The Gospel passage today is taken from the centre of the Gospel of Mark – not only is it the literal centre chapter, but it is also the place in Mark where the ministry of Jesus takes a definite turn. Jesus and his disciples are on the move. Last week, in Mark 7, we heard that Jesus travelled from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon and the Decapolis region of the ten cities. This week, after leaving Bethsaida, where Jesus has healed a blind man in two stages after taking him first out, away from the crowd, it seems that Mark wants us to see that perhaps we are also blind to who Jesus really is, and we need to take time to journey with Jesus away from the crowds and ponder who he really is. Let journey with Jesus and the disciples towards the slopes of Mount Hermon, and ponder the questions that Jesus asks the disciples: “who do you say I am?”
Like the blind man, who when Jesus first lays hands on him is able to see – but people look like trees walking around – perhaps the disciples have seen little more of Jesus than the crowds. Perhaps they think that all his mighty deeds make him like one of the great prophets of old – like Elijah or Elisha – who also have great miracles attributed to them. Just as Jesus takes the man away from the crowds in order for his eyes to be open, so he takes the disciples away on a two-three day walk to the pagan region of Caesarea Philippi. It was not the kind of place that good Jewish boys would normally go – associated as it was with the worship of the god Pan, and more recently (as the name suggests) with the new worship of the Roman Emperor.
But finally their eyes begin to open, and Peter speaking for the others is able to make the great declaration: you are the Christ (the Messiah). Note, that to call him the Messiah is not a claim to divinity. We sometimes have made the bizarre distinction between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’, as if to call Jesus the Christ is a declaration about his divine nature. No, to call him Messiah is to name him as the rightful ruler of the people of Israel, and the true heir to king David.
Once Peter has made this breakthrough, then Jesus can move them to a new level, and he begins to teach them what this actually means. You can imagine their heads spinning as the full scope of what he is saying begins to sink in. It is little wonder that Peter takes him aside and begins to let him know that all this suffering and death should not be part of the plan!
So, “who do you say Jesus is?”
Recorded at St Paul’s, 6pm (11’28”)
Mark 8: 27-35