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The Good News of Misunderstandings

A sermon on Mark 8:31-38

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Have you ever had one of those conversations, where you think you’re talking about one thing, and your conversation partner thinks you are talking about another, and it actually works for a minute, but then you say something that totally makes sense from your side of the conversation, but the other person starts looking at you like you have suddenly taken leave of your senses?

We’ve all been there, right? It’s usually the result of faulty assumptions. Someone uses a pronoun instead of a name because they think the “she” being referred to is obvious.

Or the other person refers to “my message” although they have sent you both a text and an e-mail in the last hour, and the two messages were about different things, and you remember the wrong one.

The result is usually consternation, for a minute, and then the source of the confusion is discovered, and everyone laughs and moves on.

Because, it was just a misunderstanding. No one was acting badly… they were just operating from different assumptions about what was being discussed.

There is certainly no need for rebukes or name-calling… like, for instance calling someone Satan!

I mean, at least, that’s my take.

Couldn’t we cut Peter some slack here, Jesus?

He had literally JUST (in the same conversation) gotten something really right!

Just before today’s reading Jesus asks the disciples “who do you say that I am?” And Peter gets it in one: “you are the Christ.”

Can we really blame him because he thought he knew what that meant?

There was this whole, scripturally-based tradition about the Christ, the Messiah whom God was going to send, to free the people of Israel, and re-establish David’s throne. Peter didn’t just make this all up out of his own head.

So, of course, Peter gets confused when Jesus starts talking about suffering, and rejection, and DEATH… that’s not how the Christ story is supposed to go.

And, of course, we know Peter does have it wrong. His understanding of God’s plan to deliver the world from the mess we all make of it was based on faulty assumptions.

He was thinking in terms of human power structures and earthly kingdoms. His vision of a salvation in one time and place, and for one people against another, was pretty far off base.

But at least he took Jesus aside to sort things out. It was presumptive, but it wasn’t publicly shaming.

Why couldn’t Jesus respond in kind? I mean, “get behind me Satan”? Over a misunderstanding?!

It seems like an extreme over-reaction on Jesus’s part.

But, then again, Jesus understood what was at stake.

And so did the gospel writer.

There is a very intentional narrative structure in the gospel of Mark. We miss it when we read the story in little chunks on a Sunday morning, but biblical scholars[1] have charted a complex system of organization that reveals very deliberate choices about where each scene goes in the story as a whole.

You see, Mark and the other gospel writers weren’t that concerned about chronology. They each organized their narratives in a particular sequence in order to communicate deep truths about the meaning of Jesus’s story.

And the gospel of Mark follows what is known as a “chiastic” or “ring” structure, which means that each section of the story is paired with a later section that functions in a parallel way – with mirrored themes, or language, or setting.

This reflecting pattern has two functions:

First, it means that the story echoes back on itself in a repeating circle, calling the church that hears the story to circle back to the beginning by offering our own witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Second, this structure draws our attention to the pivot point, the central place in the story that defines the core message around which the whole gospel turns.

That pivot point contains the passage we heard today. This reading is the first of Jesus’ three predictions of his upcoming death and resurrection, which, along with framing stories, form the narrative core of the gospel.

In other words, it doesn’t get more important than this scene. Jesus is giving his closest followers the key to understand what his whole mission on earth is about.

He can’t risk a misunderstanding. When Peter is interpreting his words through a set of faulty assumptions, Jesus can’t just shrug it off. If Peter gets this wrong, he gets everything wrong.

And there’s another layer of meaning that adds even more weight to this scene, because the two-and-a-half chapters that form the pivot point of Mark’s gospel have their own internal ring structure.

And the beginning and ending scenes, the two bookends of this gospel-defining pivot point are two stories of Jesus healing blind men.

That’s what the pivot point is about, when Jesus three times tells his disciples where his story is heading… It’s about being healed from blindness. It’s about stripping away false assumptions and misunderstandings, and finally seeing that Jesus’s work in the world will have deadly consequences.

Peter understands who Jesus is, but he doesn’t want to understand the consequences, so he rebukes Jesus.

And yes, he offers this rebuke privately, but that’s the way that spiritual blindness operates… declining to bring things into the light… pretending like there is no fundamental disagreement.

And Jesus will have none of it.

The assumptions that Peter is operating from, and the subtle way he is trying to redirect Jesus, are the work of the Enemy.

Peter is operating out of human values that seek power over, and human strategies that seek to save face and avoid danger.

But Jesus won’t do it! He won’t avoid the conflict. He won’t smooth things over. He won’t compromise his mission in order to preserve the peace.

That’s why he knows where he is heading. That’s why he tells all who would follow him that they too need to be ready to pick up their cross.

Because refusing to play the game has consequences, and Jesus won’t pretend otherwise. He won’t let anyone pretend, or assume, or misunderstand otherwise.

Which takes this sermon out of the intellectual exercise of interpreting a 2,000-year-old text and forces each of us to ask the terrifying question: what does that mean for us?

What does that mean when we are operating from the wrong assumptions? What does that mean when we want to avoid the cross?

Most of you have probably heard me say at one time or another that I am 100% certain about very few things when it comes to God, but one of them is that I am wrong about some of the things.

Because I am NOT God, and my understanding is limited.

We have each been conditioned by the very particular experiences and exposures of our specific lives, families, education, cultural and gender and religious perspectives… We can’t NOT bring our own assumptions and expectations into play when we seek to understand what God is doing in the world.

And I don’t think that means that Jesus rebukes us as “Satan” every time we get something wrong. Peter got things wrong plenty of times, and this is the only time he earned that shocking rebuke.

But I think it does mean that we must be willing to hold lightly to the assumptions we bring to our interpretation of Jesus’s words, especially when those assumptions serve to turn us away from the way of suffering for our faithfulness to God’s self-giving, power-challenging work in the world.

When we are setting our minds “not on divine things but on human things,” and seeking to reassure ourselves that Jesus doesn’t really mean we should expect a cross in our future.

That’s the kind of seductive lie that keeps us blind to what it actually looks like to follow Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t behave the way the people (even good church people) want him to. So, if we are following him, we will face consequences.

Not because there is something independently salvific about suffering, but because we CAN be sure that following Jesus means participating in the same kind of work that got Jesus killed!

Work that challenges the self-interest of those whose are protected and empowered by sinful systems.

And work that rejects efforts to “gain the world” (especially at the cost of others).

And work that will not allow blindness to persist… no matter how convenient it might be.

We all bring our assumptions into our faith at some point. We all hear one thing and understand another because it’s what we want God to be all about.

The tendency to misunderstand is not the problem.

But it does become the problem if we insist on staying blind. If we cling to our human thoughts when Jesus is revealing God’s very different way. If we refuse to hear Jesus when he tells us that our visions of safety and comfort are not what he came to provide.

But here’s the good news: what Jesus did come to provide was life, the kind of life that we cannot lose no matter what human consequences we face for our faithfulness.

We might not understand everything, but if we can understand that… if we can understand the life he is offering us, then maybe we can follow him all the way to the cross, and do so with no regrets.

Thanks Be To God.

[1] See Gordon Lathrop’s The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012, chapter 3.


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