Divine things

13 September 2015
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19B (RCL)
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

After the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to head to the other shore. The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and Jesus warns them to guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. The disciples can’t figure out what he means, because they have not bread. Jesus replies, “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear? And do you not remember?” He then asks them how many baskets of left overs there were after the feeding of the 5000 and they answer “Twelve.” He then asks how many baskets of leftovers after the feeding of the 4000 and they answer “Seven.” Jesus then responds, “Do you still not understand?”

After healing a blind man, Jesus then asks his disciples who people say he is. He then asks them who they say he is. Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.” All that has come immediately before is a set-up for the disciples’ failure to understand who Jesus is. As soon as Peter has named Jesus as Messiah, Jesus begins to predict his passion. Peter takes him aside to rebuke him, and Jesus, seeing the disciples, in turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me Satan. You are not setting you mind on divine things, but on human things.” He then calls the crowd and tells us we must take up our cross and follow him.

I always struggle with how to understand this passage. Mark’s community was likely facing persecution, and so it would make sense that Jesus should tell them to expect to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. In the trial sequence in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes the good confession, and Peter serves as a contrast to Jesus. This episode certainly sets us up to expect that outcome. For me, however, and most people in American pews, following Jesus is not likely to be a life-and-death matter, at least as it was for Mark’s community. How do we read this?

Someone recently pointed out to me that there are echoes of the temptation in Eden in this passage. Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” a Hebrew loan word which means adversary. In the garden, the serpent tempts the first humans with not dying: “Did God say you would die if you ate the fruit of this tree? You will certainly not die, but it will give you the knowledge of good and evil and you will become like gods.” Peter is tempted Jesus to become like a god, to skirt his death and establish his kingdom. Jesus tells Peter that he is setting his mind on human things, not divine things.

So, it turns out that the way toward divinization (setting the mind on divine things) leads through death, not away from it. Seeing divine things involves seeing the creation, as it is, death included, as divinely intended. In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman, who delights with God as God creates. This same creative hypostasis gives warning to young men not to scoff at her teachings. Young men at court tend to think they are indestructible, know it all and will reign forever (see 1 Kings 12:1-25). Wisdom warns that she will laugh at their calamity because they did not heed her warnings. I think Jesus’ warning about losing one’s soul while trying to save it amounts to the same thing. If we think we are indestructible, amass possessions or honor or whatever it may be as an attempt to skirt death, we will lose our souls. If we lose our souls for the sake of the Gospel, we will save them.

Adam and Eve attempted to be like gods, but they misunderstood that God had intended the divinization of creation from the beginning, precisely by its acceptance of its createdness, and God’s delight in creation. Learning to contemplate God’s delight in creation, and our part in it, rather than trying to escape from that creation into the divine realm through the knowledge of good and evil, is the path toward the restoration of the cosmos.

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