Speaking Openly

Speaking Openly

 

Rev. Robert Hoch, Ph.D.

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore, Maryland

February 25, 2018

 

Mark 8:27-38

 

Then 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

 

Yesterday morning, I was playing with Iris. I asked her, “Can you make a shape of a heart with your hands?”

 

“Yes,” she said, and she folded her hands into the shape of heart, just like that, right over her heart.

 

Friends, we’re in a heart-shaped text this morning. I say this because it feels like that: nearly in the exact middle of Mark’s gospel, at its heart; it includes this intimate testimony between the disciples and Jesus, the disciples saying out loud what we’ve all been thinking for a very long time, “You are the Christ”; it includes not only that but something almost heart-wrenching, the confrontation between Peter and Jesus, which is something like a lover’s quarrel, intense and shocking; and our text today includes the first extended teaching or exposition on the identity of Jesus.

 

That marks a shift in Mark’s story. Beginning with chapter one up to the present text, we saw Jesus through the lens of his deeds, powerful acts of healing, but nevertheless we saw Jesus through external acts; in today’s text, Jesus opens his heart to us as a teacher, showing the heart behind the power; and, in the same spirit, he names the internal character, the heart-values, of those who would follow him.

 

Ours is a heart-shaped text. Wonder is easy. Amazement is cheap. But knowing Christ, knowing ourselves as Christ’s – that may not be so easy. It may be in the middle of our being, but it may be difficult for us to excavate that identity, buried as it often is by competing allegiances. It seems as if Jesus is telling us that it will not be easy to say our heart’s confession of Christ with authenticity. That perhaps we find it too easy to say Christ – perhaps we speak Christ’s name carelessly, casually, superficially, or arrogantly, or even demonically.

 

And, indeed, the term Christ denotes the point of confrontation. Notice that Jesus didn’t interrupt the disciples when they went through the list of possible identities for Jesus: some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, others say you could be one of the prophets. Jesus doesn’t stop them, question them further, or correct them. Jesus doesn’t go into an apologetic harangue about his divinity, his unrepeatable uniqueness. If they had called him a moral teacher (and nothing more), or a myth, or a fried egg, I don’t think any of those would have bothered Jesus at all. But what puts him into a peculiar funk is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. When Peter says this, “You are the Christ” — then Jesus introduces caution: “Stop! Don’t say another word!”

 

They were ready to race to Jerusalem for triumph. But Jesus said, “No, no, not yet, you need to be instructed.”

 

And then Jesus began to teach. Implied here is that the disciples had an understanding of what the Christ was – and it was the wrong understanding. Or it was a definition of Christ, something the disciples were prepared to use as a straightjacket for Jesus, something external to the heart of God, but they were prepared to enforce that alien form on the freedom of God in Jesus.

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Mark’s Jesus seems to avoid the term, Christ. As you know, Christ isn’t originally a proper name, but a title recalling the Hebrew idea of the “anointed one” or the “messiah” prophesied by Isaiah. The early church makes Christ the proper name of Jesus. And that’s how, as people of faith, we know Jesus, as Christ. For Mark’s part, he is conservative in his use of the title.

 

Mark’s narrator employs a positive use of this term three times: at the beginning of the gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1); in today’s text, with Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ”; and, finally, when Pilate asks Jesus whether is the Christ, Jesus replies, “I am” (14:62). These are significant ports of call in Mark’s gospel, beginning, middle, and end. Even so, the relative scarcity of the term suggests approaching reticence on the part of Jesus relative to this term.

 

Indeed, in the immediate region of this text, right after Peter’s Christ-confession, Jesus returns to one his preferred forms of self-identification, the Son of Man or the Child of the Human Being. Perhaps this was a semantic shift employed by Jesus: perhaps the term Christ was so freighted with false ideologies that it was almost impossible to speak it without being misunderstood. Maybe. What is clear is that the content or character of Christ taught by Jesus was dramatically different from what Peter had in mind. Betrayal, suffering, rejection, and death and, after three days, resurrection – these were not part of Peter’s understanding of the Christ. But of these things, Jesus spoke openly, plainly. Nothing was concealed. All would be revealed.

 

Maybe the Christ, in the estimation of the disciples, was supposed to be another version of empire. A concealed weapon, so to speak. Concealed with acts of healing, but not truly the healer. A sword hidden inside his cloak. Jesus would be a nationalistic superhero for the disciples– the only difference between them and their oppressors is that this time, they would be on the winning side. They wouldn’t be losers anymore. Jesus would wrap himself in the flag of some nationalistic or counter-revolutionary impulse. And when it appeared, from his teaching, that Jesus would definitely not do that, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him.

 

Look at those verbs, congregation: The action is physical — interesting, no? We might think that since Jesus is teaching, the problem is in Peter’s understanding of Jesus. His Christology is off, we might say. And that may be part of it. But what is unmistakable is the physical act that leads to the conflict between the two: Peter pulls, pushes, and takes Jesus aside (out of the classroom) and begins to “rebuke” him. Tells Jesus that he doesn’t understand his vocation; tells Jesus that he is compromising the movement. That unless he armors up, becomes the warrior hero, and the warrior martyr, he risks becoming just another victim.

