“Who Do You Say I am?” 09/23/2018
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Sojourn Sermon Mark 8:27-38
In 2008 I volunteered for the Obama campaign. I was nineteen, and this was the first election I would be able to vote in. Now, it really does not matter who you voted ten years ago, but from the perspective of a young person, who came of age during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who’s most vivid civic memories were the Columbine shooting and 9/11, there was a great amount of enthusiasm around the nomination of Barrack Obama, the young black man from Chicago. His campaign capitalized on this great optimism. Probably one of the most iconic images from the first part of the twenty-first century was the campaign poster that was designed by the street artist Haper’s Ferry. You probably remember it. The poster was a Warhol-esch portrait, in red, white, and blue, and written along the bottom, in big block letters was the word “Hope.” I hung that poster in my bedroom in the basement of my parent’s house.
For my friends and many young people like me, this word “Hope” perfectly described our feelings on election day. We looked to Barrack Obama as a savior of sorts. Someone who would guide the US into a new age of progressive values. That was just how we felt.
There is, however, something inherently dangerous about the associating this kind of hopefulness with a politician. The truth is, politics does not hold the key our salvation, although we often act as if it did. Our elected officials, although we may admire and respect them, will never be able to deliver on the hope we lay on them because they are, just like us.
This has been true for thousands of years, and there have been great men who have come to power, not enough women unfortunately have been given the opportunity to live up to the hope have for them. But even best of political leaders have failed to fully bring about a new age of peace and justice, or, what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called, the beloved community.
Despite this, however, every two to four years, we are right back at it, putting our hope in the next political candidate. Our imaginations tend to be so limited when it comes to hope, because so often we believe that our political leaders can live up to it.
Jesus is facing a similar problem here at the end of Mark Chapter 8, only his is the reverse. He actually does represent a true hope, but the disciples, Peter, and the people who follow him as goes about the country side, they only see a political leader.
Jesus question, “Who do people say that I am?” seems to be a loaded one because he has idea of what his movement means and he wants to know if people are catching on. Earlier in Chapter 8, Jesus tries to distinguish his movement from the two prominent political forces of the region: the Herodians and the Pharisees.
In Mark 8:15, Jesus says, “Watch out – beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” This is an incredibly important verse, but it can be confusing, and if you read the subsequent verses, the disciples, the initial hearers of Jesus’ warning, are no less confused than we might be.
Yeast is an animating force. It’s really the ingredient that makes bread what it is. And here, I want to suggest to you that Jesus is referring to what is effectively the animating force behind Pharisaic and Herodian rule or, to put it another way, the systems from which they derive their power. The Pharisees and the Herodians represent a coalition of two different, but equally potent, forms of political power in the region, and both forms of political power are drawn from the problem presented by contact between different cultural groups, this according to Ched Meyer’s book Binding the Strong Man.
The Herodians, and here we are talking about the sons of the Herod in the Christmas story, derives his power from collaboration, both political collaboration and cultural collaboration. The Herodians introduced a project of what scholar’s call, Hellenization, and this is essentially a form of cultural imperialism where Jewish and other Semitic cultures are being suppressed by the Greek culture that was initially brought to the region by Alexander and reinforced by Rome. It is impossible to escape this dynamic, especially when we consider the mention of Caesarea Philippi in v. 27. Caesarea Philippi is a city well known for its worship of the god Pan and for the temple Herod the Great built there in honor of the god.
So when we talk about the yeast of Herod, the system from which he and his descendants have derived their power, we are talking about a form of political power that is derived from cultural repression and assimilation that would have been abhorrent to Jews in the First Century.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, derived their power from strict observance of the purity code. They controlled the synagogues in the Galilean countryside and through their narrow definition of religious piety, they promoted a stratified society that privileged cultural segregation. They were suspicious of people who did not practice Sabbath, follow kosher laws, and anyone who associate with none Jews.
So perhaps we could say that the yeast of the Pharisees is a system of power that is derived from a merciless interpretation of Jewish law.
In both cases, the yeast of the Herodians and the yeast of the Pharisees represent paradigms of political power that engage explicitly with what to do in the face of difference. One option is to fully assimilate to difference and the other is to fully reject it.
Jesus says that both of these tendencies are something to be weary of. And he wants to distinguish himself from both of these movements, but the disciples fail to grasp exactly what he is trying to say. Jesus lectures them, and then heals a blind man. And this healing is full of symbolic language that suggests the disciples are still somewhat blind to Jesus’ message.
Then he asks this question. “Who do people say I am?”
Now, presumably, Jesus is talking about his followers. He’s probably not talking about his retinue of close friends. He’s more likely talking about the people who show up to hear him speak or bring their sick friends. “Who are these people saying I am?”
