Dear friends in Christ, welcome to our on-line service for September 12, 2021, the Sixteenth after Pentecost.
Twenty years ago September 12th was a Wednesday and the world was still in a state of shock following the events of the previous day – known now as 9/11. On September 11, 2001 I was just starting a regular Tuesday morning Bible Study when a parishioner phone the church and told me a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center in New York. News that there were three other planes involved amplified the shock, the horror and the disbelief. 2,996 people died and more than 6,000 others were injured. To these numbers add the thousands and thousands of people whose lives were significantly and forever changed because of their relationship with one of those who died or one who was injured.
As we worship together today, let us remember in our minds and in our hearts those who died, those who were injured and those whose lives were changed.
And let us pray that the ways of hate might be consumed by the ways peace. Come, let us worship.
Today, we have arrived at the mid-point of the Gospel attributed to Mark. To this point the Gospel writer has told us of the ministry of Jesus in northern Israel, in and around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. We have read seven-plus chapters that have related numerous stories about the ministry of Jesus, we have heard him call the disciples and we have seen his popularity grow. But here, almost exactly at the book’s midpoint, there is a major shift in Mark’s plot. From now on Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. But before they head south, when they were somewhere near the very Roman setting of Caesarea Philippi which was pretty much the limit of ancient Israel’s northward extension, out of the blue Jesus pops the question, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s aquestion that leads to a very significant teaching.
Come with me now as we join the disciples and the crowd in Caesarea Philippi to hear what Jesus has to say.
Rabbi Sol Tananensaft, a professor of mine at York University many, many years ago now, told us a story. He received a call from a member of his congregation who was somewhat distraught that her teenage son had just declared that he did not believe in God. That is not a good position for a good Jewish boy to take in the eyes of a faithful Jewish mother. For her, that was anathema – it was abhorrent and an abomination! Rabbi Sol arranged to talk with the young man.
“Tell me about the God you don’t believe in”, Sol asked the young man who satdefensively with his arms crossed and eyes looking at the floor. Slowly and at first with some hesitation the teenager told Rabbi Sol about the God he did not believe in. The picture he painted of God was severe, at best. When the young fellow had finished describing a dreadfully unpleasant god, Rabbi Sol responded, saying, “I don’t believe in a god like that either!” He then went on to talk about the wonderful God he did believe in.
I wonder what went through the collective mind of the disciples when Jesus asked the question, “Who do people say that I am?” Perhaps it was something like, “Now, all of a sudden, Jesus wants to talk about his reputation.” Truth is, Mark doesn’t tell us what the disciples thought. What we do know is that Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?” prompted a string of answers – John the Baptist back from the dead, perhaps even Elijah or one of the other great prophets. Not surprisingly, all of these designations associated Jesus with the tradition of prophets whom God had appointed as spokespersons for the divine message to Israel.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He was drawing the disciples into a more serious conversation. And the next step was to narrow the focus to the disciples themselves. So Jesus asked, “But what do you think? Who do you say that I am?” And of course Peter, our dear patron Saint Peter, hit the nail on the head. “You are the Messiah”, he said.
Yes, Peter knew the correct term, “Messiah” but what Peter quickly learned and we soon find out, is that grasping Jesus’ identity is not simply about getting the title right. Naming does not define.
“Who do you say that I am?” is a much harder question than we think it is. Basing our answer on our understanding and the expectations we hold of the title
Messiah are not, as Peter so quickly had to face, the reality of what Jesus’ role as Messiah was to be like. As Rabbi Sol explained to the young Jewish man that his misunderstanding of God led to misplaced expectations of God, so too, Peter’s misunderstanding of the true nature of the messiah led to his inappropriate expectations of Jesus’ messiahship.
Whatever Peter and the disciples may have thought of Jesus – the healer, the teacher, the powerful enemy of evil spirits – or what messiahship meant to them, everything changes here. Now the wraps are off, now the truth comes out – Jesus, as messiah, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and … be killed. There is no way to sugar-coat those words of Jesus, which he drove home saying “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!”
And if having to hear those words of Jesus were not enough, Jesus was not yet done drawing the disciples toward that more serious conversation: following Jesus was not simply a matter of words – answering the question of Jesus’ identity was also having to give voice to their own identity.
Our identity as followers of Jesus is intricately woven into the fabric of the identity we impart to Jesus in answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” We must not be deluded by a false understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. And in light of what it means for Jesus to be the messiah we must not be deluded by a false understanding of what it means to be his disciple. Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, those with him then in Caesarea Philippi and us today, and tells us what following him is about, “If you want to become my followers …”, he said.
If we want to become followers of Jesus we must realize what following him really means – and here comes the haunting news. It isn’t about us. It isn’t about us saving our lives. It isn’t about us guaranteeing our spot with Jesus in heaven. It isn’t about us at all. It’s about seeing our lives as Christian differently – about setting our minds on divine things rather than on human things.
What would happen if we would imagine Jesus’ call to suffer and die for the world as our calling also? What would happen if our faith in Jesus the Christ of God, the messiah, was personal but not private and if that faith sent us into the world to proclaim that God reigns through healing not brokenness, through love not hate,
through inclusion not exclusion, through welcome, through embrace and through the restoration of relationship? What would happen if we set our minds on divine things rather than on human things? What would happen?
It takes a significant dose of humility to follow Jesus and align our lives with God’skingdom. Following Jesus is about the way of the cross, the way of being in the world not for ourselves but for the sake of others. Jesus found himself with the poor and the outcast in life and he found himself poor and outcast on a cross in death. It is there, not where we get for ourselves but where we give of ourselves, that Jesus says true life is found. Only when we can say who Jesus is, the messiah, the one who suffers and dies for others, can we begin to understand that. Only then, when we live our lives as the people of the cross, following that same road and giving ourselves for the people around us, do we find that the edge of our life, where it meets the world, does not break down when it’s taken to the extremes. Entering into the life of Jesus – that is how we save our lives.
Who do you say Jesus is? Do you still want to follow him?