 

Aren’t we all at risk of trying to fit Jesus into our preconceived notions? It’s not simply a cognitive failure to understand the heart of Jesus. It’s physical, we’re always trying to get Jesus to follow us rather than for us to get behind Jesus and follow him. Instead of listening, we do a lot of talking. Some seem to claim that Jesus would support conceal carry laws, at least if their physical persons and political commitments are any indication. An NRA representative has a passage from Ephesians tattooed to her arm: “Put on the full armor of God” – which apparently also includes AR-15 assault rifles, 50-round magazines filled with high velocity ammunition which, when they pass through vital organs turn livers and stomachs and hearts into pulp, and bump stocks.  That’s her Christ. And I’m not enthusiastic about calling things out as demonic, but that’s pretty close.

 

Peter pulls Jesus aside, physically manhandles the prince of peace, and our teacher, the lover of our souls. Some would like to pull our teachers aside – with a little bonus thrown with their shamefully low pay — and physically arm them, strap a weapon to their side, “train” them how to kill kids – the very kids they were called to teach. Maybe they’ll add a shoot-to-kill component to their professional development program. They’ll have to make small human silhouettes — you know, of seven year olds. They need to get used to killing them. Taking attendance and now taking the boy out!

 

Why? So that the constitutional right to keep and bear arms will not be infringed – not by teaching, not by the gentle art of formation, not by the self-understanding of teachers, not by therapists meeting with troubled kids, not by parents and communities, churches, mosques, and synagogues pulling together as human communities.

 

A teacher. One of the spiritual gifts enumerated by Paul. Such a primary and foundational image of the human being will be impossible apart from the weaponized anthropology being thrust upon us by the militarized imagination of America.

 

And Christians, churches, we’re right there. Christ praising, Christ confessing people put this administration in power. And now it is preparing to physically change the classroom, physically pulling teachers aside — and in a sense pulling them apart — pulling art teachers, and science teachers, and English, and math teachers, and social studies teachers – pulling them apart — it’s not enough to teach, to care about the students, to remember their names, to give your life to a vocation despised by cultural capitalists and imperialists. Despised and rejected because it is weak, and slow and the money is lousy and the hours are long. A teacher is just as likely to have a box of tissue for crying kids as she is to have a dictionary – that she purchased because the school budget wouldn’t allow it. But apparently, we have plenty of money for guns and target practice.

 

In fact, if you’re an educator, that you teach is the least important thing about you. In order to give of themselves, teachers are being told they must now arm themselves. The NRA and its surrogates in government seem to view the classroom as little more than another potential shooting range. And teachers, are being pulled aside and torn apart, asked to aid and abet America’s addiction to violence.

 

And you wonder, our children: what about their vocation to be children? They have a vocation, too, you know. A calling. What do they think when they see their teacher carrying a sidearm? What’s next? Body armor? What dies? What beauty, what sanctuary, what innocence is lost? What heart breaks, if not our heart of hearts?

 

Jesus says stop. Just stop. Maybe, church, we need to stop. Let the NRA talk its cheap, demonic Christ. Let the White House send out its bloody slurry of thoughts and prayers for the victims.

 

That’s them. Let’s call them out on it. But what about us? Maybe we stop Christ talk. Start here. Just stop. Sure, we can sing of Christ in this place, on the Lord’s Day, but let’s go deep about what it means to be a human being and a human community. Jesus commanded us to stop with the Christ talk, to not say anything because he knew that we didn’t know the length, breadth, depth, and width of God’s love. He knew what we would do if we spoke too often, too soon . . . we would turn it into a lie.

 

Jesus says, Stop talking. Get behind me. Follow me. Go where I go. I walk on water. You will walk with me. I become bread for the hungry. You become bread with me. I become everlasting streams for the thirsty; you become an everlasting stream with me. I welcome the children. They come to me — they come with their hunger (they’re so hungry, not only for food but for attention, for knowledge, for wisdom); they come to me in squalls of trauma and with transparency without inhibition; so they will come to you, if you but follow me. I go to Jerusalem. And to crucifixion. I’m on my way Washington D.C. Or to Charlottesville, Virginia. On my way to my Annapolis. Perhaps to rejection. Arrest. Maybe even death.

 

And people will call it suffering. And so it is. But maybe for those who are being saved, it will also be called self-giving love. It’s not about being martyrs. It’s not about suffering for the sake of suffering. Suffering is part of any authentic life in which self-giving is a daily pattern of being. It’s not about being a hero for the day. It’s about being human every day. You can run from being human. Or flee from those who suffer. Or, when it meets you, or someone you know, you can be present. Vulnerable. It is really about being fully human. Returning to the fullness of our humanity.

 

Be transformed through the renewal of your minds. Perhaps, during this season of Lent, we don’t say Christ so loudly. Can we do that? Sounds like heresy, but maybe we try it. Sing to Christ here, in this house, freely. But maybe not so loudly for now. Instead, for this season we listen for Jesus’ testimony, as he speaks to us as the Child of the Human Being, teaching us these forty days.

 

We follow, in this child’s path, after his pattern of reconciling love. Shape our lives after Jesus’ life. It’s the shape of our calling that finally matters, that shape Christ makes in our innermost being.

 

Do you know why I asked Iris if she could make a heart with her hands? I asked her to do this because she said, “Look, Daddy, I can make a gun with my hand.” She made her hand into a gun, pointed it; it’s shape so strange in a small child.

 

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

 

“A little boy showed me.”

 

“Hmm,” I said, pausing for a moment, thinking. “Can you make the shape of a heart with your hand?”

 

“Yes,” she said. She made the shape.

 

“Which do you like better?” I asked.

 

“The heart,” she said, plain and simple. Her smile and her heart right. May it be so for all of us. Amen.

 

Sources Consulted

 

Lamar Williamson, “Mark” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983).

 

 

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