It was a pivotal juncture in Jesus’ ministry. He had just concluded a successful campaign in Galilee, where thousands flocked to him. His disciples were completely pumped and had huge dreams for where this would go and the part they would have in it. Now that Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Judaism, even greater things will certainly follow.
The location is also significant. They were in the region of Caesarea Philippi that Herod the Great’s son Philip named after himself and the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. A huge temple in honor of Augustus accompanied the renaming, rebuilding, and glorification of the city. It was an imperial city and, according to Roman propaganda, “the empire would dominate without end and know no bounds.”
It’s here that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for all of them, proclaims, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8: 27-30). It’s the right answer but with a fatally flawed understanding. The word messiah literally means “God’s anointed one.” This goes back to when the prophet Samuel anointed David to be the king of Israel. Devout and zealous Jews in Jesus’ time longed for a new messiah-king who would lead an armed insurgency and deliver them from the hated pagan occupiers of their land.
This is obviously what Peter was thinking. We can feel the rush of energy in his words. We’re off to Jerusalem with the goal of establishing a new Jewish dynasty. The disciples were already jockeying with each other and arguing about who would sit next to Jesus in the seat of power. We can assume that’s why Jesus instructed them to not tell anybody. This had to be a low point for him as a teacher and spiritual leader.
After being with him all this time, his disciples still didn’t get it. They still thought following God meant destroying their enemies—not loving them. So he begins to talk in a strange way that doesn’t compute. He talks about suffering, being rejected, even killed, and then raised again. We can imagine the confusion on the disciples’ faces and their sideways glances at each other. They were expecting pep-talks and strategy sessions—not this!
Peter, ever the self-assured one, took Jesus aside to help him understand the effect of such talk. We can imagine him confiding in a low voice, “You can’t talk like this. You’re demoralizing everybody!” Then, to his chagrin, Jesus turned around and rebuked him in front of the other disciples. “Get behind me Satan! Your understanding of what it means to be the Messiah isn’t spiritual in the least. It’s completely wrapped up in human understanding of power and the trappings of power. That’s a devil of an idea.”
I suspect that Jesus is talking to himself as much as to Peter. We can’t forget that this was at the core of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan took him up on a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and promised to give them to him, if he would worship him (Matthew 4: 8-10). Worshiping Satan is equivalent to a violent grab for power. World history is littered with the horrific consequences.
We see it being played out in the political and military turmoil in Syria and other part of the Middle East. The lives of millions of people have been destroyed as the flood of refugees keeps increasing. The obvious contemporary example is the Islamic State group known as ISIS, yet all nations have some element of domination through violence as part of their core identity. We hear slightly different versions of this perspective articulated by candidates running for public office.
Financially speaking, what would I gain if I became a billionaire and was a self-centered jerk with no true friends and no understanding of the rewards that come from freely giving myself? I’d still be a shadow of a person no matter how important I or others might think I am. What a travesty! In contrast, Jesus proposes losing our lives in order to save them. We think of those who give their lives in this ways as heroes and martyrs, people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa. Focusing exclusively on such exemplary people can be disempowering for ordinary folk like you and me.
We all lose our lives daily in various ways. We lose our lives when we devote ourselves to the well-being of our families and loved ones. We lose our lives when we give ourselves to serving others through our work. We lose our lives when we become engrossed in a concert or join others in a meaningful activity such as taking a walk. We lose our lives when we worship together and serve together as a congregation. We lose our lives when we join others to work for peace with justice in our world.