Sermon for St Mark’s, 3 September, ‘17
Transfiguration of Peter
“What was a bandit but an emperor on the make; what was an emperor but a bandit on the throne?”
Those are words of John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus scholar, observing the social and political climate in the hundred years or so around the resurrection of Jesus. Specifically, Dr Crossan wishes us to understand the turbulence into which Jesus was born, and to get us thinking about why Jesus might have forbidden the disciples from broadcasting him as Messiah, and this morning, why his stunning rebuke of Peter for wanting to protect Jesus from arrest and death.
Let’s look at three cases where an unusual character rose to great power in the Roman Empire. First, in Spain there was a man Viriathus, an unknown, who by organizing a campaign moved from shepherd to hunter to bandit to general (140-130 BCE). Then in North Africa, Tacfarinas, (20s C.E.) rose from shepherd to soldier to bandit to general. Some political career, yes? Third, there is Maximinus, in the 230s CE, shepherd to bandit to soldier to emperor. Perhaps you can better appreciate Crossan’s quip: “What was a bandit but an emperor on the make; what was an emperor but a bandit on the throne?” (The Historical Jesus, p172)
But the turbulence was more malignant than these stories tell. Local heroes, early “Robin Hoods”, advocated the violent overthrow of Rome, all having some measure of success before they were quashed. In 47 BCE there was a man named Ezekias who revolted, and ten years later, there was a guerilla group in Galilee known as the “Cave Bandits” who caused trouble for the authorities. After Jesus’ resurrection, there was a revolt led by a man named Tholomaeus, which lasted two years, and later there was even a bandit named Jesus who raised havoc for about a year around the time of the Gospel of Mark. These were revolts consisting “largely of peasants and landless laborers ruled, oppressed and exploited by someone else” (Crossan, p169). These were unsuccessful, in that Rome always put them down, but turbulence spread among the people. And then there were the religious reformers, the messiahs.
Yes, Jesus was proclaimed messiah but as one in a long line of messiahs, all advocating a violent solution. Heralded in memory as truly heroic and godly was a man named Judas, nicknamed “the hammer” because of his remarkable guerilla tactics. Judas Maccabeus threw out the ruling Syrian dynasty, purged corruption from the religion of Israel and restored the Temple in Jerusalem. The feast of Hanukkah commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship in 164 BCE, when eight days of oil for the Temple Menorah was provided from one day’s supply. For the messiahs to follow, there was always hope that a new Maccabeus, a new hammer, would initiate the final victory over Rome.
Here are three such messiahs, violent rebellions based in religion, from a few years before Jesus was born. One was in Galilee, a messiah named Judas, son of Ezekias who led the political uprising I mentioned in 47 BCE. Judas’ motivation was religious, but his tactics were no less violent than his father’s. In the same year another messiah, Simon, a slave in the service of Herod the Great, attracted a following because of his size, his handsome figure, and his bodily strength. With a band of men Simon attacked the palace at Jericho, and the result of his rebellion: “a great madness settled upon the nation.” (Crossan, p201, quoting Josephus). Third, an illiterate shepherd named Anthronges kept power with his four brothers for a long time, partly because, no doubt, the people remembered a certain predecessor, another shepherd who was Yahweh’s favorite and king in Israel, the awesome David of Jerusalem.
This is a short list. There were other messiahs, common among oppressed societies. There was Menachem, grandson of Judas the Galilean, also Simon, son of Gioras, both of whom stirred the people long after Jesus’ resurrection. You will remember that John Baptist was asked if he was the messiah. Would he take the sword and bring down the Roman idolaters?
My apologies if this sounds more like lecture than preaching, but it was this wildfire of violence that Jesus wanted desperately to avoid. There was always the danger in his day that a gathering of seekers could become a mob, and not only did Jesus resist the destruction that came with revolt. His whole message was non-violent, and driven by an intimidating, sacrificial love which the world has rarely seen.
It is that singular, holy love which makes Jesus’ place in the world unique. It is that love which inspired his ministry for three years, and because he would not back down or backtrack, it drove him to the cross. It is that love which made the cross more a symbol of victory than defeat, and his final words, “It is accomplished”, is a song of faith.
It is that love which inspired Paul to write, to you and to me this morning:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers”. (Romans 12.9f)
“Get behind me, Satan.” It must have been startling for Peter to be so named by a man he loved. Stumbling block? Easier to swallow, and we can see how Peter was potentially a stumbling block, but the result is the same. Peter’s protectionism was diverting Jesus’ purpose, and it was courting disaster if the crowds became mobs, even for Jesus’ cause. Peter was a man of boats and nets, a commercial fisherman who fed the people, but when pressed, he knew how to use the sword (John 18.10-11).
The substance of Jesus’ criticism, though, is that Peter (and you and I) think like humans. Of course, we do. But the challenge is for Peter, and us, to come to think as God thinks. To see as God sees. To love as God loves. What is going on is not Peter’s condemnation, but Peter’s transfiguration. For Peter it took time, but he was transfigured into a godly man Jesus would have respected.
For you and me, what is at stake is our transfiguration. Though it takes time, may we become transfigured into godly disciples, men and women Jesus will respect. Amen.
N.B. Dr Crossan’s primary sources are Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War, by the first century Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE).
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