A sermon on Mark 8:27-38
Just before the gospel reading we have today, Jesus fed a great crowd with seven loaves and a few small fish and made a blind man see. He has been preaching, teaching, feeding and healing people for a while now – he has also been telling the people he heals to not. say. anything. Now he wants to know, “Who do the people say that I am?” The question, I would imagine, helps him measure the effects of his ministry – what are people noticing about me, what are people absorbing? Is my message making sense? Am I reaching anyone?
This question, Who do people think Jesus is, is not important only in Jesus’ immediate context, it is important in our own.
A caveat – I think it can be very dangerous to just plop a Bible verse in modern life and use it. The Bible is filled with rich stories about how God has acted in history and how God’s people have defined themselves through history, of their struggles, their pain, their joy. It is God’s story and our story, but it is important to understand the context in which things were written. Context can change things. However, this question is important in our context even if Jesus didn’t ask it. Who do the people say that Jesus is? What are the people noticing about Jesus, what are they absorbing? Is Jesus’ message getting through to anyone?
In our context – a particularly unchurched region in an increasingly secularized (and divided) nation, who are people saying Jesus is. One answer could be – well, they aren’t. Jesus isn’t a topic of conversation for so many people in our geographic area. For many, Jesus has no space in their brain or heart.
When Jesus is mentioned by people outside of the Christian faith, there are three main conversations. The first is that Jesus was a kind man, maybe a prophet, possibly he had a super close relationship with God, kind of like Buddha or something. The second is that Jesus is a work of fiction, a character created to inspire at best, and keep people in line, at worst. Then there is the third conversation. The conversation had by those who have been wounded by the church or those whose only interaction with Christians is limited to those who are able to purchase air time, to garner news coverage by outrageous acts, or those who use their political positions to push what they consider to be a Christian agenda that does not often reflect anything Jesus actually said or did. In this conversation Jesus is no good at all. Even if Jesus himself was a good guy, the things Jesus inspires are ugly, hateful, mean. For many, Jesus appears to inspire his people to hate gays and people of other faiths, would like women to stay at home and quiet, believes in cutting services to the poor, wants to keep out immigrants, and drives a really nice car with a fish sticker on the bumper. This is the public image many of Jesus’ followers have, and it all too often helps to define who Jesus is for the large community of non-Christians around us.
When the disciples answered who the people thought Jesus was, their comments were wrong, but at least they weren’t insulting. However, the ideas that the people have about Jesus don’t rest on them, on the people outside of our community, they rest on us. It is up to us not only help people understand that Jesus is, as Peter responded, the Messiah, but also to help them understand what that means and what it looks like in real time, in our world, our context.
There is a quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” In this simple statement, St. Francis was expressing his belief that our greatest witness lies in our actions, not our words. With my words, I can proclaim Christ as the forgiver of sins, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the savior of the poor, God among us – but if my actions do not bear witness to these words, the words mean nothing.
So, who do we say that Christ is with our words, and who do we say that Christ is with our actions? When my words say that Christ had a preferential love for the poor, but I continually hide my face from the homeless people I pass on the street, do I really believe that Jesus had a special concern for the poor? When I say that Jesus loves the little children, but buy clothes or electronics made by tiny hands in unknown conditions, who am I really saying Jesus is? How does who we say Jesus is match up with how we live our lives?
Most of us, myself certainly included, spend much of our life concerned about ourselves, focused largely on our own needs, our own desires. We want to make sure we are comfortable and that our families are comfortable. We work hard and feel like we should have something to show for it. This is the word of me, the gospel of individualism – or, as my grandpa called it, “lookin’ out for number one.” This is not to say we are all completely terrible bad or that those desires aren’t understandable. It’s awesome to have something to show for all the work we do, and we certainly have our moments of selflessness, our moments when we empty our minds and hearts and allow God in. We are, at the same time, saint and sinner, broken and whole, ugly and beautiful. It is our nature to want for ourselves even while we know we should be giving to others, to want to make sure we are set before we give to others. But it is in the losing of ourselves, the putting others or the earth or love first when we truly shine, when we truly reflect what God created us to be and what Jesus asks us to be. Think about how you felt the last time you managed to forget entirely about yourself and your needs and were able to let yourself fill up with love, with the desire to help someone or something other than yourself, or the last time you had an awesome moment of prayer or you were looking at a sunset and your brain just stopped because of the beauty of it all. Sit with that feeling for a minute. That is what God wants for us. Not the I feel good because I just bought a brand new car, pair of shoes, computer, whatever, and not the I feel good because I am at one with myself that is sold in so many self-help books and bath stores. The feel good of remembering that we are God’s beloved children, that we have a path set for us and that path is to love unencumbered, to love radically and endlessly and to be loved in that same manner. This is why Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd that, before picking up the cross and following him, they each must deny themselves. When we deny ourselves we let God in to do transformative work, we allow ourselves to love and to be loved.
This is not to say that denying ourselves in this way is easy, the path is quite difficult. There is pain and struggle involved. Emptying ourselves of our needs and desires and letting ourselves fill up with God goes against so many of the messages society gives us. It means no longer keeping up with the Jonses, it means not doing what everyone else is doing (which may be as much a relief as it is a pain). It also means shining a big, bright light on all of the things we think are unloveable about ourselves, all of our brokenness and realizing that that stuff is okay. That we are loved not only in spite of but because of our brokenness. All of this is terribly scary. To live this way sounds dangerous – but this is because we are in our own way, fearing letting go and trusting God fully. When we have learned to let the bright light of God’s love shine in our soul, when we have let go of our need to keep up with our neighbors, with our need to fill our lives with things and we allow ourselves to be filled with love, that is where true freedom lies. When we are free in Christ, living by the example he gave us, our words and our actions both answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” in a way that honors Christ and is a living thanksgiving to the sacrifice he made.
We will deny ourselves, empty ourselves, pick up the cross, take a few steps and decide that the cross is too heavy, that we can’t do it, or we’ll just decide that we really want that shiny new thing or really don’t have time to deal with that person in need. We will put the cross down, fill up with ourselves and take a breather from the work. Then we will try again. And again. When we are smart enough to ask for Jesus’ help, he will bend down and lighten our load. When we put down the cross again and again because it is too hard, God will still love us. Jesus will still love us. And will still walk the road to Calvary ahead of us, willing to die so that our brokenness may be made whole again, so that we may know death no more, and so that we may have new life in him.
I’ve been gone for a while — my summer job was stressful and exhausting in a way that didn’t feed me at all. So, no writing. However, now that I have started my internship as Vicar at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, WA, I am in a much better place to write more. I am so incredibly blessed to finally be doing what I feel called to do and to be learning in such an amazing congregation.