Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sermon for September 16, 2012

Living the Faith We Profess

Mark 8:27-38

A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church

Richmond, VA

September 16, 2012



We discover life in its fullness when we learn to say with conviction who Jesus is for us and then align our lives with that profession.


How could giving the teacher the right answer turn out so badly?  That’s what Peter must have wondered.  “Who do people say that I am?” the teacher asked his pupils.  This wasn’t a final exam—just a midterm—just a chance to check in on their progress.  “Is anything I’m saying getting through,” he wondered.  They class responded.  “Some people say you are John the Baptist.  Some way you’re Elijah.  Some say you’re one of the prophets.”   It sounded like the crowds were at least in the right zip code with their thinking.  But the crowds’ opinion wasn’t important to him.  He didn’t want to know what the polls were saying or what the pundits were prognosticating.  He wanted to know what this small group, these twelve he’d handpicked, was thinking.  Were they learning anything at all?

So, he said, “That’s all well and good.  I’m glad to receive your report about what the crowds are saying.  But what I want to know, what I really want to know, is what you think.  What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”  And like the eager student sitting in the front row who has  read ahead and done the extra credit assignments, Peter raises his hand and says, “I know, I know the answer.  I know who you are.  You are the Messiah.” 

In Mark’s gospel, there are no words of praise for Peter’s insight.  There is no pat on the back, no extra credit, no certificate of recognition for getting the answer right.  Just a stern warning, “Don’t tell anybody.”

That’s an odd response, Peter must have thought.  “I thought that’s what we have all been looking for—a Messiah, someone who will finally free us from this oppressive Roman regime.  Why does he talk to me that way?”

  “Don’t tell anyone.”

Jesus knew something that Peter had not yet learned.  Just having the right answer doesn’t mean you comprehend what the answer really means. 

It happens to us, doesn’t it?  We like to think we can see clearly who God is and how God works in the world.  And sometimes after a little prayer and some study, we persuade ourselves that we’ve gotten the answer right.  You know, I really believe in prayer.  I believe learning to spend time alone with God studying the Bible, journaling our thoughts, learning to be still and listen for God to communicate in silence to us, are all very important elements of the Christian life.  But please forgive me for saying that as much as I value prayer and respect people who pray, I get worried when people claim that they understand completely God’s will just because they have prayed.

If prayer is authentic, it may not always make us more certain—but it can make us more compassionate, loving, patient, and humble.  It can remind us that when we do not fully understand God’s ways with human beings in history, that God’s love will in the end prevail.

I hate to say this, but I’ve met some pretty mean people who claim to pray a lot.  Human history is full of examples of people who are zealous about prayer and think they have gained deep insight into God’s well, and then assume that in their certainty, it is their job to impose their vision of God’s will on others.

I don’t claim to comprehend the nuances of all that has happened in Libya in the past week.  I know we had diplomats killed by Muslims who were offended because of a movie made that ridiculed Mohammed.  And from what I’ve read the movie was made by an extreme Christian who wanted to anger Muslims.  I’m sure both groups claim to have gained insight into the divine will because they’ve prayed and studied.  And neither one is in the right however you interpret this tragic situation.  Both sides represent what many critics of religion are eager to point out as a reason for their unbelief—religion can harm people as much as it can help.

Maybe that’s why Jesus wanted Peter and his disciples to be cautious about proclaiming their new conviction that the Messiah had come in Jesus—they only had a surface knowledge of what that title meant—at least what it meant to Jesus. 

As the conversation continues, we see why Jesus tried to slow things down.  He begins to tell them what kind of Messiah he’d come to be for the world.  “The son of man,” he tells them, “will suffer much and be rejected by the chief priests, scribes, and elders.  I’m not going to be leading a revolution.  We’re not marching into Rome with swords drawn and catapults aimed.  Don’t start thinking of yourselves as great military leaders of some war for Jewish independence.  That’s not what I’m here to do.  That’s not the kind of Messiah I’m here to be.  I’m going to suffer.  I’ll die.  I’ll be raised…but it’s going to get ugly before things get any better.”

