“A collision of opposites form the cross of Christ. One leads downward preferring the truth of the humble. The other moves leftward against the grain. But all are wrapped safely inside a hidden harmony: One world. God’s cosmos, a benevolent universe.”
~Fr Richard Rohr
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
We all are here this morning, for the most part, because of Jesus. At least I hope that is why you are here. Each of us can give a testimony as to how we met Jesus for the first time. For most, if not all, of us, someone introduced Jesus to us. So the first question Jesus posed to his disciples in this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, “Who do people say that I am”? is similar to how we might be asked to share how we were first introduced to Jesus. Someone else told us about Jesus—a Sunday School teacher, a youth leader, a minister, parents, friends. For me that someone was Lorna Logan at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown when I was 11. “Who do people say that I am”? Dutifully, the first disciples answered Jesus—“John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.” They were all good and even correct answers. Jesus did not have a problem with any of these answers.
There was not a problem until the follow up question which Jesus then posed: “But, who do YOU say that I am”? It’s one thing to quote others, to quote what others have taught you—what your teachers, ministers, seminary professors taught you. You can say what you want and quote others all you want. Nothing is at stake. But, who do YOU say Jesus is to YOU? Can’t you just picture Peter as the bright, hyper-active student who, anxious to please the teacher and score points, blurting out the correct answer, the answer he knows the teacher wants to hear? “You are the Messiah”, Peter shouted out! Most good teachers can see right through all that, see right through the good and conscientious student who studies hard every night, comes to class prepared, turns in all her homework on time, who even asks for additional assignments for extra credit, and is ready to ace any and all quizzes and exams the teacher can throw at him.
What happens next is very interesting. According to our text, Jesus sternly ordered them NOT to tell anyone about him. Why would a teacher do that? Was there something wrong with Peter’s answer? Peter didn’t think so! In fact, Peter got into an argument with Jesus about the answer he gave him. The gospel uses the word “rebuke” to describe the argument between Peter and Jesus. “Rebuke” is a very strong and harsh word. It describes not just an argument, but rather a fierce, angry shouting match. They are yelling at each other! It gets so fierce that Jesus finally tells Peter to shut up—“get behind me, Satan”!
I. In my many years of ministry, I have read many books on Jesus, aside from the Bible. In recent years, I would say that one of the most profound and provocative books about Jesus I have read was: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by REZA ASLAN. A biblical scholar, ASLAN says that in the end there are only 2 hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century CE (Christian Era); the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so. If these are the only two historical facts we can be confident about, what about everything else we have been taught about Jesus? How did Jesus get from being a revolutionary Jewish Nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader? Furthermore, how did Jesus become the Son of God, our Lord and Savior? I believe this morning’s text from the Gospel of Mark can help shed some light on these questions.
Let’s get back to Peter’s answer: “You are the Messiah”! In that particular time and place, that was a very good answer. Roman soldiers were the occupying forces enforcing the rule of Rome. And their power was enhanced by the collaboration of the wealthy class of Jews. So in that time, there were many unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing the rule of Rome. Jesus was not the first; rather, he was following in the line of previous “Messiahs” who led military revolts against the oppressive Roman soldiers. The rallying cry of Jewish patriots was: “Take up your swords”! Jesus, shocked his disciples. As their Messiah, his command was to “Take up your CROSS”! The cross, I want you to remember, was not a piece of jewelry in first century Palestine. The cross meant crucifixion. The cross meant the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissidents. Peter and Jesus were as far apart as they could be, going in opposite directions.
II. The long-anticipated film, “Crazy Rich Asians”, has been described as not just a movie, but a movement. It has been 25 years since a major Hollywood studio presented an all-Asian cast. The anticipation has paid off: the film has already passed $110 million in box office sales. As much as I enjoyed and loved the film, I found a disturbing aspect in the film even though it was not a major dimension of the film. Following the opening scene in London, the family returns to Singapore. Hidden away in a lush tropical villa in the hills, the male lead’s mother directs her socialite friends to open their Bibles. However, while reading Colossians 3:2, “set your minds on things above, not on things that are on the Earth”, incoming gossip via text messages break up any semblance of spirituality. The women collectively gasp, discovering that the male lead is bringing home to Singapore a girlfriend, a no-name American-born Chinese, automatically assumed to be a gold-digger. “Oh, I do hope she’s a good Christian girl,” one woman chimes in. In another comedic break to the Bible study, one of the women, on the receiving end of insider information about the imminent collapse of a stock, cries out, “Quick, quick! Where’s my handbag? I need to call my broker.” The film flaunts the role of Christianity in rich-capitalist countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, showing it as a tool for the wealthy to cozy up with those even more wealthy, accruing large doses of social capital with sprinkles of gospel. The wedding takes place at the First Methodist Church, with the wedding guests pulling up to the church in gaudy BMWs, Benzes, and Bentleys. Inside, the church is shown transformed into a tropical paradise, complete with a faux-river running through the central nave. Whispers of “$40 million”, the supposed cost of the wedding, permeate through the aisles. The take-away message in the film is that Jesus can help enhance your wealth and social standing.
