Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Crossroads...

I am deeply indebted to the writings of D. Mark Davis and Matt Skinner, who I quote in the body of the sermon. And yes, I know the hymn I quote in here is the title of a sermon from March. It's OK. I like the hymn.

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "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 say 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? Indeed, what can they give in return for 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus and his disciples are at a crossroads. No, I’m not speaking of the dusty road there in Caesarea Philippi, in the far reaches of the Judean province.

What we are eavesdropping on isn’t idle conversation between fellow travelers, you see. Through translation and millennia of cultural shifts, we’ve lost the passion, intensity and conflict swirling around that ragtag band of disciples kicking up the dust as they walked with Jesus that day.

Perhaps it starts mildly enough. Jesus asks his disciples what they’ve heard people saying about him – what identity are they giving him? The answers are safe and sensible enough. Much of what Jesus has said and done – calls to repentance, healings, meals served in the wilderness – readily calls to mind John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets.

It’s only when Jesus brings the question closer to home that things get really interesting - “But who do you say that I am?”

We’ve talked before about how the Jewish people in the first century were hoping for, praying for, seeking a Messiah, a Christ. And while today you and I readily identify Jesus of Nazareth as that long-awaited Messiah, Jesus hasn’t done anything that would look remotely like a Messiah to the people of his day. Jesus was a healer, a prophet, and someone who could do might signs and wonders, yes, but the expectation for the Messiah was that he would come to purify society, reestablish Israel's supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness.

So when Peter answers Jesus’ question, it’s not a declaration of what he, and the other disciples have seen, but of what they expect… and they’ve got it all wrong.

One of the commentators I read this week in preparation for this sermon suggests that the translators of the New Testament got it wrong, too, when they characterized Jesus’ response. Our reading says that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

Funny thing is, in the original Greek, the word for “sternly ordered” is the same one for when Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him… so perhaps what Jesus did there was (and I am using Rev. Mark Davis’ translation of the Greed here) “rebuked them in order that they would say nothing about him.”

So if that’s so, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to keep who he really was (and is) a secret, but that he wanted to stop them from spreading wrong information! It isn’t that Jesus is not the Messiah, the Christ, it’s that how they define what those words mean is dangerously wrong!

And here is the crossroads I am talking about. The disciples are expecting a glorious earthly kingdom, a re-established and even more powerful Israel, the beacon of righteousness and Godly purity on earth, farther-reaching and even more powerful than the Roman Empire, which of course would cease to exist when the throne of David was restored with Jesus on it

But the road that Jesus walks goes in a different direction – straight to Jerusalem, and straight to a cross.

Jesus and Peter are on different roads, going different directions. In this sense, Peter and the others are not really followers of Jesus, not yet. They are followers of their own fantasies – fantasies of justice, peace, and the glory of God, to be sure, but when balanced against the hard reality of Jesus’ path – where the Kingdom is gained not through conquest and subjugation, but through the obedience and suffering and the death of its very King.

That’s why Peter argues – rebukes – Jesus, because in Peter’s eyes, Jesus has it all wrong, and the idea that a triumphant, conquering king, someone destined to sit on David’s throne, would do something as vile and embarrassing and permanent as dying on a cross was ludicrous! Dude, get your facts straight! You’re gonna be King, man, you’re gonna re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, baby, Israel 2.0, bigger better and badder than anything ever!

Peter’s road is attractive, even to Jesus – that is why Jesus calls him Satan, because wasn’t that one of the temptations Jesus endured in the wilderness? Matthew four, eight through ten: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.All this I will give you’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’

“Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’

Peter’s road is attractive, bright and shiny, but that’s just glitter. It rubs off, and the road leads nowhere. Peter’s road, as glorious as it seems, is one where the self is ultimately glorified: that throne of David, with Jesus on it, has just slightly smaller thrones right next to it, you see… that’s why so many times in the Gospels we see the disciples locked in arguments over who will be the greatest in that coming kingdom, because proximity is power, and to the self, things like power and influence, along with safety and comfort, are of supreme importance. So yes, Jesus can be king, but he better make doggone sure that I am right there next to him to advise him, y’see. I can be the assistant king… yeah, I like that.

But earthly thrones, no matter who establishes them, no matter how large an empire they rest upon, eventually topple and are replaced, because unlike things like love and grace, power is a commodity, and there’s only so much of it to go around… and there is always someone else wanting it. The Roman Empire fell, just so many empires and kingdoms before it and since.
Peter’s road leads nowhere.

It is Jesus, not Peter, which the disciples – and we – must follow. The formula sounds very simple, especially when taken out of its context. We hear it all the time: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Taken out of the fullness of its context, denial of self is nothing more than another way to walk Peter’s road: self-glorification. People can do this kind of denying themselves even without Jesus, and we do it all the time: deciding to forego an enjoyable meal or a new shirt in order to put some money in savings, diet and exercise… even at extremes like vows of poverty, one doesn’t necessarily need God in order to have very good reasons to do them, you see? And even if Peter’s road has a concept of Godliness at the end, it is a Godliness achieved with no actual help or direction from God; rather it is a godliness we attain under our own power.

The denial of self that Jesus speaks of is deeper – it extends well beyond mere self-discipline. Quoting Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary here, “…[I]ndeed, it calls every would-be follower no longer to live on one’s own behalf and to forsake that which would promise security for oneself… [T]he self-denial that Jesus proclaims involves the renunciation of any obligation to oneself. In Eduard Schweizer’s words, “It indicates a freedom in which one no longer wills to recognize his own ‘I.’… A life of self-denial transcends merely advertising one’s posture as an obnoxious boast. More profoundly, one who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony, for the refusal of a certain way of living directly impinges upon one’s political identity and possibilities.

The denial of self, the taking up of the cross – our own cross, and to the first-century person who heard or read these words, there was no confusion about what that meant – well, were it not for the call to follow Jesus, we would be talking about nothing less than self-annihilation.

But we are called to follow Jesus. Isn’t it interesting that, in this and subsequent passages, as Jesus reveals more about who he is, he at the same time describes what it means to participate with him?

Do you want to know who Jesus is? Follow him. Remember, it’s a way that is open to anyone. What’s the proper response to the truth that Jesus is God’s Anointed? Following him. And remember that we do not follow Jesus by ourselves. Part and parcel of the self-denial that Jesus calls for means that we are defined by our community, the Body of Christ, the now-and-coming Kingdom of Heaven.

Peter’s road is beautiful, but Peter’s road leads nowhere.

Jesus’ road is the Way of the Cross… but, to quote the old hymn, the Way of the Cross leads home.

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