Grace, peace and light are yours, from the Triune God who loves us. Amen.
This gospel story from Mark captures the essence of what it means to follow Jesus.
It tells a story that could as well be happening in our time and place as in first-century Palestine. The timelessness of Scripture never fails to amaze me.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. And they have a variety of responses, as would we.
Today, we might answer this question by reciting the line from the prophet Isaiah included in Handel’s Messiah: Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace. We might say Messiah. We might say Son of the God or the Most High.
We might say the Christ. Or Savior. Or friend, or brother.
We might say he’s been co-opted into the political realm. Or we might say that some people claim Jesus was someone whose followers don’t resemble him very much.
We might say a number of things, were Jesus to show up and ask us.
But this question and these answers are what help us understand the context in which we live. In Jesus’ time, the disciples’ answers reflected the yearning of the people of Israel for the long-awaited Messiah, particularly in the face of Roman occupation.
When we ponder who others say he is, we can keep a safe distance. But when the question is asked of us – well, then, as they say – it gets personal.
And it is the central question of discipleship.
Who do you say that I am?
Sure, we can answer it with a memorized answer. We can recite the party line or the Second Article of the Creed. We can even get really fancy and include Luther’s Small Catechism comment on that Second Article.
But who do YOU say that Jesus is? In plain language? Better yet, in NON-CHURCH language?
I’m going to put you on the spot a bit, and ask you to turn to someone and answer this question to each other: who do you say that Jesus is? I want to emphasize that there are no wrong answers. This is not a confirmation test, but a way to hear beyond ourselves. I’ll give you a couple of minutes because let’s not overthink this! When we’re near two minutes I’ll gather us back together.
[two minutes later]
Thank you for entering this space! After worship, I would love to hear some of what you heard from each other – and please share with others as you are comfortable.
Who do you say that I am? – this is a critical question from Jesus that then leads us to our own identity: who do we say that WE are? And I would pose that question both individually and as a congregation, or synod, or the whole church.
(Don’t worry, I’m not going to have you answer that one!)
But it’s the question that when considered with who we say Jesus is, determines how we will live as his disciples.
And here’s where Peter’s answer makes things interesting.
He names Jesus as Messiah, yes; but I think Peter understands “Messiah” to mean Messiah as king – a great warrior who will drive the Romans out of Palestine and establish God’s kingdom, by force if necessary.
That’s not the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus has in mind.
When Jesus begins to clarify what HE means by “Messiah” Peter is dumbfounded. Didn’t Jesus get the memo? Doesn’t he remember all the Torah and all the teaching about Messiah? What is he talking about?? And he starts haranguing Jesus, basically saying “you need to review the talking points here. Don’t go off message.”
But Jesus will have none of it. Not because he’s playing power games, but because he really wants Peter to understand what he means.
Peter is thinking of a Messiah as an all-powerful warrior, a kind of superhero. Someone who swoops in and fixes everything.
But Jesus doesn’t operate like that. That is a kingdom based on power and repression and even fear – all of which are NOT what Jesus is about.
It’s also a kingdom that keeps people down. Doesn’t allow them to participate in kingdom activity, in all its dimensions.
Jesus instead invites us into full participation in the building of the kingdom of God. Or maybe, more accurately, the peaceable realm of God. For Jesus is not looking to imitate and then overthrow the Romans, but rather transform the world.
But that transformation comes at a cost. And that is what Jesus describes as he continues.
Both Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that truly following Jesus, answering the call to discipleship, meant taking extraordinary risks. But they also knew that NOT answering that call would lead to a life devoid of any ethics and therefore any real meaning.
Here is the critical thing to keep in mind, when Jesus is speaking to the disciples: they understand the cross only as a Roman instrument of torture. To them, the cross means suffering and death and nothing more. And so to take these words at face value can seem like a pretty lousy life, or it can lead us to a martyr complex. Or worse, it can allow us to abuse others by telling THEM it’s their cross to bear.
But we – we read these words knowing the other part of the story – that the cross for us ultimately means resurrection. Life over death. That in suffering and even in death, there can be redemption, and LIFE.
This passage is so easily misunderstood. So easily interpreted as related to an angry God who must be appeased by extracting that pound of flesh. And nothing could be further from what Jesus means, or from the truth of the gospel. Because grace demands no pound of flesh; rather, grace urges metanoia – turning in a new direction.
Jesus names three parts to discipleship, all of which are counter to the culture in which we find ourselves today:
- Deny ourselves;
- Take up our cross; and
- Follow Jesus.
“Deny ourselves” is usually assumed to mean some kind of ascetic living. Live in a tiny home. Fast several days out of the month. Give away all your money.
Nothing is wrong with any of these things, but I’m not convinced they really are denying ourselves. Those are denying things. And we can easily become convinced that by denying things, we are following Jesus.
In the life that Jesus lives, denying oneself means putting the needs of others first, the majority of the time. It’s being aware of what it means to be curved in on, or focused on, the self – and striving instead to live curved out to the world. And it means self-care when necessary.
Putting others’ needs first and attending to self-care are critical to hold together in order to “take up one’s cross.” And I don’t believe Jesus means that cross as a punishment.
“Taking up one’s cross” is not about bearing suffering or problems. Those are universal; they happen to everyone. As a professor of mine always said, “such is the nature of the human condition.” Taking up your cross means living into what God has called us to do, in all its struggles and joys.
I’ve lived long enough to realize that when something has come to me after great struggle, it carries greater value. The experience stays with me longer; it shapes and forms me. Those who have stood by me as I have struggled, reminding me that we walk this road together, have been a part of that experience.
But the third part Jesus names is the one that gives this whole thing direction: follow me.
Because we could easily do the first two with no knowledge or understanding of Jesus whatsoever. Many people do. But as people of God, following Jesus is what changes everything. Following Jesus is also called discernment. Listening for God. Watching for the indication of what path to follow, what words to say, what action to take.
This is the core of the call process in which I am now involved. If both I and the potential congregation don’t discern, if we don’t listen, it’s as if we’ve traded our personal backpacks for ones that Jesus gives us, filled with all that we’ll need to fulfill our call – and then head off down the wrong roads, paying no attention to Jesus.
Jesus may mean for us to be on the same road. He may not. But if we pay no attention to him, then we’re not following him and his call to us goes unanswered.
Sometimes Jesus will say “go, head that way.” Sometimes it will be a while before he speaks. Sometimes he will say “take time and rest awhile. Give me your backpack; I’ll be back with your new one soon.”
This is an understanding of the cross that embraces death and resurrection. This is life lived in Christ. It is difficult, and risky, and can get us in all kinds of trouble.
But Jesus calls us to life lived in God’s love and grace, and that means life lived with and for others and for the sake of the world God created.
My son and I chose the saying “he lived a full life” to be inscribed on my late husband’s headstone. He died young, from cancer. But he DID live a full life. He focused on others, he answered his calling, and he sought to follow Jesus. In those nearly 60 years, he lived into who God created him to be.
Jesus asks us, “who do you say that I am?”
How we answer that question, how we answer the question “who do I say that I am?” and how we answer Jesus’ call is what makes our lives worth living.
Not living a life of safety, but living a life. For that is what God intends, and it is what God in Christ has freed us to do.
Thanks be to God.