Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19), Year B.
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.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”Mark 8:27-38
I’ve discovered a secret recently. I’ve finally found an answer to one of the great mysteries of the universe. An ancient mystery and an art passed from generation to generation yet hardly spoken even in a whisper. For those who know this power keep it closely guarded, because if it was revealed or known before one is ready, it can cause shock and horror. Even though I know that there are those among us here in this very room that have the secret knowledge, I will still share it. As you all know we are in a desperate hour and a difficult time, though I know it is not my knowledge to give I still feel the need to share it. Because as noble as its purpose is and it is a truth that some may not be able to handle, the warmth and joy it brings is worth the risks.
My friends, I have discovered why Grandma’s cooking is so good.
You may remain seated, as shocking as it may be that I have managed to peak through the veil and understand things that I was never meant to understand, the truth may be too much for you to handle. I myself do not yet fully understand, but before I reveal this secret to you, I must address the theory that Satan whispers in our ears and has long kept us away from this truth. If you thought it was because she drowned everything in salt, sugar, and butter, that is the lie I used to believe. I ask you, do not restaurants also drown all their meals in salt, sugar, and butter? Yet they do not inspire the warmth and comfort like Grandma’s cooking.
Now of course the secret. After years of observation and tens of minutes of careful induction, I’ve realized the truth was right in front of us all along. The secret ingredient that makes Grandma’s cooking so rich, delicious, and wholesome: Grandma spit.
Now I know that may be shocking to you, but think about it: When you’ve seen Grandma cooking, have you ever seen her measure ingredients? Of course not! And what else is she constantly doing? That’s right, licking the spoon, and does she wash it in the sink before putting it back into the dish? Never. That’s how they’ve hidden it in plain sight all these years. Now I do not yet know what exact chemical in Grandma’s spit makes food so great, my working theory is that it is in the same chemical family as MSG. And I am sad to report that this may remain a mystery as my research grant applications keep getting denied. But mark my words, when that funding finally comes through, I will tell the world so that we all may be filled with the warmth and love baked into every one of her cookies.
I understand that there may be some strong feelings now that you know. Confusion, anxiety, awe, and dare I say even a little bit of hope. It can be a lot to take in knowing that the best Christmas dinner of your life was made possible primarily from nana’s saliva. If you are feeling this way let me for a moment invite you to consider our story from the Gospel today. You are in good company, as our brother Peter experienced all these feelings when he too discovered a truth before he was ready.
This scene is one of many examples in the Synoptic Gospels of what is commonly known as the Messianic Secret. It is a theme that is particularly apparent in Mark’s Gospel, which for reasons that are never explained, Jesus seems intent that His status as the Messiah remain a secret. Everyone who either knows or happens to figure it out, whether it be a demon, or His closest followers, Jesus silences and strictly orders to keep the secret.
It can be rather perplexing why Jesus would want to keep His status as the Messiah a secret, and like all secrets that we do not fully understand, theories abound. Some of the theories are practical, that Jesus didn’t want to become too much of a celebrity lest His movement be interfered with, but no single theory has been able to explain Jesus’ reasoning for keeping His identity secret. In the scene today it is especially perplexing how visceral Jesus’ reaction is to Peter when Peter confronts Him about the Messiah dying. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus is using the same kind of language that He did to cast out demons and calm the sea of Galilee. But why? Why is it so important to Jesus that His identity as the Messiah remain secret?
It turns out that the Bible has a long history of secrets. And no, I’m not talking about codes about when the exactly the world will end, or other such subjects of conspiratorial late-night programming on the formerly history channel. The secrets that the Bible keep are much more plain, almost ordinary. The most prominent example being God’s name. God’s name is never revealed in the Bible other than four letters, YHWH, what we English speakers sometimes call “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”, and is usually written as “The LORD” in all caps. These four letters are known as my favorite scrabble word: “The Unpronounceable Tetragrammaton”.
I believe that the Messianic Secret is kept for the same reason as the Tetragrammaton is kept secret. We aren’t ready for that Truth. In the Biblical world to know the name of something was to own it. The reason we don’t know God’s name is for the simple reason that we cannot own God, even though we try. It is the same with Jesus. How often to do we try to own Him, use His name for our purposes, use His words to suit our own ends? We want Jesus to look like us, share our same values, to be an American patriot, an entrepreneur, a warrior, a revolutionary, a counter-culture icon, a pop star. Why? Because all too often its more important for us to be right than to do right.
This is why Jesus so strongly rebukes Peter. Peter can’t handle the truth about the Messiah, not yet. For as well-meaning and good-intentioned Peter is, without even realizing it, and even though he knows who Jesus is, he doesn’t see Jesus for who He is. He doesn’t realize it, but he is trying to own Jesus, make Him into something that He isn’t, rather than following Him.
“Take up your cross and follow me”
When Jesus tells the disciples that they must lose their life in order to save it, He is not merely referring to their well-being. Jesus is demanding that they be willing to give up their psuché (ψυχή), their innermost self, the very core of their being in order to save it. To take up your cross and follow Jesus is to turn over your whole self to the Gospel Jesus taught. There is a troubling confusion that people believe stubbornly holding on to ideological and political positions rather than seek the well-being of their neighbor is what it means to take up a cross and follow Jesus. We would rather stubbornly hold onto an image of Jesus that we own; enforcing “moral” precepts and political positions that are more about demanding certain cultural norms than honoring God and loving neighbor.
Despite the songs promising blessed assurance that Jesus is mine, the Messianic Secret, in a way remains a secret. Though we know His name and who He is, we do not know Him in the same way that He knows us. We still are not yet ready for that Truth. Perhaps another reason Jesus was so intent on keeping His identity a secret is that His work as Messiah had not yet been completed. How could Peter understand what it meant for the Messiah to walk the way of the cross when it had not yet been done? It should come as no surprise to us that there are still things hidden from view. As the work is not yet done there are things which we will not understand until His coming again in great glory. At least in the present moment, our lives are in greater peril when we think we do know who Jesus is and what it means to be Messiah.
Though there are great mysteries still remaining, we are not hopeless or lost. As He has set the example, we do know what it means to walk the way of the cross. It is to give up our pretenses, our self-assuredness, our ego. It is to take our life and turn it to honoring God and loving our neighbor. In short, to live our life for the sake of others. Not only in generosity of resources, but in generosity of spirit, of understanding, of love.
Perhaps the great secret has already been revealed but we refuse to see it. Though we know the answer lies before us, we are afraid to let ourselves go and live it. Maybe though we cannot understand all aspects of it we can still experience it through the rather ordinary and mundane hard work, sacrifice, and love for one another. Perhaps the truth that we still are not ready for is that there is no secret chemical, hack, clever work-around, or secret ingredient. That the difficult path before us is one that has already been walked, the road to salvation paved. Perhaps the real reason that nothing has ever tasted as good as Grandma’s cooking is that she always made it out of love for you. Amen.