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James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Jesus question about “Who do you say I am,” is as relevant for us today, as it was for those early followers in Caesarea Philippi.
This morning I invite you to tap into your creative imaginations and put yourself in today’s story from the Gospel according to Mark. Imagine for a moment that you have been a part of that band of folks that followed the young rabbi Jesus, and tagged along behind him around the Galilean territory and beyond. You have witnessed his healings, heard him preach, and you have seen the miracles. You are hooked and cannot return back to the place you were before, because you are on a new journey. There is something about this guy you just cannot explain; something to which you are deeply drawn, and because of that fact, you would follow him anywhere.
You and your companions now find yourselves deep in Gentile territory in Caesarea Philippi, a city, in which there is a plethora of spiritual practices, a collection of images of various deities, and a culture of pluralistic religious dogmas. Caesarea Philippi was an ancient Roman city located at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon, adjacent to a spring, grotto, and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan.
It was in this setting, Jesus posed this question to you his followers, “Who do people say that I am.” You look around you and watch your fellow disciples as they answer. One says, “Elijah.” A couple of your clan retort, “John the Baptist.” A few in the group exclaim, “A prophet.” Now, despite your colleague’s boldness to chime in, you are keeping silent, but you are watching Peter, the outspoken one in the group, for you know based on experience, he will have something profound to say, but interestingly, he too is silent.
Next, Jesus looks at each person in your group with great care in his eyes, pauses and asks, “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter can hold back no more, and proclaims abruptly and boldly, “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.” Surprisingly, Jesus tells you all to keep quiet about what was just said. You and your friends, being good first century Israelites, certainly understand what expectations your culture puts on the one who bears the title “Messiah.” However, is the kind of Messiah whom Jesus’ followers seek, the same kind of Messiah that Jesus truly is?
We often project our own expectations and pre-conceived notions on others, and that projection has lasting implications on our relationship with the other.
I imagine if I took a poll right now here at St. Boniface asking, “Who do say Jesus is,” I would hear a variety of responses. I imagine the Jesus who each of us identify with, and the one we hear about in the Gospels, may sometimes be at odds with each other. Peter the apostle proclaimed boldly to that little group, “You are the Messiah,” However, upon hearing from Jesus what his Messiah ship really meant, Peter could not accept it and rebuked Jesus. He later denied Jesus three times.
Peter did not want a suffering servant Messiah that Jesus self-described, the one who would be rejected, beaten, and killed. I imagine Peter may have been seeking a Messiah of his own making, maybe one in his own image, a powerful, bold, outspoken Messiah who would overthrow the Roman establishment. Many of us may be just like Peter. Some of us may label Jesus as ‘Good Teacher Jesus,” a mere ancient sage who gave us some really good direction on how to live. Some of us may label Jesus as “Politically Conservative Jesus” or “Politically Liberal Jesus” either of which, depends on your own political affiliation, because we often pick and choose, which of his words move our own agenda forward.
Some of us may label Jesus, “Vending Machine Jesus,” the Lord we only connect with when we find ourselves in dire straits, or we experience life’s difficulties, or when there is something we want or need. Maybe we label Jesus as “Episcopalian Jesus,” the Lord who never ever breaks the liturgical rubrics, handles every conflict with meekness and humility, and the one who can chant the entire mass with grace and style.
We like Peter, have in our own mind, who it is we want Jesus to be, but often that image is based upon on our own identity, our own agendas, our own desires, and our own priorities. Christopher Henry, in his Christian Century article wrote, “We must be ready to embrace this Messiah, the one who will question our deepest allegiances and demand absolute discipleship, the one who requires us to move from selfishness to generosity, from fear to love, from hatred to compassion, from the narrowness of self- righteousness to the wideness of mercy.” (1)
This is the same Messiah who says to us, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The earliest Christian affirmation was three simple words that meant everything to our ancestors in faith: “Jesus is Lord.” (1) In a society focused on a pursuit of self-actualization, individual gratification, and personal success we are ourselves, the Lord of our own lives. The Kingdom of God though is based on another concept of Lordship. The earliest Christian communities recognized that the master of their lives was the one who “underwent great suffering, and was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and was killed, and after three days rose again.” The chief orchestrator of their lives was the one who calls his followers to “Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”
Theologian Christopher Henry explains further, “If we want to follow this Messiah, it’s going to take more than acceptance and assent, more than a moment of decision. It’s going to take change in habits, assumptions and actions.” Each and Every day of our lives, we are confronted by Jesus’ call to follow him, and when the choice is presented, we must either say “Yay” or “Nay” to his Lordship!
