“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-29)
We find ourselves again in the centre of Mark’s Gospel, at a passage that most of us regular church people will be familiar with – the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that begins with Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?”
As I say, most of us regular church people will be familiar with this passage, and if you’re a regular member of an Anglican church you are entitled to feel particularly familiar with it, as this is the second time we’ve read this passage this year!
Two times in one year might not sound overly repetitive, but if you consider that our lectionary works hard at making sure we don’t read the same passage more than once every three years, twice in one year is relatively relentless!
Of course, there are other bits of the Scripture that the lectionary ensures reach our ears more often than once every 1,000 days or so. The Christmas story and the Easter story are two obvious examples, and they make sense, given that the Christmas and Easter stories are integral to events that we celebrate every year, but that’s not the case with this story.
I assume that the reason this story appears so often is because the church considers it important, and it certainly is important within the narrative of the Gospels.
In the Gospel of Mark, it is indeed the very centre – not only in terms of it being in the physical mid-section of the book, but in terms of it being the axis upon which the rest of the story about Jesus hinges. And maybe it’s more than that too – maybe it’s the text upon which our identity as Christians hinges?
That was certainly the way this dialogue was presented to me when I was at University. This was the key question – ‘who do you say Jesus is?’ If you answer that question the same way Peter did, you’re a Christian. If you answer it any other way, you’re going to hell! This is the exam that you cannot afford to flunk!
I seem to remember that this form of Gospel presentation was quite successful when I was at Uni (roughly a millennium ago). Perhaps life was simpler back then? Perhaps it still works?
Either way, after going on to study the Bible in greater depth myself, I came to realise that this presentation can only work so long as you don’t read the whole passage – most obviously the bit where Peter, who gets the identity of Jesus right, is referred to by Jesus as ‘Satan’ only a few moment later, suggesting that, even if Peter did get Jesus’ identity right, this didn’t necessarily put him on the happy side of the Heaven/Hell divide!
In truth, whether or not you see this question as being of apocalyptic significance, it certainly is the key question that identifies you as a card-carrying member of the church. This is what distinguishes us, as Christians, from Jews and Muslims in particular.
If you ask a Muslim, for instance, who she thinks Jesus was, she will likely give the same answer that a lot people were giving in Jesus’ own day – that He was ‘one of the prophets.’
I remember my beloved friend, Dr Hassoun (the Grand Mufti of Syria) saying to me that one of the things he loved about being a Muslim was that he was able to revere all the prophets – prophet Jesus, prophet Moses, prophet Mohammad, and more – and I remember thinking at the time that I was grateful that I didn’t then have with me any of those University-type Christians that might have been tempted to say to him, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s not adequate. Off to hell you go!’
I appreciate that, from the perspective of many of my Muslim friends, it’s as if we Christians are saying ‘You’ve got to give Jesus top billing! In the credits for the movie version of the history of the universe, you have to recognise Jesus as the star of the show’ and our Muslim friends are saying ‘well … we’ve got Jesus right up there in the opening credits. We just don’t have Him as a solo star.’
The differences seem rather trivial when you put it this way too, and it seems even more ridiculous to condemn people to hell because they didn’t get Jesus’ place in the credits quite right.
Of course, I don’t believe all Muslims are going to hell because they got this wrong (or all Jews or all-anybody-else for that matter). At the same time though, I don’t think that the issue at stake here is trivial either. Rather, I suspect we’ve misunderstood it.
The key, I think, is Peter – the one who gets so Jesus right, saying, “You are the Messiah”, and yet gets Him so wrong at the same time.
If you’ll allow me to continue with the movie analogy, Peter is indeed saying of Jesus
‘you are not just one of the lead players in this drama. You are the star of the show’
and Jesus accepts this recognition from Peter and yet, a few moments later, he’s telling Peter that he is Satan himself! The problem, as I see it, is not that Peter made any mistake by placing Jesus’ name at the top of the list of credits. It’s rather that he’s cast Jesus in the wrong show!
Jesus is the star of the show! Yes, but can you tell me a little more about the show Jesus is staring in? What has happened in the show thus far? Who are the other main characters? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? And most importantly, how do you expect this show to end?
If we’d asked Peter those questions, he might well have said that the story thus far was all outlined for us in the Hebrew Scriptures, as indeed it is, but those Scriptures can be understood in more than one way!
