asked his disciples a fascinating question, which is this: ‘Who do you say I am?’. Peter’s response (in verse 29) is pretty extraordinary; and correct. He says this: ‘You are the Christ!’
To know why this is extraordinary, we need to consider the context. You see, when we read this now, we are quite used to thinking of Jesus as the ‘Christ’ - I mean, it’s basically the surname we use for Jesus - Jesus Christ. We are also very familiar with the term from which it is derived - ‘Messiah’, which is the Hebrew term that ‘Christ’ translates.
It therefore seems very natural to us that Peter would use this term of Jesus, and we often read this passage simply as Peter correctly identifying who Jesus is. We read it as Peter recognising Jesus’ status and significance. But there is more to this passage than meets the eye!
You see, Christ (from the Greek Christos) means ‘anointed one’, and was a Royal term, based upon the coronation oil that Kings were anointed with (which was Chrism in Greek).
The Christ, or the Messiah, was therefore a royal figure - (we might say ‘Mr Royal Oil’!) - and in the culture of the time was a figure who was expected to free the nation from oppression and occupation and who would restore the ancient kingdom of Israel.
It is therefore easy to see why, in verse 30, Jesus quickly warns Peter not to tell anyone that he is the Christ! The Christ, or Messiah, was a figure who would be in direct opposition to the controlling powers of the time - and so was, as far as the authorities were concerned, public enemy number one! Not only that, but the term was so loaded with significance and expectation, that if Jesus became known as the Christ-in-waiting, he would no doubt start attracting a following of would-be insurrectionists and revolutionaries.
So that might explain why Jesus responded to Peter’s words with a warning! But Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession is perhaps even stronger than it seems - the word translated as ‘warned’ in verse 30 actually has the meaning of ‘rebuke’; Epetimesen in Greek. It is the same word that Jesus uses to tell the wind and the waves to stop when in the boat in Matthew 8 (‘he rebuked the winds’), and the same word is used when he rebukes the unclean spirit in Mark 9. Interestingly, it is also the same word that is used when Jesus rebukes Peter in verse 32 of our reading today. So Jesus’ warning to Peter actually contained a sense of rebuke. Perhaps we might imagine Jesus turning quickly to Peter and saying ‘shhhhh! Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone I’m the Christos!’.
Furthermore, if we keep the royal and revolutionary meanings of the term ‘Christ’ in mind, it helps us understand why Jesus responds to Peter so strongly in verse 32: ‘Get behind me Satan, for you have not in mind the things of God, but rather than the things of Man’. You see, these famous words follow on from verse 31, where, after Peter has named Jesus as The Christ, Jesus starts explaining what The Christ is actually here to do! In verse 31 he explains that he must suffer many things, be rejected by the Temple authorities and eventually be killed, but rise again after three days.
And of course we know what happens next - Peter disagrees! He takes Jesus aside and (here’s that word again) rebukes Jesus.
So, to summarise where we’ve got to - Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is. In reply Peter uses the dangerous and powerful (but of course correct) term Christ. Jesus warns them not to use this well-known word, and then starts to explain what the Christ (Christos) is really here to do, which is suffer and die! This, of course, is so far from the popular understanding (and Peter’s understanding) of what this Royal figure would do, that Peter starts to say to Jesus ‘No no, you’ve got it all wrong - the Christos is not supposed to suffer and die - the Christos is supposed to take over and restore the kingdom!’ - Or something like that!
You see, Peter had made a mistake. He had correctly (and importantly) identified Jesus as the Christ, but as Jesus pointed out to him, he was thinking of this title in human terms, not in godly terms… Peter thought he knew what the word Christ mean, but as it turned out, that word didn’t mean what he thought it meant! (Do you see why I was thinking of that film now?)
What God was doing through the Christ was different from what Peter thought God would do.
So, Peter had it wrong - he thought God was going to do one thing, but in fact God was planning on doing something completely different.
That is why Jesus reacted so strongly - that it why it was so important for Jesus to stress that if they want to follow him, they must do as he does - join in with what God was doing.
So - where does that leave us, in St Paul’s?
Well, as we look forward, we are starting to plan for the eventual return to Church ‘proper’. It is difficult at this point to know exactly how or what or when this will be possible. Undoubtably this will be a staged and phased return, and when we will finally be free of any restrictions at all is, frankly, impossible to even guess at.
As we consider this process, we need to prayerfully seek for what God is doing. Unlike Peter, we must not assume that we know exactly what God is doing, and then try to correct God if God looks like leading in a different direction!
There are many aspects of Church life to do with our services, groups, activities, and mission that we need to consider, and search for the right way to re-start, and the right emphasis when we do.
What strikes me most about this process is not only the challenge but also the opportunity. We have a chance to consider what it is that God wants us to do and to where the Spirit of God is leading us.
John Wimber (the founder of the Vineyard Church) famously said that ‘If you want to be successful in ministry, find out what God is doing and join in…’.
I think that perfectly sums up what we should be praying for St Paul’s at this time, ahead of the gradual re-building of our activities and corporate life.
So really, that is my challenge for today – just to ask you to pray with me, for God’s leading and guidance in the weeks and months ahead. Please do pray that God will show us clearly what it is that God is doing, that we may be able to join in together, and to see our Church and community flourish again.