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17th Sunday after Pentecost __Mark 8:27-38 __ September 16, 2018
With September fully upon us, we are in the midst of the campaign season, a season that requires us to pay attention, to do our homework, consider the options and then come November, vote. In short: Be responsible. Be engaged.
Most of the major candidates made the trek to the State Fair to shake hands and hand out campaign literature. While I have yet to see many of the statewide candidates’ yard signs out, I have seen that a number of local election candidates have placed yard signs here and there. And, of course, the ads are taking over TV and we are reminded as to why God created the “mute” button.
So, it is with that thought in mind I was amused when I ran across this story that struck me as timely and helpful in light of today’s Gospel reading. Apparently there was a politician at a big campaign rally where they were having a fried-chicken dinner out under a tent. The candidate had spent several hours passing out campaign buttons, shaking hands and kissing babies. After he made his speech, he wandered over to the food tent. As he went through the line he was handed a plate with potato salad, green beans, a biscuit and a chicken leg. He leaned over the table and said, “May I have another piece of chicken?” The woman replied, “One piece per person.” He tried again, “I’m a big guy and I’m pretty hungry and this is just a little bitty leg.” She said, “One piece per person.” Finally, the man lost his temper a bit and tried to pull rank, “Look, do you know who I am?” She said, “No sir, but I know who I am. I’m the chicken lady, and it’s one piece per person.”
Our Gospel reading this morning turns on the question of identity. We are told that Jesus invites his disciples to ponder and wrestle with a couple questions as they make their way through the villages of Caesarea Philippi. The first question is the easy one: “Who do people say that I am?” In other words, what’s the word on the street? What have you heard? What do the opinion polls reveal?
I don’t know about you, but I can just about hear the schoolboy relief and excitement in the disciples’ voices (“Ooh, ooh! This is an easy one! I know this one!) as they scramble to answer Jesus’ question: “People say you’re John the Baptist!” “No, no, they say Elijah! More people say ‘Elijah!’” “No, lots of folks say one of the prophets! I’ve heard them talking about it! They’re sure you’re one of the prophets!” I’m guessing they go on for a while, each trying to drown the other out with the most succinct and promising answer they can come up with. After all, this is solid ground. This is reportage. Clear, fact-based, truth-telling. They can do this. Interestingly, Jesus neither affirms nor denies any of their answers. He simply listens to them, allowing the disciples to offer up everything they think they know, based on other people’s expertise. As if to say: this is the place to begin. This is where all explorations of faith begin, in naming what we’ve heard, examining what we’ve inherited, and parroting back the certainties others have handed to us. These answers cost us little or nothing, so they’re safe and benign. But then Jesus presses on. “Who do you say that I am?”
I imagine Jesus looking at each disciple in turn. Looking at each of them and pressing them--forget about other people’s theologies and interpretations. Put aside tradition and creed, valuable as they are, and consider the life we have lived together thus far. The bread we’ve broken, the miles we’ve walked, the burdens we’ve carried, the tears we’ve shed, the laughter we’ve shared. Who am I to you?
Of course Mark doesn’t give us much detail about the scene, but when I imagine what happens next, I see the disciples falling into a long, awkward silence. I imagine them avoiding eye contact with Jesus. Shuffling their feet. Coughing. Casting anxious glances at each other. I imagine every single one of them desperately hoping that someone else will answer.And I imagine Jesus, standing patiently and vulnerably in their midst through that long silence, waiting to hear what his closest friends will say about him.
Cue Peter. Bold, reckless, earnest, impetuous Peter. When the silence becomes unbearable, he throws himself forward and answers the question as confidently as he can: “You are the Messiah.” Good answer…sort of, because when Jesus began to explain what being the Messiah meant, trouble started.
