notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Mark 8 - Satan the Accuser and God the Chooser
Good Shepherd Morning Communion 12/3/2006
Genesis 17:1-7,15-16, Mark 8:31-39
This is another one of those gospel stories that you read it and wonder, "What exactly is going on here?" Peter rebukes Jesus; Jesus rebukes Peter. What is all this rebuking about? Of course, some of our puzzlement might even be due to the fact that we almost never use a word like "rebuke" anymore. We "scold" our children, or "lecture" each other, from time to time, but we don't often call such things "rebukes." I'd like to suggest a way to think about the word "rebuke" that might help us understand this story: that is, "rebuke" means to "put someone in their place."
To put someone in their place. Previously in Mark's gospel, Jesus rebukes the evil spirits who possess people. The place of evil spirits is not in people, so Jesus puts them in their place by telling them to leave: "Get out evil spirit!" and they get out, they leave, they get put in their proper place, like in a herd of pigs somewhere, but not in people.
In this morning's story Peter first rebukes Jesus, and then Jesus rebukes Peter. What's this about? Peter's rebuke attempts to put Jesus in his place. Jesus has just begun 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." 'Well,' thinks Peter, 'if Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, then that can't be his proper place. The place of the Messiah is a triumphant one, isn't it? How could the Messiah possibly suffer and be rejected and be executed?' So Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to put Jesus in his proper place; he rebukes him.
But Jesus will have none of this. Peter, the disciple, the follower, has all of sudden tried to take the lead, by telling Jesus, the leader, where his proper place is. So Jesus must put Peter back in his proper place, behind him, as follower. "Get behind me, Satan!" says Jesus, "For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
So now we understand a bit better why Peter and Jesus rebuke each other, and why Jesus tells Peter to get behind him. It's all about being in the proper place at the proper time. Peter doesn't think the Messiah's proper place at the moment of triumph should be one of being executed. Jesus tells Peter that he shouldn't be trying to tell him where and when the Messiah should be. As a disciple, as a follower, Peter's proper place is behind Jesus.
But there's another puzzle to this reading: why does Jesus call Peter "Satan"? "get behind me Satan" - very strong language, that. And what does he mean when he tells Peter that "You are setting your mind not on godly things but on human things"?
It sounds like Jesus is saying that to think in human terms is to be identified with Satan. Is that what Jesus is trying to imply? That human thinking has become satanic thinking? Does he mean that we think like Satan? If that's the case, then we'd better try to understand what this is all about. What does it mean to think like Satan? And, on the other hand, what does it mean to think like God?
To help us understand this today, I'm going to suggest titles for Satan and for God and then unpack them. The titles are these: Satan is the Accuser, and God is the Chooser. Satan is the Accuser, and God is the Chooser.
Let's begin with God. Perhaps you've not quite thought about it this way, but if there is anything that the Bible is constantly showing us about God, it's that God is a chooser. The scriptures tell us that God is constantly choosing special people. Think about what we've heard read to us this morning: the story of the people of Israel begins with God choosing Abraham and Sarah to be parents to a whole race of chosen people.
Now, there's something else we need to know about this chosenness: right from the beginning God makes it clear that these people aren't more special compared to other people. God choosing them makes them special, and so Abraham and Sarah and their descendants are to be a blessing to all people. I think that God wants everyone to feel special, to know that they are chosen; but in order to make this happen, God has to begin somewhere, with someone. And the Bible tells us that God began with Abraham and Sarah.
Just so we get the idea that these chosen people are not necessarily more special to God than other people, we next get the stories of Esau and Jacob, and of Joseph and his brothers. Jacob cheats his brother out of the birthright -- that's how 'special' he is -- and he nevertheless becomes God's chosen one. Joseph is a spoiled brat to his brothers and becomes the chosen one that saves his brothers.
All along in the Old Testament we get these unlikely folks who God chooses to step forward and help people understand that they are chosen, that God has chosen them unconditionally, warts and all. There's Moses and Samuel and Ruth and David and Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jonah and Esther and on and on. The Old Testament is one long story of God trying to help us understand that God ultimately wants to choose everyone, but God begins by choosing someone. And God chooses those 'someones' unconditionally, no matter how imperfect they may be.
Now, in the New Testament just last week, we read the beginning of Mark's gospel. And there we saw the baptism of Jesus: God's spirit descending like a dove and saying, "This is my Beloved Son, listen to him." In other words, the very first act of the gospel is God choosing Jesus. And the first thing that Jesus does, after tussling with Satan in the wilderness, is to choose disciples, Peter among them.
