I will walk in the presence of the LORD
in the land of the living. — Psalm 116:8
Today’s assigned Gospel is just a little further down the road from the healing stories we considered last Sunday. Then we read two healings in Gentile territory as well as another story of Jesus’ compassion in feeding, this time a gentile, multitude. It does not go without being noticed by the Pharisees. They come to ask a sign from heaven, presumably as confirmation that he was the messiah and therefore authorized to work these miracle by heaven rather than the nether places, though they have already decided in chapter 3 that they need to kill him. The Gentiles have said: “He does all things well.” A subtle hint that the gentiles realize that a messiah force is at work in Jesus.
The interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees is very brief. No sign will be given this generation. And with that he departs from them. The discussion in the boat that follows suggests that he is somehow done with them. One is to beware of their “leaven,” something that the disciples seem to misunderstand badly. His retort to them is somewhat harsh. The disciples, it seems, are to realize that his feeding Jew and Gentile alike, with leftover in quantities of 12 and 7, biblical numbers, was to suggest to them what was afoot. Jew and Gentile are gathering around him with miraculous results. What does one make of this?
One of the stranger episodes in Mark follows. A blind man approaches Jesus and the disciples. He is blind. Jesus goes through the ritual things of healing him and then asks him what he sees. “I see people, they look like trees walking around,” is the answer. Jesus touches him again and then he sees normally as if to indicate to the disciples around him that it takes more than a flash to be able to “see” but that it takes a process to understand correctly.
After all this we are now on the road to Ceserea Philippi. The question is asked: Who do you say I am. It is now decision time. Who do you say that Jesus is? The disciples do what comes natural and list what they have heard said about him. No, it is not enough to say what they have heard. They must disclose who they think he is.
The answer will have consequences. If he is the Son of the Most High God, then what he commands is the command of the God of Abraham and Moses and there is suddenly no longer any argument or discussion. His word is the word from the almighty and there is no debate. When he says: Leave your life behind and follow me if you are with me, then there is no debate. Once any of us admit to ourselves and say to him you are the Messiah, there is a break in life, there is a change in orientation, there may well be change in life and a separation from old acquaintances, places and even family. The latter would have been a drastic separation in the 1st century as family was all one had to fall back on in tough times or trouble.
The matter will come up again in the 10th chapter when the rich young man approaches Jesus. By that time the disciples have made a transition, they have left everything to follow him. Between today’s reading and the rich young man episode stands an important event: The Transfiguration which is the content of chapter 9. It has been speculated now and again by scholars that the Transfiguration sounds suspiciously like a misplaced post Resurrection event. Speculation is just that. But, the Transfiguration does have its effect on the disciples. They will no longer presume to tell Jesus how his mission will be carried out. Two more predictions of his crucifixion will come. They no longer question it. Instead they begin to make arrangements who they will carry on after his death. However, they do not yet understand Resurrection. Mark is happy to report the Resurrection but leaves the question: How did the disciples deal with it, quite open. All Gospel long Jesus tells people not to tell of their experiences with him and they immediately go and tell everyone. When the women find the empty tomb however and the man dressed in white telling them to tell the disciples, they will run away and tell no one.
I know I am making a large sweep through the entirety of the Gospel of Mark here but it is instructive. In John’s Gospel 2 weeks ago we had many leave Jesus and only a few remained. It was decision time then as well. There, Peter confesses that Jesus has the words of eternal life, here he recognizes the Christ, but he has problems living with his own confession as is seen in his attempt to tell the messiah how to do his mission.
Called, enlightened, converted, sanctified, glorified. That is the scene of Christian life posed by 20th century Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz whom one might know from his book “The Hammer of God.” Giertz seems to have realized that there really is no such thing as a flash “conversion.” It is preceded by a sense of fascination that calls one to the place where one learns, where one is enlightened about Christ. A moment comes, when those two elements of Christian life become enough and the point is reached to say: He is the Christ, my Lord, and I will follow. It is at that point that old life is left behind and a new one is forged but all the while one is still being led and changed and taught in holiness since one has still a lot to learn. Finally, it is ones privilege to see the the glory of the resurrection of the flesh.
The danger of such schemes is that once proposed, everyone will immediately try to plot their place and progress in it as if on a scale. The life of the disciples suggests that it is a bit more complicated and the chapters that follow our text spell that out.
But today we hear really a conversion story. Peter is converted as are all those who look and see and say: He is the Son of God. Could rejection of the Son and therefor of God also follow? Yes, witness the Pharisees. Conversion is never complete until it is followed by following him, meaning, obeying and listening to him. (9:7)
We tend to get stuck on denying and picking up a cross when we read Jesus’ reply to Peter, but is not following Jesus the cause of both of those? How much obedience to Christ are we actually rendering? Are we working out our sanctification in fear and trembling, meaning we seek to know and follow His will?