Mark 8:27-38: 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.”
There is a school of thought that the clash between Jesus and Peter in today’s Gospel reading is because Peter (and the other disciples) still didn’t understand exactly what Jesus was all about. As the argument goes, the use of the term Messiah by Peter represented an understanding of the term in the Hebrew context as anointed ruler or King of the line of David which would see Jesus in the role of restoring Israel’s self-claimed position as children of God. Elisabeth Johnson, a teacher of New Testament at a Lutheran Theological School in Cameroon on the African continent, provided commentary this week on a preaching site I visit. Given that she is teaching and living in a culture vastly different that the one she comes from, she provides some sensitivity to the nuances that result when a story from one culture, lands in another.
Jesus, then, gets rather angry with Peter as He senses that Peter is worried about his own place, his own prominence, his own potential leadership as a follower of Jesus. We see this understanding of faith much in North American society. As long as I and Jesus are good, the rest doesn’t matter.
Jesus clearly reminds Peter and the disciples, that this is not a fast track to glory, but rather a descent into difficulty, danger and ultimately death for the sake of the Gospel. For the most part, however, I think this and many of the Gospel stories lose their power to teach and motivate as they are sanitized by familiarity and detachment from the original circumstances.
So allow me to use a fresh example, one from this week. Perhaps you watched the three part series “First Contact” on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network? If you didn’t, might I implore you to go to the website www.aptn.ca and watch this program?
Six white Canadians, all with stereotypical and entrenched negative attitudes towards Indigenous peoples, were invited to take a trip to various Indigenous communities and interact with the people and the culture. Before they began the journey, they were all quite confident that Indigenous people were lazy, alcoholics, addicts, complainers, swindlers and many other understandings that have been held for many decades by Canadians.
Over nearly a month of travel, the six were confronted with the long, hard physical days of Inuit trying to eke out an existence in the north. The youngest and most physically imposing of the six admitted that one day hunting and fishing left him exhausted and unable to keep up with elders in their 70’s. They learned firsthand the “cultural genocide” (the term used by an Indigenous person) of Residential schools. How children were plucked from their homes, beaten, abused oft times sexually and systematically stripped of their way of life. They learned that children in this system became adults who were lost, depressed, angry, easily enveloped by drugs and alcohol. These people made poor life choices, but also had no idea how to parent, how to get through the violence and anger within them, to be able to love and care for each other. Their children grew up without hope, trying to make their way in a system that didn’t care and without the understanding of who they were. The cycle continues, over and over and over. The group learned about treaties, and how they were broken. They were confronted with the trust that Indigenous Canadians have to carry a status card, to prove who they are just to get what was promised them. There was a poignant moment when an elder asked the six if they ever had to prove what culture they came from. They visited inmates in Indigenous detention centres. (Despite the fact that Indigenous people make up just 4 per cent of the population, in various geographical areas they make up between 35 and 75 per cent of the prison population. While I’m sharing numbers, the 1200 missing and murder aboriginal women who are the subject of much news coverage, if we were to translate that into a number of white women at the same percentage of the population, we would be talking about more than 20,000 people, maybe more) The show took the travelers to the homes of those who had escaped the cycle, and make their way successfully in white society, the homes of elders who were clean and sober and working diligently to try and improve their communities. They heard story after story of reconnecting to the culture that was taken from them, was beginning to show the first signs of a significant recovery of Indigenous society.
For me, the most poignant moment came on the third night of the program. A young mother of two was out with a group in Calgary who pick up those who are intoxicated and at risk and bring them in to sober them up, without legal involvement and a potential trip back to jail. There was concern as the van went to pick up an Indigenous man known at times to be violent. The young mom was visibly rattled. When the man got into the van, the two sat together and began talking about their children. They seemed to bond. As he was headed into the shelter, he told her thanks for caring, thanks for talking. He thanked her for looking him in the eyes and listening to his story, for respecting him.
Four of the six where significantly changed; their opinions doing a complete turnabout. They understood the damage that had been done and over and over they asked why they had never been taught the true story, why wasn’t this part of our educational process. Interestingly, they were the 4 youngest people. The two who changed the least were age 50 and 65. Perhaps they had heard the racist agenda for too long, the false truths layered on too thick. But they too left with a new perspective, a new understanding.
My own personal story is much like these six Canadians. I grew up with the prejudice and racism. It seemed justified to me to discriminate and condemn. I was well into my 30’s before I ever heard about a residential school. As I moved into ministry in western Canada, I got to know indigenous people, to understand them, to get a glimpse at the pain they bear, the deep. deep sadness at what has been taken from them. I still can’t shake the thoughts of my youth, I am still prone to judge. But I remember two people and they bring me back to reality. Abraham Lathlin, sadly gone from this life, an Indigenous elder who took an afternoon to explain to me the horrors of his life in residential school. And now Bishop Sid Black, the Indigenous Bishop for the Diocese of Calgary. While the priest on the Blood reserve in southern Alberta, Sid told me about the toll it took on him to deal with the abject hopelessness of the young people in his community. He dealt with a suicide most every week. I asked him why he went on and his answer was simple. How could he not help his people?
I started with an interpretation of an interaction between Peter and Jesus. The suggestion was that Peter was interested in his own and the benefits he would receive. Jesus responded that he would need to put away his own needs and focus on all of God’s people. He equated it to losing his life to find it. Perhaps you will see some connections to the story I have just told.
Rev. Keith Nethery