A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 16, 2012
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his dsciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you way that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
It’s that time again: filled with new beginnings of all sorts. New teachers and new friendships, new classrooms and new schools, new adventures and new routines. It is no question that as fall comes upon us we are reminded that life is truly one big ongoing transition, and this time of year it seems that we go though many of them all at once.
For my family’s part, with our oldest now in first grade, we are starting to see both new and old faces, and find ourselves in the midst of those introductions, or re-introductions: names and neighborhoods shared, jobs and interests explored, and then the perpetual after conversation between my husband and myself: “What was her name again? Where did they say they had moved from? Do you remember whether or not they belonged to a church?”
Our Gospel lesson today reminded me a bit of those introductions, as Jesus seems to be having one of those after-conversations with his own followers; “Who do people say that I am?” He asks his innermost disciples. These are the ones who have been traveling with him, witnessing healings and miracles, hanging on every word. It is clear that there are folks who are not really sure who Jesus is – but they seem to understand he is not like other people they’ve known. Something different is going on here. The disciples report that some say he is John the Baptist, recently killed by Herod, and somehow re-incarnated in the person of Jesus. Some say, Elijah, reborn and returned to preach and prophecy. But the real question comes in response to these various theories, as Jesus turns to Peter and the disciples directly: “But who to YOU say that I am?” He asks.
It is a question that hangs for us as well, even thousands of years later; Who do we say Jesus is? The answers are as various and tricky as they were back then. Is Jesus merely a good man? A prophet? Or is he something more? To claim Jesus as Christ and Messiah is fraught with all kinds of challenging and confusing legacies. If I say that Jesus is Lord, then perhaps I align myself with those who championed the Crusades. If I say that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, then do I put myself in the camp with the folks in the news who stood together to burn the Koran in their churchyard? Perhaps whatever I say about Jesus is best left in the confines of my own home. Or perhaps in the sacred space of my church. Certainly better to keep quiet “out there” beyond these walls.
In some ways this is what Jesus encourages, when Peter makes his bold statement that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus tells him to keep quiet, to not tell anyone about this miraculous conclusion the disciples have realized.
But then he widens the circle, turning from his innermost disciples to speak quite openly about the “Son of Man” and his way forward, which includes suffering and rejection, even death. When Peter stops him and rebukes him for his speech, Jesus responds by calling him Satan. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” …
Turning to the crowds, to anyone who will hear him, Jesus continues: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
You see, it’s not enough to know Jesus is the Messiah, but we also must know what kind of Messiah Jesus is…
Jesus is not, as Peter and the disciples may have hoped, a Messiah who would lead them to triumph and victory over the Roman Empire. He is not, as many of his followers may have wished a Messiah who would lead them to prosperity and power. He is not a Messiah who desires for us security, or safety. He is not a Messiah who longs for us just to be happy or kind. He is not a Messiah who just wants us to be good people, who get along. Instead he wants more for us. Jesus is the kind of Messiah who wants us to get our hands dirty, who wants us to give until it feels uncomfortable, and then give some more, who wants us to take risks, who wants for us life abundant: filled with grace and love and passion and courage.
In Preaching the Gospel of Mark, Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm puts it this way: “To deny oneself is to place Jesus’ priorities, purposes, and path ahead of our own; to take up the cross is to be willing to suffer the consequences of faithful living; to follow him is to travel to unknown destinations that promise to be both dangerous and life-giving.”
Jesus is clear that the way we are to follow is not easy. He compares it to carrying crosses on our way to our own execution. This is not the same as some trite understanding of ‘enduring the crosses of our lives;’ Jesus words here are not in-line with those traditions that seem to say that abusive relationships, poverty or injustice is merely a ‘cross’ to ‘bear’ for the sake of Jesus; A philosophy of encouraging those who suffer to endure it until the life to come.