Peter was incensed.  He was angry.  He’d gotten the answer right and Jesus hadn’t told him he was mistaken—just to be quiet about it.  So in Peter’s mind, Jesus had the story all wrong.  He didn’t understand what  the Messiah was supposed to do and how he was supposed to do it.  Peter took Jesus aside and chewed him out…rebuked him.  (The next time you get a good chewing out, just remember to tell yourself it’s not that bad, you’ve just been rebuked). 

 But Jesus wouldn’t have any of it.  So Peter goes from being the star pupil to being the goat.  He goes from feeling pride that he’d cracked the mystery of Jesus’ identity to being told that he was no better than the devil, “Get behind me Satan.”  Now who was being rebuked?  

No, Peter hadn’t gotten the answer itself wrong.  He just didn’t understand what the answer meant to Jesus.  Jesus had a different idea about what it meant to be the Messiah.  And if Jesus’ idea of what it meant to be the Messiah was different from Peter’s, that meant that what was going to be expected from those who followed Jesus was going to turn out to be quite different from Peter and his friends had envisioned.  If suffering on a cross was to be the destiny of Jesus, then the disciples had to assume that Jesus was serious about the cost that would be involved in following him.

These are not easy words to live into or apply.  I struggle with them no less now than when I encountered them many years ago.  It seems that Jesus is asking those who follow him to adopt his example of complete self-giving as the guide for their lives.  In those moments when I am inclined to romanticize the potential heroism that might come to those who make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, I find it very hard to embrace this as a guide for everyday life.  Most of us want to live—and live well.  Most of us have other obligations—like families to feed, and loved ones to care for.  Living a life of radical discipleship might be all right when you’re single in your 20’s, but what do you do when you’ve got tuition payments to make for your kids and obligations to a spouse?  And even if you could find some way to provoke the ruling authorities to punish you because of your faithful Christian witness, what good would it really do in the long run?  Would your annihilation really make a difference in the world?

So, we play it safe.  We become content to be comfortable Christians.  I’m not criticizing—I’m there, too.

So, we gloss over this passage and look to Rienhold Niebuhr to help us out, at least I do.  For Niebuhr reasoned that this ideal of self-sacrificial love is helpful, but it is something that can never be fully attained or realized in this world.  We can only aspire to it, let it judge and inform our actions.  We live in a sinful world, not an ideal one.  And in that real world, sometimes you have to strive for the greatest good possible in a given situation, not some abstract ideal of sacrificial love.  So, you may have to make choices not between good and evil, but between the lesser of several evil options—like whether to repel a dictator with a massive army or an atom bomb.

For instance, we hear a lot about poverty these days.  There are some 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., more people in poverty than at any time in the last 50 years.  And I’d like to do something about that—and many of you would, too.  But you know, if Jesus were here, he’d not only try to do something about it, but I think he’d become poor himself.  He’d take to the streets and go visit people in their tents on the islands in the river—maybe live out there himself.  I can’t do that—or maybe if I’m honest I’ve got all kinds of reasons or excuses of why I won’t.

We’re involved in all kinds of violence around the world.  We’ve tried for centuries to solve our problems with warfare.  But when push came to shove, Jesus disappointed Peter and others in part because he wasn’t willing to embrace the option of violence to secure the goals he had in mind for his kingdom.  And the earliest Christians all believed that to be a disciple was to follow Jesus and refuse to kill, thus making the Roman authorities angry because they would not participate in war.  But, I’m not sure I can pronounce myself absolutely opposed to violence in every situation.  I’d like to.  I really would.  But, what do you do if you’re attacked on the street?  Or a despotic ruler tries to advance his cause through domination of others by military superiority?  Aren’t you shirking your duty to defend innocent people if you say, “I can’t do that, I follow Jesus.”  Wouldn’t we be in terrible shape if no one took on the burden of defending innocent life by being a police officer or soldier? 

It’s a lot of trouble to hang around with Jesus.  That’s what Peter found.  Even when you get the answer right, you may not get it completely right.

