Pentecost 17

I got a call from a fellow priest not too long ago, and he sounded kind of distraught – he seemed to be looking for a little comfort.  It seems that he was saying a service for someone he didn’t know in a funeral home, and after the set of prayers for the dead, he realized he had at least once used the wrong name for the deceased.  Once I had assured the priest that these things happen to everyone, I told him the story of how I once told a man, as I was leaving his hospital room after he had a heart operation, to “Have fun.”  Just when you think you’re going full speed, cookin’ with gas, that’s when you’re most likely to fall on your face.

Our gospel reading for today is a perfect example, of course.  It’s possible that no one in the whole Bible flew as high and crashed as hard as quickly as Peter did in this story.

“The disciples are beginning to see that Jesus is much more than just one of the great heroes from the past—John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets, etc.  Jesus asks them (who they, His closest followers, the people He considers friends, He asks them who they say He is).  Without hesitation, Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”

“Without realizing it, Simon had proclaimed the crucial depth that underlies all Christianity.  Jesus was not just a buddy or a healer, as, up to now, (many) had been thinking.  He was the long awaited Messiah.”[1]

And so the secret is out, at least among the twelve disciples.  You see, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus worked rather hard to keep His identity a secret, at least for the first couple years of His earthly ministry.  Jesus would heal or cast out demons or do some other work of wonder, and then He would charge those around to not say anything about it.  Scholars refer to this motif in Mark as the ‘Messianic Secret’.  The idea behind the Messianic Secret is that if too many people knew about Jesus too quickly, Jesus might have been overwhelmed by crowds or overrun by the authorities, or more likely just completely misunderstood by His followers.  He perhaps needed time to teach, to be present with people, to set His example for us.

But people were and are bad at keeping secrets, and so almost every time Jesus performed a miracle or taught something controversial, people blabbed about it all over the place.  Just before today’s story, Jesus miraculously fed four thousand people and healed a blind man, and the witnesses to these things were making their own claims about who they thought this wonder worker was.  He must be the return of one of our heroes!  Elijah back from heaven, perhaps.

And so Jesus knew He had to clear things up, at least among His own inner circle, and to give them an idea of what His identity meant, what it meant to Him and to them and to the future.

So again, Peter proclaims his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.  Peter’s flying high; I mean, imagine getting that question right.  The disciples are now prepped to learn how things are going to play out.  “The Son of Man must suffer greatly … and be killed, and rise after three days.”

You can almost hear the record scratching in the disciples heads when Jesus told them that, and Peter, at least, was having none of it.  Suffer?  Killed?  Not my Messiah.  Peter openly rebuked the person he had just called the Son the Living God.

And so queue the crashing sound.  Peter fell to earth as quickly as he soared toward heaven.  “Get behind me, Satan,” is not something one wishes to here from God Himself.

But here’s the best part: Peter did get behind Jesus, not to get out of His way, but to keep following Him.  Just in case you thought this made Peter better at things, he went on to reject Jesus washing his feet, to fall asleep during his watch in Gethsemane, to deny Jesus three times after His capture, and to run away in fear of being crucified along side of Him.

And yet, Peter is the rock on which our Church is built; he holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  He founded churches, converted thousands, and is the most revered of the Apostles.  The lesson is sometimes you fly high, sometimes to you fall on your face, but none of us could ever do it as well or as badly as Peter.  So go out there and do great things for the cause of Christ, without worry or anxiety about saying or doing the wrong thing.  Just try not to tell anyone in the hospital to have fun.

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