There’s just something about a surprise party. I think it has to do with the surprise part of the deal. It’s like your day is going along, maybe you’ve even forgotten that it’s your birthday. You’re just going through your day, thinking about a project you have to do after supper, and then, BAM! Out comes the cake and the noisemakers and the well-wishing friends and family. Someone’s hours of planning have paid off. Into the busy-ness and routine of your day broke the grand announcement that you are loved, that these people care about you so much that they’re willing to hide behind the couch to shower you with their love and appreciation. They have showered you with a love you didn’t expect.
In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples got something they didn’t expect. They were used to Jesus asking them questions while they traveled, and today was no different, “Who do people say that I am?” An innocent enough question. Just like a politician asking about the approval ratings, Jesus just wanted to know how the message was going over. The disciples respond favorably: “Jesus, your popularity is really growing. You’re in the ranks of the really well known figures like John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the great prophets.” But then came another question, one they didn’t expect. “But who do you say that I am?”
The message may play in Peoria, but how about on the homefront. Are you, Jesus asks, are you understanding what I’m saying? Is the message sinking in? Simon Peter spoke up, perhaps speaking on behalf of the group, “You are the Messiah.” We cheer for Peter. “Good going. You answered correct!”
But then Jesus takes the conversation in another unexpected direction. He starts talking about death. His own death. And since they were his followers, Jesus could also have been referring to their deaths as well.
The people of Israel had prayed for the coming of the Messiah for many, many years. The coming of the Messiah was to be a joyous occasion, when Israel would throw off the Roman tyranny and finally be the free state that God destined her to be. Many thought that the Messiah would be a great military leader, one who would muster a vast army to bring about God’s final victory. So why this talk about death, Jesus? Let’s focus on the victory, not your own demise. Obviously, the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. No wonder he told them not to tell anyone. This isn’t a Messiah that the people, even the disciples, expected. The people of Israel expected the Messiah to be a figure of glory, not of suffering and self-sacrifice. No, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that they expected.
So Peter, with the best of intentions took Jesus aside. Scripture doesn’t reveal to us the details of Peter’s conversation with Jesus, and I think that’s probably a good thing. Given Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s rebuke, it’s probably out of grace that we don’t know how miserably Peter put his foot in his mouth.
Jesus responds with strong words, much like the Letter of James speaks with strong words. Jesus wants them to understand, wants them to see the height and depth and breadth of God’s unconditional love for them, but once again, they don’t get it. God wants them to love their neighbor as themselves, but they can only think about themselves. Jesus taught them that sometimes doing what God requires can take a lot of work, but they only look for the quick fix, the easy way out, the stroll down easy street. Following God’s way of life means nothing less than dying to self. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples so they all knew the rebuke was for them as well. He [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)
Jesus called the crowd to listen too. He wanted them all to hear. He said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) Again, these probably were not the words that the crowd expected to hear. People wanted to hear selections from “Chicken soup for the Israelite Soul.” They didn’t want to hear that the way to follow God’s desire is to give whatever it takes, even giving up your old selfish ways of thinking and living.
As we look back at this event, almost two thousand years later, we know the price that Jesus paid to show us God’s love. Jesus’ love for us took him all the way to Calvary’s cross. Jesus died for what he believed in. The radical nature of Jesus’ message took him all the way to the grave. Many people expect that the story would stop there. But not for God.
Jesus came back from the dead, surprising the Roman guards, the Jewish authorities, and even the disciples. Into the midst of the disciples’ grief came an interruption, a break in. Surprise! Jesus loves you so much that not even death could keep him away. Jesus came back, and keeps coming back, bringing the message of God’s radical, unconditional love for all, not just for the privileged or entitled or deserving.
So here we are, sitting in a mostly comfortable pew on Sunday morning. What do we expect Jesus to do today? Perhaps we don’t even realize that Jesus is here with us. Maybe we can see why Jesus would share his love with someone else. After all, they don’t have a past like mine. They haven’t made the mistakes that I’ve made. Why would Jesus care for me?
Once again, Jesus does the unexpected. Jesus rose from the grave, and lives within us, to show us that God’s unconditional love even applies to us. God’s love for us is greater that anything than we can do. God’s love is stronger than our mistakes. God’s desire to be connected to us is greater than whatever we do to push God away. Jesus meets us when we least expect it, to show us that yes, we are beloved children of God.
Let us pray. Almighty God, your Son, Jesus Christ, was lifted high upon the cross so that he might draw the whole world to himself. Grant that we who glory in his death for our salvation may also glory in his call to take up our cross and follow him; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.