s136g00 Somerton Park Sunday 24 17/9/2000
"He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him." Mark 8:30
Right at the heart of this acknowledgement of who Jesus was by Peter we find what has been called the "messianic secret" quite central. This messianic secret is the fact that again and again, Jesus did not want the disciples to tell others who they thought he was. This fact has been the subject of much thought and discussion down the ages. Some scholars have "regarded the whole idea ... as an invention of the Evangelists for apologetic purposes ..." Others have suggested that "a possible motive might have been fear lest his messianic claims should be misinterpreted in a nationalistic or crudely political sense". (DE Nineham St Mark Pelican p 32.)
I will not bore you with a list of passages which show Jesus telling his disciples not to tell others about him, the list is too long. I want to suggest that Jesus was not being his usual characteristically humble self, which we are (of course) quite naturally entitled to disregard, but that there is something fundamental about this command to silence in the proclamation of the gospel. I want to suggest that to disregard Jesus' stern warning not to tell anyone, we are in fact doing a disservice to the gospel, indeed rather more than that.
Immediately after the words of our gospel reading for today, we read the account of the transfiguration on the mountain, where God speaks to Jesus closest companions, Peter, James and John. So the transfiguration and Peter's confession and rebuke are very closely allied. On that mountain, God speaks, obviously not to Jesus, or to Moses or to Elijah - again the words of God are for Peter, James and John. The words are: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" (Mark 9:7). I want to suggest that these words about listening (and surely to take notice of also) refer to these words: "He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him" which really become the text for Jesus' words about the Cross. If we look at the gospel account tells us of Jesus' teaching about other actions the disciples were to take, it is really only the words: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34). It is curious that Jesus here invites others to follow, and is giving instructions as to how to do so. For someone claiming to be someone in a special relationship with God, one would expect demands not invitations. No, for me, it is that stern warning not to tell others who they thought Jesus was, which was what God wanted them to really listen and take notice of. We cannot be obedient to God or to Jesus proclaiming to all and sundry the divine nature of Jesus.
Why should this be? The crux of the "secret", for me hinges on the excuses the religious authorities would use to justify their killing of Jesus.
Let us be quite clear that Jesus was not killed by those of other faiths, the agnostics, atheists, and those contemptuous of religion - those who so often we, in the Church, spend our time trying to convert. Pontius Pilate may well have been a person in the last category; but the gospel account lays the urging of the sentence of death squarely at the feet of the religious authorities.
And in the gospel accounts, in the end, it is some claim to divine status that is the religious authorities excuse for acting and having Jesus killed.
So Matthew says: "Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death." (Matthew 26:65,66).
Mark says: "The high priest tore his clothes and said, "Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?" All of them condemned him as deserving death." (Mark 14:63-64).
Luke says: "They said, "What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!" (Luke 22:71).
and John says: The Jews answered Pilate, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God." (John 19:7).
Individuals will need to look at the replies Jesus gave to the authorities and come to their own conclusions about whether Jesus actually claimed some special status for himself. For me, Jesus always prevaricates. A claim on the part of Jesus for special status before God is not the real question, and only played into the hands of the religious authorities who were looking for excuses because they had already decided what they were going to do. And the accounts make it quite plain to me that the religious authorities were quite set on that path, regardless of what Jesus said and who he claimed to be or not. In his third chapter, and so right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, Mark writes: "The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him". Similarly John recalls the murderous opposition to Jesus very early in his ministry. In his fifth chapter he writes: "The Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. (John 5:18).
So for me the even greater secret is why the religious authorities acted in the way they did. As I say, it was a course they were set on, right from the very beginning. For me the reason that the religious authorities killed Jesus was because he associated with tax collectors and sinners and accepted their offerings rather more than their own.
It is indeed true that Jesus played "fast and loose" with the dietary and sabbath laws and thoroughly antagonised the authorities in doing so. But no one then or now really would take seriously someone whose aim was to set up a libertarian sect where anyone is allowed to anything at the expense of everyone else. Either ignore or dispose of quietly. But Jesus wasn't starting a new sect, he was saying that the religious authorities had got the old one wrong - it was they who had made religion into a system whereby those in the upper echelons derived their status at the expense of everyone else. He was saying, as the prophets of old had said often enough, that God has a special care for the poor in society, the orphan, the widow and the alien - not those who managed to keep a whole lot of rules and regulations successfully.
So for me, the reason that the religious authorities killed Jesus was because he associated with tax collectors and sinners and accepted their offerings. However this was hardly a charge that they could even admit to themselves - and the reason why they so desperately had to find a "credible" excuse.
And it is only because this is true that any of us sinners or tax collectors can affirm that Jesus died for me, and for us, and for all.
So then, when we proclaim Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Son of Man or Son of God, we perpetuate the deception (by the very people who killed him) that Jesus was killed for claiming these things - and simultaneously forgetting the real reason Jesus was killed - because he associated with and accepted the offerings of the likes of you and me and of other ordinary people - to the chagrin of those who thought of themselves as better ... He was killed by those who wanted to proclaim a God who accepted them but demanded others to live up to their standards.
By proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah or whatever, we make that the most important thing, whereas the fact that Jesus died for others (like you and me and for a lot of other people) is actually the most important thing.
Please note that I am not here denying that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God or whatever - but that these things are of distinctly secondary importance to the fact that Jesus died for the likes of you and me and many, many other people, all of us, ordinary sinners.
I am not ashamed of Jesus and neither (I pray) will I be ashamed to be seen with the likes of all those with whom he associated, as the gospel accounts make quite plain. For we cannot be all "buddy buddy" with Jesus by ourselves, no matter how much we call him "Lord, Lord". Accepting Jesus means accepting the other company he keeps. And some of that company will surprise us all.
Interestingly as I was celebrating a week or so ago, some of the words of institution struck me with particular force. No matter how often I have repeated them, I've always assumed the words were "Drink from this, all of you; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you ... for the remission of sins ..." Of course the words actually are"Drink from this, all of you; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins ..." In our taking the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are proclaiming the reality that other peoples' sins are as forgiven just as our own are. At the heart of our communion is the affirmation that we are in communion with others, even those who know not the reality of Jesus' forgiveness and love.
Jesus says to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mark 8:33). Peter ostensibly was thoroughly behind Jesus. Peter wanted to be on the winning side too, and hoped desperately that Jesus would win. But Jesus was on the side of other people - all other people. As disciples of Jesus and as descendants of the apostleship of the very same Peter, we too must be on the side of other people, all those ordinary people for whom Jesus loved enough to die and to rise again for. This is the important thing, and to do otherwise, is to do, albeit unintentionally, the bidding of the opposition.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.