Grace Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2021, Lent 2B (recorded)
“You Keep Using That Word…”
One of the favorite scenes in the cult-favorite movie The Princess Bride involves Inigo Montoya, a Spanish-born master swordsman in the employ of a low-rent thug named Vizzini, who has kidnapped the crown prince’s bride-to-be. Vizzini has a habit of exclaiming the word “inconceivable!” upon seeing something happen that he did not expect, typically involving their pursuer as they flee with their kidnapped princess-to-be. After one such exclamation from Vizzini (when their pursuer fails to fall to his death after the rope he is climbing is cut), Inigo responds with one of the most classic lines from the film: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that line has taken off, becoming among other things a particularly popular social media meme, frequently applied to the words of certain politicians and certain of their followers. One could well argue that it could stand to be used in the broader church these days, as certain corners of Christendom demonstrate repeatedly that they have utterly failed to understand much of what Jesus said at all in their public actions and words. And here in today’s reading we have a pretty good example of a time when it could have been used appropriately in scripture, if somebody had bothered to invent it by then. The word in question in this case appears in verse 29, and it sets off everything else in this account.
The day’s appointed lectionary reading actually started only in verse 31, when Jesus begins to teach his disciples about what was to come, just after Peter has had his big breakthrough moment about who Jesus is. But that breakthrough moment is so important to what happens in this passage it seemed best just to go ahead and read it. That might seem strange to say; the disconnect between the two seems rather sharp and severe. As it turns out, that is precisely Jesus’s point.
Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Caesarea Philippi, a major seat of Roman imperial influence in Palestine, when Jesus begins to ask the disciples what they’re hearing. This comes after an extended stretch of Jesus’s ministry consisting mostly of miracles and teaching. The disciples have seen not one, but two miraculous feedings in Mark’s account, and numerous healings and exorcisms to boot. The teaching episodes have intensified along the way as well. Not everything has gone smoothly; things got rough and nearly hazardous on their visit to Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth. Still, after the slam-bang pace of the first 7 ½ chapters of this book, things slow down just a bit as Jesus begins to solicit the disciples’ thoughts here.
The responses are not that surprising: John the baptizer, not that long executed by Herod; the great prophet Elijah, or possibly another of the prophets of old. Then Jesus turns the tables, asking the disciples their own opinion. Since Mark isn’t much for setting a scene, we don’t know if Peter blurted out his answer immediately or if there was a period of silence or verbal hemming and hawing first, but out the words come tumbling: “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus’s first reaction seems strange enough: the rhetorical equivalent of a great big “SSSSHHHHHH….”. But it’s what comes next that sets off the fireworks, and to grasp that we need to remind ourselves that the word “messiah” had acquired meanings in the popular imagination that went beyond what might have been found in the prophetic literature or in rabbinical teaching of the time. Such meanings were heavily influenced by the situation in which the people of Palestine found themselves, under the rule of Rome.
Let’s face it: most of us have never lived in a place occupied by a foreign power, so it’s not easy to relate to what Peter and the other disciples were experiencing in Roman-occupied Palestine. Still, such pressures can do bad things to theology. In this case, at least among some, the anger or hatred felt for their Roman occupiers began to bleed over into their anticipation of a promised deliverer. When the whole idea of “messiah” is all bound up with saving God’s people, saving the people of Israel, well, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that driving out the Romans has to fit under that definition, right? For quite a few that did indeed become part of the hoped-for messiah’s job description, so to speak.
We don’t know for sure if Peter fell into that category, but it’s not a stretch to guess so, given the evident harshness of his response to Jesus’s teaching that came after the big happy moment he had just had. When Jesus – for the first time in Mark, but not the last – begins to teach that the Son of Man (his own word for his work, rather than “messiah”) would suffer and be rejected by the authorities and be killed, Peter’s response is described with a particular word (here translated as “rebuke”) that frankly rules out a response rooted in sadness or shock or fear. Peter – the same Peter who had just pronounced Jesus as “Messiah” – was now practically bullying Jesus into taking back that talk about suffering. Let’s not mince words; in Mark’s telling this is an angry and emotionally violent moment.
What Peter dished out, he got back tenfold.
Notice it isn’t just the verbal response – the words “Get behind me, Satan!” that get all the attention – that Jesus responds with here. To utter those words, Jesus turns to the disciples – that is, turns away from Peter as if to say if this is what you think I’m not even going to look at you. It doesn’t hurt to make sure the other disciples get the message as well.
Suffice to say that Peter, and the disciples as well, were finding out that the word “messiah” did not mean what they thought it meant.
In the next moment Jesus even turns his attention away from the disciples and calls the crowd that had accumulated around them for teaching. There, in verse 34, is the command that so many seem to fail to understand even (or maybe especially) today in the church:
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.
There is no room for appropriating the Messiah (or the Christos to use the Greek in most manuscripts of Mark) for our own personal or political or even religious desires. If we are about anything but what Jesus lays out here – taking up our cross and following, our lives being taken into the work and life and witness of Jesus and his gospel – we get the response that Peter had just gotten. And yeah, this applies to a lot of people who have been in your news headlines since, oh, say, around the first of the year, no matter how much they invoke Jesus’s name and cover themselves in “Christian” garb of whatever sort. When you’re trying to lead Jesus around where you want to go and to hurt whomever you want to hurt in Jesus’s name, well, “Get behind me, Satan!” is about the only response appropriate for you. Don’t think you’ll get away any easier than Peter did.
I’m not enough of a church historian to know, but I’d not be surprised if that tendency – to appropriate Jesus and the gospel to promote the church’s rather distinctly secular agendas – has been a problem as long as the church has been in existence. It does seem, sometimes, to be a particularly American trait. We are particularly prone to equate the adjectives “American” and “Christian.” That’s never been appropriate for any other nation, and it’s not appropriate for us either. If our first loyalty, our first impulse is to anything other than Christ, we’re doing it wrong. And yet we have an awful lot of folks around who seem quite willing to announce that Jesus has exactly the same agenda that they do, and somehow not grasp that it’s supposed to work the other way ‘round.
So it’s simple as this: you can either follow Jesus where he leads, or you can tell Jesus where he’s supposed to go.
You want to be a disciple of Jesus? Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. Simple, though of course not simple to do at all.
You think “Messiah” means something different? That word may not mean what you think it means.
You think you know better what a Messiah is supposed to be than Jesus does here? You have a mind to tell Jesus what Jesus is supposed to do and not do?
Well, we know what Jesus has to say to that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)