In our Gospel lesson today, Peter has just gotten Jesus to concede that he is the Messiah – the chosen one to lead the Israelites out of oppression forever. Although Jesus was a little weird about keeping that news a secret, Peter is just happy to know that all his sacrifices have not been for naught. For Peter, Jesus’ willingness to be called the Messiah means that Peter believes Jesus, “will purify [their] society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness.”[i] So when Jesus starts telling people that Jesus is going to have to suffer and die as the Messiah, Peter feels obligated to pull Jesus aside to correct Jesus. Jesus must not remember that the Messiah is a triumphant king, not a defeated martyr. All Jesus needs is a little rebuking. Peter is simply being a good publicist, right?
If we see Peter this way – the good publicist simply trying to help Jesus – we miss what is really happening in our Gospel lesson today. Peter is not acting out of selfless concern for Jesus. Peter is acting out of his own desire for control. Peter has decided that he knows what being a Messiah is, that Jesus is that same Messiah, and that Jesus is not acting how Peter thinks he should.[ii] So he rebukes him in front of everyone. In some ways, we can easily imagine why Peter desires to control Jesus. His life has been out of control since the moment he left his boat to follow this crazy man. Trying to control Jesus is the natural response of someone desperate for some normalcy. For Peter, Jesus being the conquering Messiah will validate Peter’s decisions – but only if Jesus acts in accordance with the definition of a Messiah. Every Jew knows what a Messiah is supposed to look like. And if Jesus starts redefining the concept of Messiah, Peter will be left floundering, his life spinning even further out of control than his life already feels.
I am reminded of the very first Harry Potter movie. If you are not familiar with Harry Potter, Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are often found in sticky situations. In the first movie, while trying to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry, Hermione, and Ron fall into a pit. At the bottom of the pit is a bed of vines that cushions their fall. But they soon find that the vines are magical vines, which start weaving themselves around Harry and the others’ bodies. The more they struggle, the tighter the vines wrap around their bodies. Hermione remembers from class that the only way to escape one these plants is to totally relax your body – to surrender. She relaxes, and her body sinks into the bed of vines, disappearing. Harry and Ron freak out, but Hermione shouts from below that they just need to relax and they will reach the floor. Harry listens to Hermione and relaxes his body and is also sucked in and released. Ron, however, totally loses his cool. He completely panics, and thrashes about so much that the vines wrap themselves around his screaming mouth. After losing the battle of trying to convince Ron to relax, Hermione has to use a special spell to get the plant to release him.
Sometimes I think our relationship with God is a lot like Ron’s relationship with that strange plant. We are creatures who want to be in control. We want to control how our careers develop, what our relationships will be like, our plans for retirement, and the timing of major life events. Although we are rarely successful, we try to control other people too – our family members, our friends, our co-workers. And most of all, we try to control God. We see this desire most readily in our prayer lives – we ask God for things, we pray for specific solutions to our problems, and we get angry with God when things do not go our way. We rarely say those words that Jesus says, “Not my will but yours be done.”[iii] And even more rarely do we sit in prayer with God and just listen. When we examine our relationship with God, we are more likely to find our hands grasping tightly for control than to find ourselves with open hands, willingly ceding control to God.[iv]
The unfortunate thing about our desperate need for control is that we miss what God is trying to do in our lives – just like Peter. In Peter’s mind, the only way to redeem and liberate the people of God is through powerful force. When Peter grasps so desperately to that idea, he cannot even hear Jesus or imagine another way. In his desperation to have control, he misses the fact that God knows another way – a way that not only solves their earthly troubles but saves their lives for eternity. By being so controlling with Jesus, Peter is unable to really hear Jesus, and unable to understand the radically wonderful way that Jesus will not only redefine the concept of the Messiah, but will do so much more than the expected messiah could do.
The good news for Peter is that he is wrong. Peter’s being wrong about what can be expected from the Messiah means that we all benefit much more. Peter also reveals for us a little secret that most of us are still learning: God is usually right about pretty much everything. I know for our control freaks here today – and yes, I count myself as one of the control freaks – for our control freaks, we do not like admitting that the best course of action is to let go of control. But what Peter helps us all do is remember that when you are ceding control to God, you are ceding control to someone who is always right and who knows infinitely more than we can imagine.
The challenge for us today, when we can finally cede control with Peter, is that there is more to the story. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that once we understand what a Messiah really is, we too must behave like a Messiah. We too must follow the way of Christ – the way of the cross that leads to death. That cross up there over our altar, the one that we hang everywhere, including around our necks, is not just a symbol for what Christ did for us. That cross is a symbol for the life that we take up too. The cross is not simply Jesus’ cross, but the cross is our cross.
But, if we can trust Jesus, trust God, if we can relax our bodies in those tangled vines that are trying to squeeze us the life out of us, we might just fall into the place where we need to be. We might just realize that taking up our cross does not only lead to suffering; taking up our cross also leads to a glorious life of greater joy than we can imagine, and salvation beyond our wildest dreams, where death and suffering have no power over us. When we move our hands from being tightly closed fists of control to open hands of trust and acceptance, we create space for God to rest in our hands, to show us the way. The other side of those tangled vines of our desire for control is a glorious place. All we have to do is let go and let God. Amen.
[i] Matt Skinner, “Mark 8:27-38: Commentary on Gospel,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab= 4& alt=1 on September 14, 2012.
[ii] Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 70.
[iii] Luke 22.42.
[iv] Patrick J. Wilson, “Cross Culture,” Christian Century, vol. 111, no. 5, Feb. 16, 1994, 165.