The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      16th September 2018
Who do you say that I am?
Handley Stevens

The gospel reading which we have just heard has long been perceived as the pivot of St Mark’s gospel.  At almost exactly the half-way mark, Jesus asks the question which will test his disciples understanding of who he is, and Peter, so often the spokesman for the whole group, responds with the bold assertion: ‘You are the Messiah’.  This is indeed an important flash of insight, and it opens the door to Jesus’ teaching about the nature of his Messianic role, leading not to earthly triumph – making Israel great again? – but to suffering and death.  You are the Messiah, Peter declares, and so he is, but the popular understanding of what that means, which Peter shares is so dangerously misleading that he has to be told sternly not to repeat it to others.

Who do you say that I am?  The reader knows the answer already.  The very first verse of Mark’s gospel declares roundly: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1.1).  His divine identity is immediately confirmed by the voice from heaven, which Jesus – but no one else – hears as he comes up out of the river Jordan after his baptism: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’ (Mark 1.11).  So the reader knows, but Mark is a great story-teller and the disciples – Peter included – never really cotton on.  Even at the very end of the gospel, when the women have seen the empty tomb and been briefed by an angel to tell the disciples that he is going ahead of them to Galilee, they are so frightened that they flee the tomb, telling nobody what they have seen. The angel’s message – there you will see him - invites the disciples, and with them the reader, to go back to Galilee, to the very beginning, to relive the story, perhaps many times over if that’s what it takes, before we finally grasp the truth of Mark’s assertion that this really is the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Messiah, yes, but so much more than Messiah, and certainly not the Messiah Peter had in mind.

All of which is not to rubbish poor Peter, but rather to insist with St Mark that like Peter we are all on a life-long journey of discovery, within which any one particular insight, significant as it may be, is just one step along the way.  Peter had to take many steps, as we do, and each one must have seemed pretty momentous.  Here is a selection:

STEP 1.  At the very beginning of Jesus public Ministry, Simon as he then was, together with his brother Andrew, was out fishing when Jesus challenged them: Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  We may reasonably assume that they had already spent some time in Jesus’ company, drawn by the magnetic force of his personality as well as his teaching, but it was still a huge step to abandon their father and the family business to follow the wandering preacher and miracle worker, to sit at his feet, and learn from him.

STEP 2.   A year or two later, perhaps, we come to this morning’s moment of truth.  Who do you say that I am?  You are the Messiah. Mark doesn’t tell us what Messiah meant to Peter, except by inference from what follows, when Jesus starts to talk about suffering and death and resurrection, and Peter protests that this can’t be right.  Messiah was to fulfil the magnificent Old Testament prophecies. Nathan, for example, had assured King David (2 Samuel 7) that his house and his kingdom would be made sure forever before God, and his throne would be established forever. In the thousand years or so since that promise was made, the house of David had not fared so well, but such promises, full of hope for a more glorious future, had taken root in the national consciousness. In  Peter’s lifetime, there had been more than one hopeful pretender to such a title, whose ambitions had come to nothing, but he must have hoped that this time, with Jesus, it would be different. As indeed it would.  But not in the way Peter supposed.  Get thee behind me, Satan!  You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things’ (Mark 8.33).   What a rollercoaster of emotions Peter must have experienced on that day.

And then STEP 3.  Fast forward again to the crisis surrounding Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  Peter has evidently listened to Jesus’ teaching about suffering and even death, but he still hasn’t really got his head around it.  ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you’ he insists at the Last Supper, and when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus he reaches for his sword until Jesus orders him to put it away.  Later his courage deserts him, and in his fear and confusion he denies that he even knows Jesus. Another painful but critical stage in his journey of discovery.  We don’t know what words of reassurance Jesus spoke to Peter, when he appeared to him privately after the resurrection, but we do know that later, when Jesus asked him three times whether he loved him, he was hurt but not angry, listening quietly as Jesus warned him that he too would die with his hands stretched out, as indeed he did.

In little more than three years, three gigantic steps of growing commitment and understanding.  And even then Peter’s voyage of discovery was not at an end.  In the years that followed, he would have to grapple with the new challenges facing the early church, in particular the acceptance of Gentile converts on an equal footing with Jews.  What a journey he made.

And now, how shall we answer Jesus’ question?  Who do you say that I am?  Jesus calls us, as He called His first disciples, to follow Him.  As we look back on our lives, we can see the moments, sometimes a leap of sheer joy, sometimes a stab of intense pain, which have marked our own journeys of discovery, leading us ever deeper into the knowledge of His love.  We give thanks for the sacrament of bread and wine which gives us food for our journey; and as we travel in His company, we look forward to discovering more and more about who He really is, and what that should mean for the direction and enrichment of our own lives.

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