This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark represents the first time, at least in Mark’s telling, that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.
It goes over like a lead balloon.
Mark doesn’t much pause to draw the scene for us – we know that Jesus is on the road with his disciples, and that just before the moment when he announces what is in store for him, he has asked the disciples a momentous question—namely, he asks them: “Who do people say that I am?”
There’s a great deal to be said about that all by itself.
But for our purposes this morning, it gives us a window into the scene right there, because it turns out that the question uncovers so many of the hopes that people have been harboring about Jesus…so many of the possibilities for what’s been happening that they have been trying to sort through.
So before we get to the lead balloon, we need to have the larger scene in mind.
Because imagine what it’s been up to now for the disciples.
Imagine what it would have been like, traveling along the way with Jesus, seeing all the healings, and hearing all the preaching, and feeling a part of a whole new way of living in the world.
The call stories of the disciples always make it seem like Jesus was just irresistible for a certain kind of person–that when he showed up out of the blue and called you, you stood up, untied your apron, tossed it on the back of a kitchen chair and left right then and there.
And they never look back.
As the journey goes along, if you think about it, there is a remarkable lack of grumbling from the disciples.
For all the disciples lack of understanding at any given moment, and all their little agendas about getting in the inner circle of the inner circle, Mark never mentions any “Are we there yet?” kind of whining.
The roads of Galilee may be dusty and the Pharisees may be unkind, but you never hear Peter turn to Andrew and say, “Wow…right now I sure wish we were back home fishing.”
Even now, so many years later, you can feel the energy and excitement of this movement still coming right off the page.
And yet they do have questions—given everything they’ve heard and witnessed, how could they not have questions?
But the way Mark tells it, that kind of questioning hasn’t been something to do out loud.
My United Church of Christ colleague, Rev. Martin Copenhaver, came out with a book last year called Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered.
It’s a good book. But I can just see the disciples rolling their eyes and saying, “Right. Tell me about it.”
It seems likely that if you travelled with Jesus, you had to get used to the fact that he was the one who was asking the questions.
And so how appropriate, really, that on the particular morning that Mark is telling us about, out there on the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus opens with one of his questions, asking: “Who do people say that I am?”
But this one opens the floodgates.
All their grand theories and their minor hunches, their sense of connecting the dots with Scripture, or just their cosmic attunement to the general vibe of this whole thing comes spilling out.
And it is Peter, for once, who comes up with the right answer, looking Jesus right in the eye and saying, “You are the Messiah.”
Unfortunately, the glow does not last long.
This is where the “lead balloon” comes in.
Because yes, the long-awaited messiah has arrived.
But whatever they’ve been taught that means, whatever they’ve been taught to expect will happen once the Messiah comes, whatever answers that arrival is supposed to yield…Jesus flat out says that it’s not going to be like that.
What lies ahead is not triumph – at least, not in the ways that they’ve been taught to imagine it, and instructed to work for it.
Whatever faith it is that has gotten them this far, Jesus makes it sound as if the faith that they’ll need for the road ahead could turn out to be an entirely different, entirely new, entirely foreign kind of faith.
And I think what’s hovering in the air out there on the road to Caesarea Philippi is that the faith they will need may not turn out to be a faith they even want.
What lies ahead is not a path leading ever-upward, with triumph after triumph to look forward to.
What lies ahead are suffering, and sacrifice, and sadness, and only then, triumph.
No wonder, then, that Peter rebukes him, and vice versa—that a shouting match ensues between the Master and the one who had just shown himself to be the star-pupil.
“After all we’ve been through together, Jesus, how could you do this to us?”
It’s telling that Mark describes this, specifically as “rebuking.”
It’s telling because, though you would not know it, that’s almost a term of art in Mark’s gospel.
“Rebuking” is commonly part of an exorcism—often the opening salvo that seems to render the spirits powerless, or alternatively, which silences them as they depart.
So in this moment when the pupil rebukes the Master, and the Master then rebukes the pupil, it isn’t just two friends fighting.
What we’re witnessing is more like a form of spiritual warfare.
It’s a battle between the faith that Peter wants — prefers — to believe in, versus the only truth that can set him free.
And that’s why it’s so important for us to hear it, too.
Because like Peter, we also contend with the temptation to serve only the gods we want, under the terms we want.
We turn away from the call of God to go into the places we do not wish to go, and to shine sunlight onto forms of brokenness within ourselves that we’d just as soon keep hidden.
But if Jesus teaches us anything, whether it’s in this morning’s gospel passage or in any other you might find, he teaches us that the way of safety – the path of least resistance – is not the way of God, or the way to God.
And if Jesus promises us anything, he promises a way to live that isn’t a strategy around suffering, but courageously through it, because some things are more important – more important than how we feel, or how we look, or even whether or not we are confident about succeeding.
What matters is being faithful to claims of God and neighbor, no matter how much those claims may scare us.
Let’s acknowledge that this is a hard word.
It’s a hard word, especially for anyone who already feels weighed down by the claims of a busy and demanding world—which is to say, it’s a hard word for all of us.
With everything life asks of us, could it really be God’s will that there should be more to do, more to offer, more plates to keep spinning?
Lent reminds us that God calls us to give up the things that do not truly matter in the name of offering greater attention and faithfulness to the things that truly do.
Lent is a chance at least to name some of our own demons, if not rebuke them.
For in our hearts, we know that life is not a journey going ever-upward, with only triumph after triumph to look forward to.
That makes it all the more important to recognize Lent’s invitation to seek a strength that is greater than our own strength, and a courage that is greater than our own courage, and to place our lives in service of a future that is greater than any that we might devise.
For Jesus, what lies ahead are suffering, and sacrifice, and sadness, and only then, triumph.
What lies ahead is life, lived faithfully, and ultimately, transformation.
In this morning’s reading, Peter does not see it, but that is what Jesus offers Peter.
And this morning, and in this season, he offers it to you and me.
The way of the cross may not be the way we want.
But for those who understand, it is the way, the truth, and the life, and the sign of the strength that moves our feet toward freedom.
It is the way of the truth that sets us free.