In the recent issue of Christian Century, the title of an essay grabbed my attention: “Can Christians Transform Culture”? The author, a United Methodist pastor, writes: “People select churches based on the convictions in which the culture has already formed them. Those so formed primarily by the liturgy of the flag will choose a Southern Baptist church where they know their values will be mirrored”. His point is that we choose churches the same way we choose political parties. If it is indeed true that our culture, especially our political culture, forms each of us through its varied liturgies, the writer challenges us, followers of Jesus, to stake out ways to refuse to replicate or exacerbate the religion people bring with them to the church. At the recent seminar my wife and I attended, Fr Richard Rohr said in his homily: “Whenever you insert religion inside of culture, culture always wins! We are Americans first; and maybe once in a while we are Christian. It is culture that forms us.” The author of the Christian Century article goes on to say: “Christians are called not simply to make the world a better place; Christians are called to be the better place God has already made in the world. In our time and place, we believe what it means for the Church to be that better place—is to be the place where all our differences about the kingdom we call America, are transcended by the kingdom we await in faith”.
III. “Who do YOU say that I am”? Jesus is not asking us to answer him just with our words; he is asking us to answer him with our lives. Now I don’t want you to think that unless our lives are in danger that we are not faithful followers of Jesus on our journey of faith. I want you to think of “cross-bearing” as making your commitment to Jesus with your words and deeds as your first and foremost commitment. Make it the commitment that surpasses all other commitments. Let your commitment to Jesus inform and guide you in all the other commitments you make with your life—to spouse, companion, family, friends, career, volunteer work, play. William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells of the occasion when a representative from TEACH AMERICA visited the Duke Campus on a recruitment trip. TEACH AMERICA tries to recruit this nation’s most talented college graduates to go into some of the nation’s worst public schools. It is TEACH AMERICA’S method of transforming our schools into something better. The representative stood up in front of a large group of Duke’s students and said to them: “I can tell by looking at you that I have probably come to the wrong place. Somebody told me this was a BMW campus and I can believe it looking at you. Just looking at you, I can tell that all of you are a success. Why would you all be on this campus if you were not successful, if you were not going on to successful careers on Madison Avenue or Wall Street? And yet here I stand, hoping to talk somebody into giving away your life in the toughest job you will ever have. I am looking for people to go into the hollows of West Virginia, into the ghettos of South Los Angeles and teach in some of the most difficult schools in the world. Last year, two of our teachers were killed while on the job. And I can tell, just by looking at you, that none of you are interested in that. So, go on to law school or whatever successful thing you are planning on doing. But if by chance, just some of you happen to be interested, I’ve got these brochures here for you to tell about Teach America. Meeting’s over!” With that, the whole group of students stood up, pushed into the aisles, pushed each other aside, ran down to the front, and fought over those brochures. Willimon then had this to say: “I learned an important insight: people want something more out of life than even happiness. People want to be part of a journey. People want to be part of a project greater than their lives.” And so, you choose to work on immigration reform and helping refugees instead of pursuing a job at Google or Facebook.
“Who do YOU say that I am”? With that question, Jesus is not looking for the right answer. Jesus is looking for followers of his way of costly discipleship. Who is Jesus to me? Jesus is at the center of my life. In Jesus people are more important than property values; in Jesus love triumphs over fear; in Jesus mercy, not retribution, is our default mode; in Jesus humility replaces hubris; in Jesus generosity smothers greed with its goodness; in Jesus rocks shout out in joy; in Jesus demoniacs are no longer relegated to graveyards; in Jesus prodigal parties rage on every single night and no one is ever left injured by the side of the road. Who is Jesus to me? Jesus is the Christ who has claimed my life with this charge: “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, and for the gospel will save it…”