Jesus is pretty clear about his expectations of his followers. He tells us to care for the least lost and lonely and says, “when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.” So, when we encounter a member of our local community who is an outcast, whose dignity as a member of the human family is challenged, when those around us lack the basics of life, when our neighbors experience a level of loneliness and isolation we can only fathom, when our local citizens wrestle with a darkness and depressive hole we have never tread, or when a growing generation of our local residents are living with a spiritual emptiness like never before, how will we respond to Jesus mandate to “love our neighbor as ourselves?”
Denying our selves, taking up our cross means we must be changed so much that we deny our own priorities, and say, “Yes” to Our Lord’s way of self-giving love. “The imperative to deny oneself must, therefore, speak to a corporate understanding of identity; it must have a social or public dimension with real effects on one’s relationships with others.” (3) Our proclamation of Jesus as Lord means, that we should be we willing to die to our old selves, that self that stands in contrast to Jesus’ call, so that new life, new life in Christ might emerge in us for the sake of those around us.
Jesus says, “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.”
Over the past three years, I have conducted vestry retreats with several churches in our diocese. During these events, I focus on helping churches identify who their neighbors are around them, where the deepest community needs around them lie, and then, help these leaders explore and discern fresh ways to bring about God’s Kingdom of love, reconciliation and grace to bear on their neighbors. I like to think of this work as helping churches to stop looking inward for their mission statement, and begin to look outside their four walls, outside the priorities of inner church life, in order to rediscover what it is that God is calling them to be and do.
Matthew Skinner in his Word and World article wrote, “one who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony, for the refusal of a certain way of living directly impinges upon one’s identity and possibilities.” (3)
You see, self-denial is not merely a private, individualized proposition for we “Jesus followers,” it is something we must do corporately as the Body of Christ. We must get in touch once again with the fact that the church, “this community bears the message of the kingdom in its concrete participation in activities of liberation, restoration, mutuality, forgiveness, and charity—deeds that rightly judge and challenge the powers and persons aligned with this world.” (3)
The mission of the church is to “Bring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP p. 855) To reach the all, we must publicly participate, both individually and communally in deeds that challenge the realities of our culture, which stand in opposition to God’s Kingdom, and we have to do it out there. We must deny our own priorities and agendas of corporate life, so that we can fully participate in the mission of Christ in the world.
I believe all of us desire the experience of profound grace, or new life in Christ, but we must remember, there is a choice we must make for that participation and yes, that is the death of self-consumed community living. The church cannot get to Easter Sunday celebration, without going through Good Friday transformation. We cannot experience resurrection as the Body of Christ, without experiencing death of internal strife, turmoil, and self-focus first.
Maybe that is part of what it means for us to be cross-bearers. In this life, we are constantly dying to who we have been, and we are being raised to new life everyday. The willingness to die to those parts of our nature that conflicts, with the one we call Lord, is the way to experience new life. We experience God’s grace, so we might be raised to new life in Christ, and then we must share that with the world. When even in the midst of the most devastating tragedies, we can be at peace trusting in Christ that even death has lost its sting. The community of faith can face inevitable changes, communal transformation, and yes, an unknown future without trepidation, but with hope, expectation, and confident anticipation.
“You see, Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead. That is his victory, and that is how he wins the final, apocalyptic battle over the power of evil. And that event means that death will not be allowed to speak the last word over us either!” (2) Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” What he is saying to his church is, “Lay down your own priorities, your own sense of yourselves, and your own agendas.” “Be willing to lay down parts of the communal life you hold so dear, let go of who you think you are, get out there and do what I do every day through you. Go out there and change the world of the other people around you and then, you will receive an amazing, grace-filled life, which I offer you as a community each and every day. Jesus is telling us, you will find your true identity as a community, when you get outside yourselves, and you begin to serve those around you. Then, Jesus with great confidence in the community to which he left his mission reminds us that we cannot do it alone, and lovingly asks us, “Are willing to trust me?”
(1) Henry, Christopher A. “Living By The Word: Reflections On The Lectionary [S 16, 2012].” The Christian Century 129.18 (2012): 19. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.
(2) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” The Christian Century 117.24 (2000): 860. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.
(3) Skinner, Matthew L. “Denying Self, Bearing A Cross, And Following Jesus: Unpacking The Imperatives Of Mark 8:34.” Word & World 23.3 (2003): 321-331. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.