The Great Confusion: On Mark 8 and Peter's Not So Great Confession

A recent sermon by Ric Hudgens (Thanks for sharing Ric!)


The theme of our sermon series this fall is “Beyond the Walls”. There is a fruitful ambiguity in this theme. We've been discussing it as if the walls are primarily the walls the church hides behind; the walls that separate us from the world around us. Talk of going “beyond” the walls often means going from inside the walls to outside the walls. However, walls have two sides and those two sides have different functions. There are the walls the keep us in and the walls that keep us out.Clearly the church needs to get outside the walls of the sanctuary. Too many churches are too absorbed with their own internal business, their own internal maintenance, and their own internal problems. We talk to ourselves while the world goes to hell.

But this morning I want to draw our attention not to the walls that keep us in, but to the walls that keep us out. These are the walls that stifle truth, defend injustice, and perpetuate evil. These are the walls that defend the systems that keep oppression in place and shut out the liberating light of the gospel. When we talk about going beyond these walls we are talking not about being on the inside moving out, but being on the outside moving in.

MARK 8:27-38

The lectionary passage for today is found in the very center of Mark's gospel (8:27-38). This passage is the hinge of Mark's account of the life of Jesus. It demarcates several shifts in the mood and trajectory of this story.

In the first half of Mark Jesus is teaching primarily in Galilee, but now the stage begins to shift from the countryside to the city, from Galilee to Jerusalem. As this shift takes place the mood shifts as well. There has already been tension from the very beginning of the story: at first between Jesus and the local religious leaders, and then an emerging tension even with those closest to him. But beginning in chapter 8 that tension transforms into open conflict and opposition. As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem the tensions increase, the conflict heightens, and trouble ensues.


In keeping with our theme we should note that Jesus is already outside the walls. From a sectarian standpoint we might expect that this is where he would remain. This is what a group like the Essenes decided to do. The city was corrupt, the powers were entrenched, and there was nothing to be accomplished by confronting them. The Essene strategy was a strategy of withdrawal into community. It is the attempt to create the ideal community that can embody the truth that the city cannot tolerate. It is the attempt to preserve this community's purity as an uncompromised expression of God's perfect will. This strategy continues its appeal across the centuries finding resonance in churches and other religious communities that find the perpetuation of their own ideal to be their primary reason for being.

But this was not Jesus's strategy. Jesus is already outside the walls and his fledgling community has already been formed and yet he chooses to inaugurate a march upon Jerusalem. In this gospel Jerusalem (a walled city) is a symbol of opposition representing the Roman Empire, the collaborationist government, and the corrupt Temple system. Jesus chooses confrontation and provokes conflict. Because this conflict is nonviolent it is a disappointment to many of his zealous (and Zealot!) disciples, but it is still provocative and anything but passive.


But before Jesus moves towards the city he needs to establish some clarity of perspective with his closest followers. Jesus recognizes that when we are being led into a situation that is risky and full of potential for serious trouble we need to know who it is we are following, who it is we are going with.

Thus the question that Jesus asks is asked not for his own sake but for the sake of his disciples. Who do you think you're following? What do others say? What do you say?

Peter's famous response is “you are the messiah” - or in the other gospels “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We often refer to this as the “Great Confession” as if this was Peter's breakthrough moment, the point in time in which he finally got it, finally understood, finally grasped that central truth that Jesus had been trying to communicate to his disciples all along. Peter is the first one to get there and thereby establishes his superiority to all other disciples and his qualifications for becoming the rock upon which “the church” will be built.


But the curious thing in Mark's account is that Jesus does not commend Peter for his great confession. In fact, Jesus tells Peter to be quiet and never repeat such a thing. Jesus then begins to speak plainly about the difficult days ahead, about the opposition they will face in Jerusalem, and his own inevitable arrest, torture, condemnation, and death.

At this Peter “takes Jesus aside.” Get that? Peter doesn't humbly say “I don't understand”; but he grabs Jesus by the arm and pulls him off into a corner and begins to rebuke him! Jesus is not offended by Peter's familiarity, but he is offended by Peter's assumptions. He counters Peter's rebuke with an even stronger rebuke of his own. “You are not concerned with the things of God, but with human things.”

This is the crucial exchange in Mark. Not the great confession but the great confusion. Peter was right in the wrong way. He seems to be operating under a confusion that has plagued the followers of Jesus for almost two thousand years. Jesus locates Peter's confusion in the disparity between our own concerns and the concerns of God.