The answer the disciples give is interesting. “John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.” Now if you look back to Mark Chapter 6, where Herod hears about Jesus ministry, the exact same list is given as options for Jesus’ identity. Listen to what it says in 6:14-15:
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
What I find fascinating is that the people who have access to Herod, these people must hold some kind of power, are drawing the same conclusion about Jesus as those who are following him. And Herod is fearful of Jesus because Herod seems to think that he is some kind of political threat like John was. And by the way, John was a threat to Herod because he called on Herod to follow Jewish cultural norms, but since Herod was a cultural collaborator, Herod had John arrested and ultimately killed.
I think it’s safe to say that in mentioning the same list, the people who are following Jesus are drawing similar conclusions about who Jesus is. He is a political presence in the region. He is a revolutionary, in the common sense of the word.
Jesus seems unsatisfied with this answer, and he asks a follow up question. Verse 29, which is often translated as “but, who do you say I am,” but it could just as easily be translated as, “and who do you say that I am?” Which is slightly different.
“And/but who do you say that I am?”
Peter thinks he’s got it. “You are the messiah.” And Jesus tells him to be quiet about it.
Often, we think that Peter is on to something that the rest of the people are ignorant of. And in Matthew’s gospel, that’s true. Here in Mark, Jesus doesn’t commend Peter for his insight, as he does in Matthew. Instead, Jesus tells him to be quiet. Why?
We have to remember the word “Messiah” is a political term. In the first century, it means, a political revolutionary, anointed by God to free Israel from foreign occupation. That is most likely what Peter is saying.
What we realize, when we focus on Mark and what the author of this Gospel is trying to convey, is that Peter still doesn’t quite get it. See, the people who believe Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah or some other prophet are hoping for a political, revolutionary figure. But so is Peter. Peter is thinking of a still greater political leader. His is a quantitatively different conclusion, not a qualitatively different conclusion.
But Jesus is a qualitatively different than John and Elijah. He qualitatively different than the Pharisees and Herod. The yeast of Jesus is neither unthinking assimilation nor pious segregation. The yeast of Jesus is a system of encounter that privileges self-offering.
Notice what Jesus says next, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed.” Again, the English doesn’t do justice to the Greek. The Greek speaks of this as a necessity. It be more accurate to say, “It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer and be rejected and be killed.” This is what it means to be Jesus.
Peter’s uneasy about Jesus words because he still doesn’t get it. He is still hoping that Jesus represents a hope for political liberation, and Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan, you are thinking on human things and not on divine things.” And Jesus take’s it a step further, and he says, “If you want to be like me, you too must pick your cross.”
Jesus’ words here remove just about all hope for a political leader. He distances himself from both the Pharisees and the Herodians. He tells his disciples that he is still different than Elijah and John. He represents a different kind of hope entirely: a hope that is grounded in self-offering.
Self-offering doesn’t do well in the world of political struggle. Despite the rhetoric of service that permeates political discourse, politics is a self-serving enterprise. It is a struggle where there are winners and losers and tribes comprised of those who fought (or voted in our context) for one side and those who fought for the other. And when it is all said and done, we are left with the question of difference. What do we do when we encounter people from the other side? The Herodians had their way and the Pharisees had theirs.
Today, we’ve pretty much accepted the Pharisaic model of difference, total segregation from people with different political ideals and the promotion of leaders from our own tribe. But I think Jesus instructs us to beware of this kind of thinking.
He says, I represent something different entirely, and I think that when we say we put our hope in Jesus, it raises serious questions about who else we can or should put our hope in.
If I can paraphrase Jesus thinking in Mark 8 for our own context, it would go something like this, “Beware the words of politicians. I am not like them. I have come to offer myself to a cause that is greater, and I think you should too.”
I can’t help but find myself reminded of the 2018 midterm elections that are coming up this fall. If you listen closely to the rhetoric, you will find that both Democrats and Republicans use language that is somewhat salvific. You’ll notice that many of these politicians, from both sides of the isle, are vying for our hope. But beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the Yeast of Herod.
The fact remains, if confess we Christ as Lord, our hope is not in a political savior. Our hope does not lie in beating the other team. And I’m not saying that you should not vote, you should, you really should. And I am not saying that all politicians are morally equivalent, because that is simply not true.
So as we approach election season…again. I would encourage us to keep in mind our hope of salvation is something entirely different from a political victory or defeat. Whether the Blue wave comes or whether Republicans retain control of congress, our calling does not change.
And our calling is to take up a cross of our own and to follow Jesus. Amen.