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately in the areas of ancient myth and meta- narrative. I managed to get half way though Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” until the author’s fascination with the Upanishads and the ancient Sanskrit texts of India got the better of me.
If you’re not familiar with Campbell, he was probably the world’s most well-known mythologist (expert in ancient myths), and they made a documentary movie about him in 1987, called “The Hero’s Journey”. I haven’t seen the movie, but I have read most of the book of the same name that came out as a companion to the movie.
Campbell’s great thesis was that all great myths and stories (including the Biblical drama) follow the same basic storyline – a storyline that he called ‘the hero’s journey’
The hero’s journey has twelve distinct stages, according to Campbell, and I won’t outline them here, but I will give you Campbell’s summary of the journey.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (from ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’)
As I say, Campbell saw this basic storyline as being at the heart of every great myth and legend, including the Biblical narrative, and his work had a big influence on people like Robert Bly (father of the modern-day men’s movement) and on George Lucas, who apparently developed the original Star Wars saga entirely in accordance with the twelve stages of the hero’s journey.
According to Campbell, individuals, as well as communities and countries, must have a story. He spent 38 years lecturing at a women’s-only college, and he said that when his students came back to see him in later life, it was immediately obvious to him who had followed the muse and lived out an adventure and who had simply been pulled along with the crowd.
For Campbell, this was the great danger – that you could hear the call to follow the hero’s path but instead get seduced by the temptations of money and power and spend your life desperately climbing to the top of the ladder, only to realise when you got there that the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall!
Campbell’s concept of the one great ‘monomyth’ has come under a lot of criticism since his death in 1987. More modern commentators have questioned whether Campbell took seriously enough the differences between different myths and stories as found in different cultures and traditions.
Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, for instance, have written about ‘The American Monomyth’ and how it differs from the standard hero’s journey. They published a number of books, with titles that speak for themselves, such as ‘The Myth of the American Superhero’ (2002) and “Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism” (2003).
Small differences in the archetypal narrative can have profound ramifications, and when the narrative goes toxic, it can cost the lives of millions of people.
This brings us back to Peter and his narrative – “You are the Christ! You are the star of the show!” What kind of show are we talking about, Peter?
I remember having a rather intense chat with a friend of mine where we were talking about a group of people who had struggled, gone through very dark times, had to face the possibility of being completely wiped out, but through grit and determination had clawed their way back to not only survival but to real success! It was a real hero’s journey. Who were we talking about? Newtown Rugby League Football club.
I imagine that Peter would have spoken about his people in similar terms, though with even greater passion that my fellow Newtown supporter.
The Jews were a people with an epic story. Their adventures had led them through dispossession and slavery, through years of testing in the desert, and through countless battles where they had regularly been outgunned and outnumbered, and yet they had survived! And now they awaited their final liberation under the leadership of their Messiah – God’s chosen one, the Christ!
It was a hero’s journey, and I don’t doubt that Jesus’ narrative had all those same elements in it as did Peter’s story. Even so, I suspect that Jesus framed His narrative a little differently to Peter. The result, at any rate, was that it turned out to be a different story altogether – a darker story, a story of suffering!
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)
My guess is that Peter just stood there with his mouth open when Jesus said this. How could he have got Jesus so right and so wrong at the same time? It was going to take a lot of rethinking and reframing on Peter’s part before he could fully come on board with Jesus. They were speaking the same language, but they were living out different stories!
What’s your story? Everyone has a story, or, at least, everyone should have a story. Don’t settle for living somebody else’s story or adopting whatever pre-written story- line society hands down to you. Find your own story and live your hero’s journey!
What’s your story? That’s the first question, and the second question is this: ‘is your story a part of the same show that Jesus is performing in?’
These are big questions, and they’re worth taking time to reflect on.
For me personally, I often find myself with other Christian people who speak about Jesus the same way I do and yet, when we speak a little about our hopes and dreams, it seems as if we’re working from entirely different scripts! And then there are other people that God places in my way who would not answer today’s question about the identity of Jesus the same way I would, and yet we find that we’re on the same hero’s journey together!
Who do we say that Jesus is? It’s a question that we have to keep coming back to again and again, for it’s not just a challenge to get Jesus’ identity right. It’s an invitation to join Him on in the adventure of a lifetime.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 16th September, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org