Following the Discomforting Jesus

Mark 8:27-38 is one of my favourite passages of Scripture. One of the things I love about it is that, after years of reading it and re-reading it, studying it and preaching it and teaching it, I’m not sure how well I actually understand it.

Why does Jesus want to know what people are saying about him? Why do so many people think he’s a long-dead (or recently dead) prophet? What does Peter mean by “You are the Messiah”? What might Jesus have meant by this? Why does Jesus order the disciples not to tell others this?

Why does Jesus switch from “Messiah” language to “Son of Man” language? Where did Jesus get these ideas of a suffering, rejected, murdered, and resurrected Son of Man from? How does this connect with the confession of Jesus as the Messiah? Why exactly does Peter rebuke Jesus for this? Why does Jesus see in Peter “the Satan” who had previously tempted him? What exactly was it about Peter’s rebuke that reflected “human ways” as opposed to “God’s ways”?

Where does “the crowd” suddenly come from, and why are they invited into the conversation? How does Jesus’ call to discipleship connect with Peter’s previous confession and Jesus’ Son of Man teaching and his rebuke of Peter? What does it mean to “deny yourself,” to “take up your cross,” and “follow Jesus”? How in the world can we save our lives by losing them?

Over the years I’ve developed what I think are good answers to most of these questions. Nevertheless, I am never fully comfortable with my answers.

And maybe that’s as it should be. These words of Jesus should always be discomforting, perpetually pulling us out of our comfortable ways of believing and thinking and living, drawing us ever toward the peculiar magnet that is Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah and Lord. Somewhere deep down we’re all like Peter in John’s version of this episode: “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

As we return to the rhythms of fall set against the drumbeat of COVID, may we be prepared to encounter Jesus afresh. And may we be prepared for some “holy discomfort” in this encounter, a sacred unease that compels us to follow Jesus in new ways into the uncharted future before us, a future filled with life even through death.

Things Are Not as They Appear

As I read the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, one theme strikes me as tying all four texts together: things are not as they appear. Reality is often much different than it seems at face value. The truth often requires a deep dive beneath the surface.

There’s 1 Samuel 16, where the prophet Samuel is persuaded that Jesse’s son Eliab is God’s choice for Israel’s next king. After all, not only is Eliab the eldest son, worthy of double blessing, but he is strong and tall just like a king should be (like the first king, Saul, was, in fact—see 15:35 for how well that went). But God says no to Eliab, for “God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

Then there’s Psalm 20, where we hear these words of David: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.” Military might and strength seems like it should be the way forward for an up-and-coming nation. Yet David insists that’s the wrong way to look on things. (Too bad he and later kings and queens forgot this.)

There’s also 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul comes straight out and says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a ‘fleshly’ point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a ‘fleshly’ point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” No one, not even Jesus, can be taken at face value. It requires a “new creation” heart-change to see people for who they really are.

“The Parable of the Mustard Seed” by James Paterson

Finally, there’s Mark 4 with two of my favourite parables of Jesus, the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed. These parables highlight the unexpected insignificance and inherent mystery of God’s reign, both in how it begins and how it grows. God’s dominion does not begin or grow like other royal reigns; it comes not through conquest or coercion, but through small acts of love in solidarity with the least in the world’s eyes.

These texts invite us to look beyond the surface of things, to dig a little deeper. They encourage us to see people for who they really are, not merely who they appear to be. They call us to look for the reign of God not in the powerful and mighty, not in the big and flashy, but in the small and insignificant things of life.