And I’ve come to believe that there may be different, though equally valid, ways of answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus is one of those people whose identity, meaning, and purpose, really can’t be reduced to a slogan, motto, sentence, or sound bite.

And though Jesus may mean different things for many of us at different times in our lives, we know that Jesus is at the one around whom we want to focus our lives as individuals and our life together as a community.

At our church planning day a few weeks ago at Richmond Hill, someone said that we needed to remember in all we did here at Centenary to keep Jesus at the center.  We didn’t spend a lot of time in theological debate trying to unpack that, though I suspect that could have been not only an interesting exercise, but a fruitful one.  In the end, that is what’s important, isn’t it?  Keeping this strange, compelling, sometimes confusing, often challenging figure at the center of all we do.

“Who do you say that I am?”  That was Jesus’ question to the disciples.  And that is the question he still poses to you and me today.  “Who do you say that I am?”
In a sermon on this passage from Mark’s gospel several years ago, John Buchanan, the pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago said,

“I cannot read this text, the time when Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’  without remembering a lesson my father taught me. I’ve told this story before, but over the years it has become even more important and more precious to me. I had just preached my first sermon in my home church after my ordination. I chose this passage as my text. I chose it because it was the passage on which I had written my thesis to graduate from divinity school. I knew, or thought I knew, everything there was to know about this passage. My sermon was, I thought, brilliant, a small, tight, well-reasoned academic thesis, full of quotes and citations. Afterward, sitting in the living room when the family lunch was over, Dad complimented me, said he was proud of me. And then he taught me a lesson of faith. ‘You told us what everybody else in the world thought about Jesus. Next time, leave some time at the end for what you think.’”[1]

My friends, there is probably only one really good reason for me to invite you to be part of this community of faith.  And that is here, I believe, you will find people who will walk with you as you wrestle with that question, “Who do you say that I am?  Who is Jesus for you?” 

There are all kinds of resources available to help us.  The statements of Scripture, the tradition of the church, the decisions of ecumenical councils, the writings of theologians, past and present, and more than anything the testimony and example of real live Christians here in this congregation, to name but a few.   But the truth is, none of those may adequately speak for or to you.  You may not yet fully understand or even care how the three persons of the trinity relate to one another.  You may not think the early church’s formulation of how the divine and human natures relate to one another in the person of Jesus Christ makes much sense in the 21st century. 

But for many of us, this question is a question of life and death, of whether or not God loves us and cares for us just as we are.  It is a burning question about whether there is any path open to us to lead this life God has given us with joy and purpose and meaning.  It is an unrelenting concern deep within us whether or not there is some truth by which we can live our lives—not truth in some narrowly, exclusive, or judgmental sense, but truth in the sense that we begin to recognize amid all the suffering, pain, and imperfection of our world, and amid all the brokenness of our lives, there really is something worth living for.

And so, I invite you to keep trying to answer that question that Peter was bold enough to try to answer.  The thing I admire about Peter isn’t that he had it all figured out, but that he was willing to take a chance on telling Jesus what he thought he knew.  Yes, Jesus rather unceremoniously corrected him.  But Peter stayed with Jesus.  He stayed with the question.  And what he learned was that Jesus had come to show the world a God who loved the world so much, that he would suffer any difficulty to make that love known.  And following that path gave Peter and everyone else who joined him something worth living for.

I don’t have all the answers, and the answers I thought I had found 30 years ago aren’t the same answers that I live with today.  But I invite you to keep trying to answer that question for yourself.  I invite you to take the risk of walking with Jesus to see where he leads you and what he makes of you.  I am sure of this—if you walk with Jesus long enough, you will find in him the God who never leaves, abandons or forsakes you.  You will find the God who forgives sins, who accepts you as you are where you are, and works with you to make you the very best person you could hope to be.  You will find the God who begins to take your unique talents, gifts, abilities, and desires, and uses them to reflect God’s love to the world.  You will find the God who never gives up on you.


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