Last week, we began a three week exploration of the question: "What if?"
A big "What if?" question for the Gospel of Mark is: "What if the disciples had been more perceptive and not such "slow studies?" We know that in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus' pet name for the disciples is "ye of little faith." (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) At least they have a little, and, by the end of the gospel they do make progress.
But in Mark, they contest Jesus each time he foretells his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection (8:31; 9:31-32; 10:33-34), they quake in fear in two separate storms at sea (4:35-41 and 6:45-52), and they are unable to heal a boy possessed by a spirit because they forget to pray (9:29). Finally, after dramatic promises of undying loyalty, they abandon Jesus to those who abuse and kill him. (14:29-31).
I guess the answer to the big "What if?" question−what if the disciples had "gotten it?"− is that they would be positive role models for us rather than cautionary tales. They wouldn't have abdicated the function of "positive role model" to several people that appear in Mark's gospel who, while not disciples, are better models of faith than the disciples. These include the paralytic's friends (2:1-12), the Gerasene demoniac (5:18-20), Bartimaeus (10:51-52), the scribe (12:32-34), the woman with the ointment (14:3-9), the women disciples a crucifixion (14:40-41), and Joseph of Arimathea (15:43-46).
Of course, if the disciples in Mark had been better role models for us, we wouldn't have the satisfaction of feeling superior to them and thinking smugly to ourselves, "If we had been there, we would have gotten it the first time."
What if we had been there? There is a question. Let's wade into this text with our "What ifs" and see what happens! I see two right off the bat:
1. What if Jesus had not asked the disciples who others thought he was and who they thought he was?
2. What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?
1. What if Jesus had not taken his public and personal opinion poll of the disciples in 8: 27ff?
They would not have had been challenged to express their thoughts and feelings or crystallize their convictions in words so they could evaluate and hopefully improve them. It's significant that the question comes as Jesus led his disciples into a region, Caesarea Philippi, where Pan was honored and the cult of the emperor was practiced.
It is vital that we twenty-first century Christians take the pulse of our cultural context to understand who those outside the church think Christ is and who they perceive Christians to be. If, as some studies suggest, the view outside looking in, is that Christians are judgmental and unloving, then the Church needs to ask itself, what can we do about the aspersion this casts on the identity of Jesus whom we allege that we follow? If Christ's reputation suffers because of our stunted discipleship, then what are we going to do about it?
But Jesus doesn't stop at asking the disciples for a public opinion poll. He asks them for a personal one. "Who do you say that I am?" Is that different from public opinion? While we are fortunate enough to live in a pluralistic society and have much to learn from the religious choices of others, still, we need to be able to give an account of our own. If we have chosen Christ, then why? Who is he to us? Who are we becoming as we live into his identity that resides within us? "Who do you say that I am?"
Jesus continually asks us that question. If we don't hear it, then maybe we're not listening. In the world of the text, it is those who are already "on the way" with Jesus who hear his question and who are then challenged continually to reflect on, articulate, and live out who he is to them. It stands to reason, then, that the mission of the Church is to invite others to embark on "the way" with us. Not so much so that we can give them all the answers, as that we can invite them to hear Jesus' question.
2. What if Peter had not rebuked Jesus?
That could have meant one of two things. It could have meant that he decided to hold his disagreement inside for the time being. Or, it could have meant that he was starting to get with the program.
In the latter case, it would have meant that while he was repulsed by Jesus' prediction of future persecution and death, he was neither going to stand in Jesus' way nor abandon him.
Brainstorming about what it would have meant if he hadn't rebuked Jesus clarifies for me the significance of the fact that he did. I think his rebuke Jesus foreshadows his eventual falling away and denying knowledge of Jesus.
We twenty-first century disciples have the glorious benefit of hindsight. That means that, while we can join in Peter's rebuke, we don't have to join in his eventual denial. They say it's not healthy to bottle up emotions. So maybe it was best that Peter expressed his feelings, his anguish, his outrage, his opposition, directly to Jesus in this moment. Maybe we should follow suit. It would be better than smiling and offering lip service to discipleship, while inwardly not getting with the program at all.
Cognitive dissonance is when you believe one thing inwardly but live out another set of values outwardly. That is not Peter's problem, according to this text. Nor do I think it is ours. Our problem is that we don't really believe that the life of discipleship should have to involve sacrifice or suffering. Since life holds enough of that as it is, why voluntarily add to it?
In the narrative flow of Mark's gospel, Peter's rebuke instigates Jesus' clear, pointed summary of the life of faith (8:34-38). Each of the four gospels is a depiction of the identity of Jesus, shaped by the theological agenda of the evangelist in response to his context. It matters who we understand Jesus to be because his identity shapes our own. That's what being a disciple means: embarking on a lifelong journey of allowing his identity gradually to shape our own. Verses 34-37 state the shape of that life.
It would be nice if we could now say, "OK, I get Mark 8:34-37. I get who Jesus is and what he expects of me. I'll put a check in that box." But the life of discipleship is a journey, not an instantaneous accomplishment. It's one in which we express both our faith ("You are the Messiah." Mark 8:29) and our fears ("Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him" Mark 8:32). Discipleship is a process of our continually articulating our faith, but also our difficulty with, our objections to, Jesus' identity and mission, so that he can continually counter them.
I'm glad, for Peter's sake, that Mark isn't the only gospel. Why? Because in the Gospel of John, Peter gets a chance he doesn't get in Mark. He gets the chance to come face to face with the Risen Lord and receive from him forgiveness for his earlier abandonment and energy for future discipleship and sacrifice. And so do we.