Some kingdoms have no physical boundary. The Chiefs Kingdom, for example, has a geographic center, and that is Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City – which is in the state of Missouri, not Kansas, don’t you know.
Despite the geographic center, the Chiefs Kingdom has no geographic boundary. It exists wherever there are fans of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Similarly, God’s kingdom has no geographic boundary. It exists wherever there are followers of Jesus Christ. Though he is no longer the physical center of God’s kingdom, Jesus is always its center.
It’s unlikely that his first disciples understand that. They know Jesus as a physical presence, and they expect him to be the center of a physical kingdom. Their expectations are obvious in today’s gospel story. It’s also obvious that Jesus has other plans.
As today’s story opens, Jesus is tired of being mobbed by crowds in Galilee, so he leads his disciples north, out of Galilee, into Gentile territory, where he won’t be as well known. Perhaps there they can snatch a few moments of quiet time together.
It’s obvious that something is on his mind, something he wants to share with them privately. Finally, an opportunity comes, and he asks: “Who do people say that I am?”
They provide the standard array of answers. If Jesus had a social media profile assembled by publicists, it might speculate: “Could he be John the Baptizer raised from the dead? Or maybe Elijah or one of the other old-time prophets, come back to usher in the new age. Maybe even a new prophet – who knows?” (See Mark 6.14-16.)
Clearly dissatisfied with such answers, Jesus asks: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Apparently only one of them is bold enough to speak up, and of course that’s Simon called Peter, whom Jesus has nicknamed Rock. He knows who Jesus is. He’s known all along. He blurts out, “You’re the Messiah!”
In the version of this story that’s recorded in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus praises Rock for his insight and says, “On this rock I will build my kingdom.”
Then he tells them to be quiet about it. If anybody asks, you don’t know a thing. This is just between us, OK?
Why is he so secretive? It’s one of the mysteries of the gospels. Scholars have called it the “messianic secret.” And it’s not just his identity that Jesus wants to keep under wraps. It’s also his healing ministry, which is a sign of his identity and a sign of the dawning of God’s kingdom.
So many times, especially early in his ministry, whenever he heals someone, Jesus says: “Don’t tell anyone about this.” But of course everyone he heals run out and blabs to everyone they know, so that Jesus’ reputation as a healer grows by leaps and bounds and so many people crowd about him and his disciples that they don’t even have a chance to eat. (Mark 6:31)
Why is he so secretive? Because he knows that if word gets out that he thinks he’s the Messiah, he’ll be dead in a week. We call him Jesus Christ today, but if we’d called him that back then, it would be like signing his death warrant.
Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “God’s anointed one,” which means “king.” In the first-century world dominated by the steel might of Rome, a “king” is a dangerous revolutionary. A “king” is someone whose existence cannot be tolerated. “King” means dead on arrival.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want to be known as king. He just doesn’t want his identity revealed prematurely. He’ll make a public announcement at the proper time.
Until then, don’t tell anybody. And here’s why. He says: “When the time comes, I’m going to be rejected and suffer and die. But on the third day, I’ll rise from the dead.”
It’s a totally unexpected twist. “Yes, I am Messiah, but don’t tell anyone, because when word does get out, I’ll be killed.”
Whoa, whoa, Jesus. Hold it right there. Let Peter the Rock explain something to you. First, Messiah doesn’t die. Can’t happen. See, Messiah is God’s anointed one, and God’s anointed one is not a loser. He’s a winner. Failures die. Messiah doesn’t die. Messiah rocks, get it? Messiah destroys the oppressor. Messiah leads Israel to victory. Messiah wins. Most importantly, Messiah does not die. Got that, Jesus?
Jesus gets it, all right. And that’s another reason he wants to keep all this a secret until he can lead his disciples to deeper understanding of his mission. The world expects Messiah to be a warrior king, but that’s not the kind of king Jesus will be. So the first thing they have to get straight is that violence will not bring victory. Violence will only breed more violence. God’s way is different.
Jesus looks at his disciples, one by one, last of all Simon the Rock. Then he says, in the harshest voice they may have ever heard him use: “Get behind me, tempter! Don’t lead me astray! Fall behind me as my disciple! You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
Moments before, Jesus praised Peter for his insight. Now he calls him Satan, the accuser, the tempter, for getting it wrong. Peter must feel crushed. But maybe that’s a necessary step to understanding.
Out of the blue we’re told that there’s a crowd of people nearby, and Jesus calls them over to teach them. What he teaches is an extension of what he’s said privately to his disciples, but it must strike fear into everyone who hears it.
“If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life because of me and because of the gospel, you’ll actually save your life.”
Couldn’t we just go back to keeping it all a big secret and forget the rest? That must be what the disciples are thinking about this time, and maybe those of us in the crowd, too.
“If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself.”
We’re approaching the season of Lent, when many people traditionally engage in symbolic acts of self-denial such as giving up chocolate or liquor or video games or other inconsequential things.
I understand the impulse, and I’ve even helped promote it, but it has never moved me. It’s as if I might say, “For Lent, I’m giving up my yacht.” Or, ”For Lent, I’ll deny myself use of my private plane.” Oh yes, I’m happy to give up inconsequential pleasures, especially imaginary ones. But deny myself for Jesus? What’s that about?
Jesus’ original followers are mostly the poor, the marginalized, the least of society, the ones noted in their high school yearbooks “Least likely to succeed at anything.” When they hear, “Deny yourself,” they take it to heart. What little they have to deny is even more precious because it is so little. And though they must be shocked to hear him say, “Take up your cross and follow me,” they know exactly what he means, and they shudder.
Kyle Idleman is the young pastor of a megachurch in Louisville. Nine or ten years ago he wrote a book titled Not a Fan. A fan is enthusiastic admirer, he says. Jesus doesn’t care much for fans. Jesus is looking for followers.
Fans collect T-shirts and ball caps and swag and doodads. They love to tailgate and party and celebrate victories. Fans are happy to cheer for Jesus as long as it doesn’t require major change in their lives or have negative implications. But following Jesus has a cost. Fans admire Jesus from a comfortable distance. Fans don’t follow Jesus. There’s little chance they’ll ever be covered by the dust of their rabbi, they are so far behind him.
I’ve never been much of a fan. I have one – count it, one – item of Chiefs clothing. I bought it to wear last week on Super Bowl Sunday. I watched the game with great interest, but I never for one second considered going to the victory parade. I didn’t grew up with posters of athletes or rock stars on my bedroom wall. I don’t mourn when famous actors like Robin Williams or famous athletes like Kobe Bryant die. I’m just not a fan.
I am a follower of Jesus. Sometimes I think I’m not much of one. I do try to put others first. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite, in the sense of the word as Jesus uses it.
In first-century usage, a “hypocrite” is a play actor, a person who performs a role on the stage. You wear a mask, you see, to show which character you’re playing, and sometimes you wear multiple masks in the same play because you play multiple roles. But it’s always you underneath. You never change, just the mask you wear. And the mask is never the real you. The mask covers up the real you.
I want to take off all the masks and be the real me, and I want the real me to be a dedicated follower of Jesus.
That question Jesus asked his disciples is truly the question of the ages. More urgently, it’s the question of every hour. It’s the defining question of our lives. Who is Jesus? More specifically, who is Jesus to me – and who am I in relation to him?
Is Jesus my king? Am I part of his kingdom? Am I a fan, or a follower of Jesus?
We’ll continue to pursue these questions next Sunday, when we focus on one question: What does it mean to take up your cross to follow Jesus? A hint: probably not what you think it means.
A message delivered Feb. 9, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Mark 8:27-35.