September 16, 2012
The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 19
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Who do you say that I am?”
We don’t ask that question very often here. “Who do you say that I am? Who is Jesus to you? Who is Jesus in your life?” I am not sure why. Any thoughts?______
Our relationship with Jesus Christ is obviously a vital aspect of our lives as Christians. The scandal of the Christian religion is that we understand that the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us, that God was actually and fully present in the world in the form of a 1stcentury Jewish Palestinian peasant. Scandalous. God, the Almighty and Everlasting, the Alpha and Omega, the ground of Being, …sort of like the song went, “God was one of us.” Our God had a mom. Scandalous. That common Christian understanding of history begs us to discern the nature of our individual and collective relationship with Jesus Christ. Our selection from St. Mark’s gospel is an invitation if not definitive demand to wrestle with the question, “Who do yousay that I am?”
Today’s gospel comes from the end of the 8th chapter of St. Mark’s gospel. It is exactly mid-point in the book. The first eight chapters weave the parallel narratives of Jesus’ ascendancy as a prophet, teacher and healer on one hand, and on the other is the story of His increasing tensions with the religious and civil authorities. That’s the first half of the book. In the eight chapters following this passage, the second half, Jesus and his friends are on a direct and accelerating path to Jerusalem, to the Cross and to the sweet bye and bye of the Resurrection. But before this passage that Maron proclaimed today, the ministry of Jesus and his disciples was moving right along, it was business as usual in the mendicant prophet world of 1st century Roman Palestine, and then out of nowhere, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” That little question changed everything.
Jesus asked his friends, “what are the people saying about me?” They tell him that some think he is John the Baptist , Elijah or one of the other prophets reincarnated. He seemed rather nonplussed, “Yeah, that’s cool, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” Here, Peter, poor Peter always getting things turned around, he answers correctly, “the Messiah,” but for all the wrong reasons.
Peter was part of a messianic movement, one of many in that time and place. Largely, the messiahs of that time were more political, social figures then they were religious figures. Think of a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mohandas Gandhi. They were religious figures. Their mission and message was religious in context and much of the content, but the prize in their eyes was liberation from imperial hegemony, from oppression and violence and poverty. Most 1stcentury messianic figures were of that stripe, liberators from temporal suffering. Jesus our Messiah carried that kind of messianic message to be sure, but it is not until this point in His story that the full depth of his substance and mission are revealed.
Calling Himself the Son of Man, Jesus starts telling them about what was to come. The rejection and persecution, the suffering and death, then the rising again after three days. I can imagine Peter sitting there and thinking, “what is going on, Boss?” And he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Him, “we’ve got to stay on message, your scaring the boys.” And Jesus’ response? “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
What Jesus is saying here is that all of what He was, all of what He was doing, it was all one. It was one mission. The liberation of the body, of people, liberation from poverty, degradation, violence and oppression, throwing the boot of the Roman (or any) empire off your neck, that was, that is the work of Jesus Christ. What was revealed in this very moment was that to actually do this, to actually be liberated, to be saved, God is intimately and absolutely involved. It all comes back to the Great Commandment.
In Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story, Christ’s ministry begins with the “love your neighbor” part of the commandment. It is about healing, teaching, working and walking in community. And when they had that going on, when the organization was together, people were being fed and clothed and taken care of, when the fully human mission was underway, well then, Jesus seemed to think that the disciples were ready for the rest of the story.
What was the rest of the story? Jesus was clear with His disciples what His immediate fate was. It was going to be a hard trip to Jerusalem. Then He asked everyone who was there to gather ‘round so He could tell them what was in store for 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 or the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit life?” Whoa. I won’t even get to his critique of that adulterous and sinful generation…
It sure didn’t seem that the disciples were ready for the rest of the story. And 2000 years later, sitting here in Eugene on this gorgeous morning, are we any more ready for it?
Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. Losing your life for the sake of Christ or the gospel will save it, saving your life for yourself will lose it. The imperative nature of the language reaches across the millennia and just stops us in our tracks. Or, well, it should. It stops me at least.
Is Jesus talking about really, really losing our life? Our breathing, digesting, walking around kind of life? Sometimes. From Archbishop Romero and his Jesuit companions in El Salvador in the 80’s all the way back to St. Steven in 1st century Jerusalem, Christians have been called to martyrdom for their faith and liberating activity since the church began. And these martyrdoms continue today in Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and Syria, Christians being killed for being Christian and for serving in the world as Christians. Obviously we do not have the monopoly on holy and just martyrdom, and just as obviously the Christian church has martyred not a few just and holy people ourselves, but a call to full sacrifice is a possible outcome of the Christian life. The enemies of justice and righteousness are well armed, well organized and extremely well funded. Real enemies of Christ do exist and they often wear very expensive suits.
Fortunately the vast majority of us are not called to that dramatic a loss of life, but each and every one of us is absolutely called to the loss of other forms of life. Our inward life. Not inner, inward, inward facing. Our self-referential life. A life where your assumed rights or freedoms trump another’s. A life where your needs are satisfied before those of the less fortunate. A life where the wants of the few outweigh the needs of many. A life of isolation, broken relationships, bitterness and unhappiness. Of consistently moving away from the light of Christ, not necessarily towards darkness, but towards lights less bright than they could be. This is the life we needto lose.
It is all fine and good, it is ever required that we ask ourselves, “What parts of my life can I, could I, might I be willing and able to lose?” It is a start to ask ourselves that question. It is an entirely different thing when that question is being asked of us by Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, God, is asking us to deny ourselves comfort, security, certainty in this world, safety in relationships, ease in community, and to take up our cross and follow Him. Jesus Christ is asking you that question with as much imperative as He asked His friends and disciples 2000 years ago.
Here’s the relevance to you in this very moment: we cannot respond to this call with any kind of authenticity, any kind of real and holy passion if we do not know who is asking this terrible thing of us. The entire mission of the disciples was permanently altered, their fates were sealed in a terrifying way once they understood what form of Man, what kind of Messiah their friend and rabbi Jesus truly was. The simple question, “Who do you say that I am?” when pondered, when answered, changed everything. When we ask that question in the dark of the night, when that still small voice within ponders Jesus Christ, when we pray on and converse over and debate that simple, simple question, “Who do you say that I am?” as if Jesus Christ Himself is asking us, we risk encountering the eternal and actual God, that same Jesus Christ in our hearts, in our bodies, in our minds and souls. And when that happens, if that happens, just like for the disciples, everything, the history of the universe, the course of your life, what your afternoon looks like, everything changes. AMEN