PRAYER OF INVOCATION: God, you call out to us in yearning love: through quiet calls amidst the din of human enterprise; through sudden glimpses of the glory of creation; through light shining forth from your Word, from worship, and from Jesus the Messiah. In all places and in all things, you call out to us in yearning love. We have heard you Lord, and we joyfully respond.
LET US PRAY: Holy Spirit, come. Let our hearts and minds be open that as the WORD is read and preached that truth and light will shine in our hearts and minds and your guidance will make us more thoughtful, more wise, and more discerning in our journey as Christ’s disciples. Amen.
Like me, you might have mixed feelings about September. September can be as hot in Virginia as any humid July day, but the colors of the leaves and the spent geraniums tell me that we’re into another season. September usually marks the end of summer vacations and lazy afternoons in a hammock with a good book, or rocking on the front porch in grandmother’s rocker. We expect to have rain in the fall, but not the torrential rains the southern states have had with Hurricane Florence. Then there are rigid fall schedules of school and work and even church that replace the flexible summer ones. Sunday School has started, soon there will be elder training, and it’s never too early to start thinking about Christmas programs and music. The choir has reassembled. It’s good to have you as the wind at my back once again! Still, we come into September with mixed feelings. I think it’s with the same mixed feelings that we come to Mark’s text for our lesson today. We want Jesus to be the Messiah and to change our lives, but like Peter we want to write Jesus’ job description so that it matches our own desires.
On the way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks two questions of his disciples. To the first, “Who do people say that I am?” all the disciples respond. “John the Baptist,” one shouts out. Another voice chimes in “Elijah!” And other voices: “one of the prophets.” That’s the easy question. It’s not hard to report what other people say. But then Jesus asks the difficult question – the one that makes the disciples speak up for themselves: “But who do you say that I am?”
Good old Peter. The eager one. He doesn’t miss a beat. To Jesus’ second question, he blurts out: “You are the Messiah.” If I place myself in the story as one of the other disciples in the scene, I get pretty annoyed with Peter for blurting out the answer, the right one, before the rest of us have had a chance to open our mouths; I mean, we might have gotten it right. Jesus has been busy – healing a deaf man, feeding 4000 people, rebuking the disciples for their lack of spiritual insight, and restoring sight to a blind man. I mean who else could Jesus be but the Messiah? Peter just had to be the first one to blurt it out.
Peter and the other disciples are looking forward to the restoration of the covenant of blessing made to Abraham; if they follow the stipulations of the covenant then God will gather the scattered tribes of Israel fully, in peace, and into their promised land. But the images that Jesus gives come out of the “suffering servant” of Isaiah. Peter denounces this vision, which leads to Jesus’ rebuke: “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus warns Peter, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, and says 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.” Strange words. What can they possibly mean?
First: the difference between divine things and human things. In Christian Century this week I read the commentary on Mark’s passage by Bruce Epperly, the pastor of South Congregational Church in Centerville, Massachusetts. He writes that Jesus is beginning a conversation in which he invites the disciples to consider their beliefs about God and about Jesus, and how these beliefs are connected to their understanding of leadership and power. Epperly argues that Jesus poses a countercultural understanding of divine power as relational and sacrificial. He goes on to explain the difference between unilateral and relational power.
And I quote: Unilateral power builds walls, silences opposition, decides without consultation and separates the world into us and them......in contrast, relational power leads by empathy, inclusion, listening, and receptivity. It transforms the world by a dynamic process of call and response, of adjusting – as good friends do, and parents – to the experiences of others. God saves the world by love and not coercion, by embrace and not alienation. Human beings seem naturally to go to unilateral power, but God’s ways are different. Losing your life means exchanging our own self-centered view of the world and instead seeing the world as Jesus sees it. Losing your life means giving up our desires for power, wealth, and prestige and exchanging them for the radical, self-giving love of God.
When we use the expression “to take up one’s cross,” we use it to suggest that we have some sort of burden. Comedians use the phrase humorously: a mother-in-law has come to visit and has stayed too long. Or we use it seriously if we have a spirited and unruly child or an illness, or a difficult situation that has become a “thorn in our side.” None of us will have the same definition of what taking up your cross might mean. One thing that I am sure of is that Jesus invites all of us to bring our crosses to him and to follow him. He stands with us in our suffering. And we know that the cross is not the end of the story.
Taking up your cross also means suffering for others. For whom would Jesus suffer? For the one who took the money and betrayed Jesus. For the ones who ran away. For Peter who got amnesia around a courtyard fire and denied that he even knew Jesus. For the thieves beside him on the cross. And for us. When we take up our crosses and are ready to suffer for and with the people that Jesus suffers for, then we move beyond labels, and into new visions of who God is and what is possible.
The great theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that Jesus comes “not after all our misery has passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place, but right here where we are standing.” He tells a story from Jewish tradition of a rabbi speaking to the prophet Elijah and asking when the Messiah will come. Elijah tells the rabbi to ask the Messiah. “Where is he?” the rabbi asks. Elijah says, “Sitting at the gates of the city.” “But how shall I know him?” “He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds.” The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But the Messiah unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
There’s the story of the Russian comedian who came to the United States and was fascinated by the incredible variety of instant products that were available in American grocery stores: powdered milk, powdered orange juice, for example. “Why, you just add water and you get milk; you just add water and you get orange juice,” he exclaimed. Then he came to the aisle with baby powder, and he thought to himself, “What a country!”
But the Kingdom of God isn’t made that way and neither are disciples. Being a Christian is not a one-time experience of giving your life to Christ. That’s important, but if you’re expecting a miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character, I’m afraid you are likely to be disappointed. You can’t just add water, a sermon or two, a fellowship dinner, and disciples emerge. Disciples are made SLOWLY, through many trials, sufferings, and temptations. Even through death.
Right after our lesson for today comes the Transfiguration, where we get a clear, although momentary, glimpse of who is asking us to replace our vision of the Kingdom with God’s vision of the Kingdom. On the mountain, Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Isn’t it time we stopped rewriting Jesus’ job description and time to rewrite our own by listening to him?