What are the concerns of God? Well, this is the shocker given what Jesus has to say in verses 34 to 38; and this is the point I want to underline for you this morning.

God is not concerned about whether or not we get into trouble.

Peter seems to be very concerned about this. This is the source of his rebuke to Jesus. When Jesus goes negative Peter reacts with his understanding that such a challenging scenario cannot be God's will. There must be some mistake, and Peter (boldly and bravely) takes it upon himself to point out Jesus's lack of faith and misunderstanding of God's providence.

But Jesus speaks plainly in this passage both to his smaller circle of close followers (verse 31) and to the larger circle of the crowd (verses 34-38). 

What we have consistently missed in the interpretation of verses 34-38 is the social and political context in which Jesus teaches. These verses about self-denial, taking up the cross, and following Jesus are not about some pietistic exercise. These verses in Mark form a unit, each verse clarifying the others, and each one speaking to the confrontation with the powers that would soon commence with Jesus approach to Jerusalem.

Jesus makes it clear that being his disciple does not lead to a problem free existence. There will always be trouble. God is unconcerned about whether or not we are in trouble. God is only concerned about the kind of trouble.


There is a version of Christianity that many of us were raised with which teaches that being a good Christian is all about staying out of trouble. But this passage is not that version!

However, there is the wrong kind of trouble and the right kind of trouble. For example, half the New Testament was written from a jail cell. There is no shame in being in jail or in being in trouble. But there is the wrong reason for being there and the right reason. There is the wrong kind of trouble and the right kind of trouble.

Our great confusion is that we are right in the wrong way. We say all the right words and believe all the right things and do all the things that someone who says what we say and believes what we believe is supposed to say and believe. But we are right in the wrong way because we confuse our own concerns with the concerns of God. We are looking for a savior different from the one we have. We want the quick fix, the answer man, the big momma, or the sugar daddy who is going to take away all our troubles and keep us out of further trouble.

But then Jesus says “deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.” Jesus sets his face towards your Jerusalem, toward the capital of your little empire, and Jesus marches inside and begins to turn over the tables and chase out the thieves, and you're screaming and hollering and saying "that's not the Jesus I believe in”. Or Jesus calls you to go inside the walls of some other fortress and speak truth to power, and stand in witness to injustice, and break the chains of oppression, and you're screaming and hollering and saying "But if I do that I'll get in so much trouble!"


Our God is a trouble making God. 

God's concern is that we move beyond the walls – both the walls that keep us in and the walls that keep us out. Beyond the walls that keep us in. The walls of our settled ways. The walls of our easy certainties. The walls of our feeble courage. The walls of our flaccid faith. Beyond the walls that would keep us out. The walls of hardened resistance. The walls of cynical dismissal. The walls of determined opposition. The walls of terminal despair.

Going beyond the walls will get us into trouble. But there is a difference between the wrong kind of trouble and the right kind of trouble. When we are about God's business, devoted to God's concerns we are making the right kind of trouble. When we are making the right kind of trouble we may indeed face opposition, conflict, and resistance.

But we know we are making the right kind of trouble when we discover that mysterious peace that passes all understanding. God will give us this peace even in the midst of trouble. Remember that when the Apostle Paul wrote about that peace he was cooling his heels in a jail cell. He felt peaceful nevertheless because he knew that he was about God's business. His concern was God's concern, and so the trouble he was in was the right kind of trouble. This peace he spoke of is not available to everyone in trouble but to those in the right kind of trouble. It is a peace for those concerned with God's concerns.

We move beyond the walls by following Jesus who leads us outside the walls that hold us captive, and inside the walls that exclude us. The Jesus we see in the Gospel of Mark is not afraid of confrontation. He is not afraid of trouble. Jesus is not afraid of trouble and teaches us that the only way we will overcome trouble is in his name, through his cross, and by his resurrection power. When we follow Jesus beyond the walls we will indeed find trouble. But if we don't follow Jesus trouble will find us.

This is the great confusion which must become the great confession. We must say it to the baptized, the upbaptized, and the wish-they-had-never-been baptized. The way of the world is the trouble that leads unto death. But the way of Jesus is the way of trouble that leads unto life.

This was my son's baptism sermon for the sixteenth week of Pentecost, Year B; Second Baptist Church, Evanston, Illinois, September 16, 2012

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