We have a challenge before us this morning: Jesus has upped the ante, thrown down a gauntlet, raised the stakes…call it what you will. It’s a challenge that calls us to get clear about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. We hear this challenge as it’s spoken to the disciples, but it is addressed to us: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us; and “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Those are strong words – perhaps even daunting. In this year we have been reading the Gospel of Mark, and we should be pretty used to Mark’s plain, unvarnished approach to telling Jesus’ story by now – it’s spare, stripped down – but even by Mark’s standards we’ve reached a new threshold.
Today’s passage comes just about in the dead center of Mark. Up to this point Jesus has been teaching, healing, casting out unclean spirits, preaching, announcing the immanence of God’s kingdom, calling and gathering followers, selecting those who will be his inner circle and will receive the most intense training. There have been a few instances of tension, a few whiffs of danger – especially when Mark related the fate of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod – but nothing like what we hear in this passage.
Jesus has taken the disciples up to Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee; if last week we heard about Jesus lying low in Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, this week Jesus has intentionally pulled his followers away from the usual arena of their work and taken them to Caesarea Philippi on the slopes of Mount Hermon. From there, if they looked, they could look straight down the Jordan River valley, south towards Jerusalem - the seat of spiritual, religious and political power.
And Jesus poses a two-part question to the disciples: Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? This is not Jesus having an identity crisis; in asking about identity, he’s asking about the meaning that people attach to him, how they understand him, wanting to know what the word on the street about him is.
And in answering: some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets, they are saying that people are equating Jesus with some of God’s most fearless representatives who stood up against evil and injustice and offered hope to God’s people.
OK, the public is getting the picture in a general way, and there are many people today who would answer the question in the same way, but then Jesus brings the question home: Who do you say that I am? Peter has a flash of insight and says: You are the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Jesus doesn’t say: good job, that’s the right answer, you get a prize, you are to be commended for your spiritual insight…instead, Jesus starts to teach the disciples that the Messiah will suffer, and be rejected by the religious authorities, and will be killed, and will rise again on the third day.
That completely blows apart the disciples’ ideas of who and what the Messiah was to be – they expected a political king who would cleanse or rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, would liberate God’s people from their foreign enemies, and bring God’s justice to fruition - for Jews and Gentiles alike. The Messiah suffering and dying was not the way they understood the plan, and so Peter starts to rebuke Jesus, to tell him off, to set him straight.
But it is Jesus who sets Peter – and the disciples and the crowd that was with them – straight: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Another translation puts it this way: “If any of you want to come the way I’m going, you must say “no” to your own selves, pick up your cross and follow me.” From this point on it is very clear – Jesus is heading into danger, into certain death, and those who choose to follow him will be open to the same.
So why did he say all that? It’s certainly not a very inviting welcome or enthusiastic recruitment speech; who would want to follow Jesus if they knew that rejection and death would be the ultimate outcome? But Jesus had to be as clear as he could so that the disciples would understand that all of the more comfortable and comforting things that Jesus said and did in the first part of his ministry were part and parcel of what would come next.
To restore health and sight and life, to give hope to the poor and down-trodden, to right injustices, and to do all of this in the context of announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom – not Herod’s kingdom, or Cesar’s kingdom – but God’s kingdom, meant that sooner or later Jesus’ mission would bring him into direct conflict with the ruling authorities. It meant that God was king, was Lord, and not the Roman Emperor – Caesar’s claims to the contrary – and that God’s kingdom was beginning to unfold here and now in the lives of God’s people.
The powers-that-be, whether political or religious, could not countenance such a threat, could not stand competition for loyalty and allegiance. Jesus knew this and was doing his best to prepare those who were willing to make the journey with him; they, too, would have to expect danger, censure, rejection and even death. So why would anyone follow Jesus after such a speech?
Because what they had been seeing and hearing and experiencing with Jesus up until this point was the very thing that faithful Jews had been longing for throughout centuries – the signs of God’s kingdom breaking in to human life, coming to fruition in their midst, the ancient hope becoming a reality, here in their lifetime. So the disciples heard Jesus’ words, even if they didn’t absorb them, even if they struggled to put disparate pieces together, and they kept going, kept travelling with Jesus.
So what about us? What do we hear other people saying about Jesus? That he’s a teacher, a prophet, a great religious leader? Or maybe he is irrelevant to their lives, someone they rarely think about? Or maybe they think Jesus is a pretty good guy, but his followers, the Church, has really messed up and has some serious problems. You’ve probably heard all that, and more – and maybe even said some of these things yourself.
But what do we say about Jesus? That’s the real question. Who is Jesus for us? For you? For me? For us?
Do we see in the life and teaching and character of Jesus, the face of God? Do we hear hope in Jesus’ words and an invitation to healing and joy? Do we recognize that the power of God in Christ is greater than death? Do we know that the kingdom of God is not just about heaven, but about earth, as well?
This is what Jesus calls us to, this is the journey he asks us to make with him. He doesn’t promise it will be easy or pain-free; being a follower of Jesus won’t garner us money or status or accolades or earthly power; we may well encounter criticism, scorn, or rejection – death on lots of different levels. But at the same time, we are called to work and walk with the very source of all that is good, all that is holy, the fountain of all blessing, the life and light of the world.
When we walk with Jesus, when we follow him, when he is Lord and we serve him by helping to make God’s Kingdom a reality in our own corner of the world, then we know a peace and purpose and centeredness that no one else can give and that nothing can ever take away – in this life or the next.
In the words of the Covenant prayer from the Northumbria Community, let us pray.
I am no longer my own, but Yours.
Use me as You choose;
rank me alongside whoever you choose;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
raised up for you, or brought down low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all thing, let me have nothing;
with my whole heart I freely choose to yield
all things to your ordering and approval.
So now, God of glory,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine, and I am your own. Amen.
~ Celtic Daily Prayer
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2012