Mark tells us, “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.” (Mark 8:31). Peter apparently stopped listening at “be killed”. That really threw him, so much so that he shut down and missed the good news about rising again three days later, not that he could have understood that idea anyway. The only thing he heard was the stuff about suffering and being killed. And once again, Peter had to do something, and he started by taking Jesus aside to rebuke him. The Greek word here means to “prevent someone from doing wrong.” We might say to “set them straight.” Peter rebuked Jesus because he had his own ideas about what being the Messiah meant. He wanted the strong person Jesus, the conquering Jesus, the majestic rescuer Jesus, the riding in at the last moment with trumpets blaring, flags flying, sabers glinting in the sun—the Jesus that would kick Roman butt once and for all. He wanted the action figure Jesus. That’s the Jesus, the Messiah, Peter was looking for. And who knows, maybe that’s the Jesus you were hoping for as well?
Needless to say, all this suffering, rejection and dying did not fit with Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. And it was Peter’s insistence that Jesus fit into his watered down comprehension of Messiah-ship — hits a nerve so raw, Jesus turns and rebukes Peter in turn. What’s more, he does so using words that shock us still, two thousand years later: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And then Jesus returns to the question of identity when he tells Peter, the disciples and each of here this morning, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34).
As strange and stinging as this exchange is, I love it. I love first of all that Jesus and Peter are intimate enough friends to survive a hard fight. Only friends who are powerfully bonded can tell each other off so harshly and live to tell the tale together afterwards. More importantly, I love that Peter’s confession of faith — “You are the Messiah” — signals the beginning of his exploration of Jesus’s identity, not its end. As soon as Peter thinks he has the answer to the question nailed down, Jesus shuts him up, challenges what he knows, and nudges him back to the starting line: Yes, I am the Messiah. No, you have no idea what “Messiah” means.
So, here the question for you to ponder this morning: Who do you say that Jesus is? Who is Jesus for you? What does it mean that Jesus is your Messiah, Savior, Lord? I lift up this question and present it to you this morning because this question of identity isn’t just about Jesus; it’s not just about Peter and the disciples—it’s also about us. If Jesus is the Christ, destined for the awfulness of the cross instead of the glory of earthly honor and kingship, then who are we? What are we as the body of Christ to be about? How might that shape our ministry in this community and beyond?
According to Jesus, it means suffering, rejection and death. And, like Peter, most of us would rather not. We are willing to follow Jesus, that is, to “get behind” the Messiah but not too close behind. Not close enough to get in harm’s way. So this language about “deny themselves and taking up their cross and follow me” stuff is difficult, very difficult, for most of us. Our desire to be good people, to serve the Lord, to follow Jesus comes into conflict with a basic human instinct for self-preservation, particularly if we hear and understand it in a borderline literal manner as calling us to physical death in pursuit of our faith. If we think that to deny self and take up a cross, to lose our lives for others, means to make some huge and heroic sacrifice on behalf of Christ and the world, then most of us fail miserably in the “following Jesus” department and we end up living perfectly ordinary, pedestrian lives hardly distinguishable from the lives of our unbelieving neighbors.
So what if we were to set aside the notion that we have to do something epic in our self-denial and cross bearing efforts? What if we were to commit ourselves to taking baby steps as we follow Jesus? What if we begin with the idea that, it’s not about us? That the world does not revolve around our whims and wants. What if we tried to be a bit more patient, show a little humility, especially with those we are prone to disagree with—and because it is the campaign season, we need not look too far to find someone we might disagree with, What if we were to set our personal agendas on the back-burner and listen to someone else for a change, being open to something different, to be respectful and learn to agree to disagree, graciously. What if we were to trust Jesus to the point where we could in fact deny ourselves and consider the needs of others before ourselves. What if were to consider the advice of the prophet Micah and act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God? What would that look like. Are baby steps possible?
The challenge of pondering who is Jesus and his identity also reveals who we are and whose we are and this is where the good news comes into play. Consider this: If we know who we are as beloved and baptized children of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, then every day is alive with possibilities, rife with opportunities to die a little to self and to live a bit for someone else.
So, do you know who you are? The server in the tent knew who she was. She was “the chicken lady,” and her job was giving out chicken, one piece at a time. What about you, do you know who you are? Jesus knew who he was. He was the Messiah and his job was to preach, teach, heal and go to the cross.
Do you know who you are? This morning, and quite frankly, every morning we are invited to remember that we are baptized and beloved children of God, we are marked and claimed with the cross of Christ forever, and we have been sent into the world for the sake of others. And this, my friends, is truly good news. Amen