Instead Jesus suggests something more radical. Here he says, if you follow me, you are choosing to walk toward suffering, rejection, even death. Not because you deserve it but because when you challenge the status quo, you will be in direct conflict with the powers that be. Because when you stand up for this Truth, you will incite anger, even rage, and there will be consequences.
Many of you know that I am an avid reader, and that my summer months are filled with a variety of summer books. One of the real treasures that I encountered in my summer reading was this beautiful book of juvenile fiction called, “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio. The book tells the story of August Pullman, as he begins and lives out his 5th grade year, his first year in Middle School. For August, (or Auggie as most people call him), this is his first year of school ever, since he has been home-schooled for much of his life. You see, Auggie was born with severe facial deformity, and has been in and out of hospitals for much of his early years for various surgeries and issues.
Auggie’s face is still noticebly not-normal, and there is much anxiety around his going to school with other kids, and so he is introduced, before school starts, to three other rising fifth graders, who agree to show him the ropes, to make his transition easier. Some of those three live up to that hope, some do not. As you imagine, middle school is not particularly kind to Auggie, for all of the same reasons that Middle School is not particularly kind to most. True to the worst of our humanity, Auggie is mocked and ostracized, left lonely and heartbroken.
But there are a few kids who truly shine. One is a girl, Summer, who sits next to Auggie in the lunchroom his first day of school and then faithfully joins him every day afterward. The other is a boy who realizes that in Auggie he has found a friend that is incomparable to any other.
Each of these young people is tested, sometimes with painful results, as to what they will do when their friendship with Auggie puts them at risk: risk of being treated just as he is – mocked and derided, risk at losing every other friend, even risk at being expelled. And yet when put to the test, the characters in this story somehow find a courage that is rare and risky, and resolve to stand with their friend, Auggie, no matter what.
In the end most everyone comes to rally around Auggie, celebrating him and the way Auggie’s courage seems to rub off on those he meets, giving them the strength to live out kindness, compassion, friendship, faith.
“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.” Jesus says.
Perhaps the story of Auggie comes to mind because we are at the beginning of another school year, or because I’ve been spending time pondering youth ministry in recent weeks. It’s clear that in some ways our adult lives have (hopefully) come a long way from middle school. We hope that when faced with bullies or unkindness that most respectable adults will behave with more character and wisdom than any of us did in middle school.
It’s true that living out our Christian faith as adults feels a bit more complicated. Those times and places we are called to stand our ground are a bit more nuanced, more subtle. And yet in some ways our lives are not all that different. We are still faced with choices, every day, between doing what is right or what is expedient, between doing something truly good with our time or something easy, between living out a a life of faith or merely going through the motions.
Certainly following Jesus is more complicated than joining a friendless kid at the lunch table. Certainly our adult decisions of discipleship require, more from us. Certainly it is harder to live out our lives as Christians when the stakes are so much higher than they were in Middle School.
Or is it? Is it harder as an adult to reach out with friendship to those who are different – different religion or politics or race or history? Is it harder to give up one precious week of vacation to spend it in another country not as a tourist but reaching out to the poorest of poor? Or to stand up and be vocal on the side of inclusivity and welcome and love, when the world so often stands up for hatred and bigotry?
Is it harder to spend one afternoon a week serving a meal to our folks right down the street who are struggling to survive? Or to spend one night every other month on a caravan into New York, not for a broadway show but to share your humanity with those who most need it? Or to give up an afternoon visiting someone who is filled with loneliness and pain?
Maybe it’s not so different after all. Because no matter how old we are, Christ calls us not to the easy or popular but to what is difficult, what is challenging, what will stretch us beyond ourselves to something better than ourselves.
So what truly risky thing will you do today as you follow in the way of Christ? What radical act will you take, as you live out your life of faith? What are you willing to lose for the one who gave everything that we might have life and have it abundantly? How will you follow the one who walks courageously into the world, loving us and urging us to join him? What are you waiting for?
In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.