Now, with today's gospel lesson, we reach a point in the story where Jesus identifies Peter's thinking with Satan, who he wrestled against in the wilderness. What is this satanic thinking? How is it related to the cross? Who exactly is Satan?
One ancient idea about Satan is that he is a trickster. And the greatest trick that Satan can play on us is to disguise himself as God. Now, because God is a chooser we might expect Satan to disguise himself like a chooser.
But who is Satan really? In the ancient folklore, Satan is the Accuser. He is the one who brings accusations against people. He is the High Court Judge, if you like, charged to bring a conviction against the bad people of the world. Satan disguises himself like God, the Chooser; but Satan also is the Accuser. How does he pull this off? How can he both be the Accuser and disguise himself like God, the Chooser?
He does this by dividing the world between the chosen people and the accused people - those who are accused of evil-doing and therefore rejected. Satan makes those who think they are the chosen to gang up against those who are the accused.
When Satan accuses and we convict, then the rest of us who aren't accused feel chosen. When the bad guys have been singled out and eliminated, the rest of us are left to feel like we are the good guys. Satan begins the game of setting us against each other, and we get caught up in it. Satan tricks us into thinking that God has chosen us specially to be the good guys in this world by accusing the bad guys.
I'm good because I'm not like you - you're bad. How often have we heard other people, or ourselves, thinking like this?
But there is a big problem with this - because God's choosing is unconditional. Remember me saying this last week - God's love for us is unconditional. Nothing about who we are or what we have done matters to God - his love for us is unconditional.
God does not love anyone by hating someone else. God does not choose anyone by accusing someone else.
That is Satan's trick, and it's a good one, because we have bought into it, lock, stock, and barrel.
There's a whole Hollywood film industry based on this whole way of thinking - films where a messiah figure comes along to put the bad people in their place, and the good people in their place, which makes things all right again.
But isn't that the human thinking Jesus is trying to help Peter to see? Isn't that why Jesus calls Peter Satan? Because Peter has bought into a view of the Messiah that has the Messiah come to stand in the place of the Accuser, one who will put the bad people in their place, and the good people in their place. But that is not the place Jesus has come to take.
No, as matter of fact, Peter, with his human, satanic thinking got it completely back to front. No, Jesus, as he has just told his disciples, has come to take the place of the Accused. The Accused always end up on the cross. And on the cross Jesus became the condemned accused. But from the cross Jesus, instead of giving in and accusing others, instead forgave them. Not accuse them but forgave them, "for they know not what they do".
Thank God that God's choosing is unconditional. God's love for us is unconditional. This forgiveness demolishes Satan's clever tricks.
On the cross Jesus uncovers Satan's tricks. And he uncovers them in a way that doesn't turn around and play Satan's game of accusing, condemning, and killing. God does it this way because God is the God of life, overflowing life. Because God will raise Jesus from the dead to overturn our tremendous mistake. God, in raising Jesus from the dead, will help Peter and the rest of us to see what is going on.
But even if we can see what is going on, even after two thousand years we still live in a world controlled by Satan -- in a world where Satan still has most people duped into thinking they are chosen by accusing others, by setting themselves off against others - then how are we supposed to live? How can we live in God's unconditional love?
Our whole legal system, for example is completely based on princples of accusing and condemning others. And our prisons overflow. Perhaps Satan has tricked us into thinking that his way is God's way.
Our whole religious way of thinking is also vulnerable to Satan's trick. Only yesterday I received an advertisement from a Christian bookshop which was full of criticism for other bookshops which it accused of promoting evil. 'Only we stand for the truth', their advert said. In other words, only we are chosen because the others are accused.
So all our questions about how to live in God's unconditional love haven't yet been answered, but we must always cherish this assurance: that we aren't left to ourselves to find these answers. With the power of the Holy Spirit God continues to choose a special people -- ordinary people like you and me who aren't more special than others.
But we have this special call from God to share the love of the cross with others. We have a call to fall into our proper place behind St.Peter and Mary Magdalene and all the saints to find our proper place behind Jesus. In our baptisms we are chosen ones of God the Chooser. We are forgiven and unconditionally loved by God, so that we might share that love and share that news with others, that we might help others to stop getting tricked by Satan.
Each and every day we are called to live out that baptismal call as God's chosen people. I hope that we can all say "Amen!" to that.
 This sermon is a paraphrase of a 1997 sermon of Paul J. Nuechterlein. From his absolutely essential online resource, girardianlectionary.net