Sermon – September 13, 2015 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 16
Who do you say that I am?
Mark 8:27-38

With regular frequency, it seems that Jesus ends up on the cover of a national magazine here and there, asking the question that Jesus posed to the disciples in our Gospel lesson. Who is this guy? There are dozens of answer to that question, depending on who you talk to. He is regularly called a first among equals, with religious figures like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., or the other usual suspects among the saints. He is sometimes described as a revolutionary, a social reformer, a visionary sage. It is often claimed as the favorite of political parties, again, depending on whom you talk to. I’ve seen some silly depictions of Jesus, the worst of which has him looking pensively out on the horizon with his lever action rifle in his hand.

It is, of course, a question that we wrestle with from generation to generation.  Jesus knew the risk of misunderstanding him and I think that was a little of what was going on in our gospel story this morning.  Jesus wanted to be sure that there was no misunderstanding of who he was and what his purpose was.  He wanted to be clear about what it meant to be his disciple.  So, he posed the questions, “who do the people say that I am . . .  and who do you say that I am?”  A question for then and now.

Answering that is not as easy as it sounds.   One of the mistakes we make out of our humanity is trying to cast Christ into a role that fits our needs, our criteria, a Christ that is completed by our expectations.  Turn on the television or radio sometimes and you will hear that Jesus is a cash cow, there to confirm our holiness so that God would bless us with wealth. “Who do you say that I am?”   Others would confine Jesus within the boundaries of rigid orthodoxy, “unless you see Jesus through my lens, you have no right to him.”    Sometimes, we just don’t know quite how to answer that question, because it’s huge.  Huge because what’s at stake is our own understanding of who we are in the universe, and who are neighbor is, and who God is why God would bother.  Sometimes it’s a frightening question.    Sometimes because logic fails, . . .  it’s too mysterious.. . .  we’ll come back to that.

Who do people say that I am?   The disciples this morning give him the word on the street.  Well, Elijah.  Pretty good call.  Legit prophet, precursor to the Messiah.  Close, but no cigar.  How about John the Baptist.  Again, an OK choice, John the prophet proclaimed the coming kingdom, and preached the baptism of repentance. . . . legit prophet.

But Peter. . . .  Peter blurted it out.   You are the Messiah. . . . . . . . . there must have been dead silence. . . the Messiah.   Now, we have to understand that part of the problem of defining Christ . . . is that we hear differently . .  have different understanding.  At the time, the notion of the Messiah was one like King David who would come to lead the people, redeem the people, reinstate them as the chosen ones, and who would help to liberate them from the occupiers and oppressors.  That’s the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, I think, that Peter had in mind. . . . .

But Jesus wanted to be sure they understood, so he began to teach them that he must be rejected by the very people he needed to confirm such a claim that he was Messiah, rejected by the only ones who could legitimately support that claim . . . and then he went on about dying and rising . . . and it was too much for Peter.

So he called Jesus aside.   Wanted to give him a little schooling.     When I was involved in politics, I was on the senior staff of the congressional office. . .  and part of my job, really, was to protect the candidate from himself. . . so sometimes I would take him aside, like Peter, and say, “Listen, you really can’t call your opponent a lying pig. . . “   Thought I was so smart.   Of course, the congressman would step out and say, not only is he a lying pig, he’s ugly too.  So much for that!

Peter thought he would give Jesus a little schooling, but he got a licking. . . . “Get behind me Satan!” . . . he got a licking because too much was at stake for misunderstanding, too much love cast about, too much love, too much pain, to much sacrifice, too much hope for misunderstanding. . . . so he gave Peter the strongest rebuke . .  so we would understand that he loved us so much that he would suffer the rejection and humiliation of the very people he needed to validate his ministry, even over our objection, that he would be killed and humiliated and die on behalf of those to whom he poses the question, and then would rise again and bring them all up with him in faith.   Too much at stake to misunderstand who he is.

We gather every Sunday, we pray, we study the Bible, to hear again and again to hear who this guy is because if we don’t we will put him in our own box.  It is human nature.  We will create a Christ who is convenient for us.   Jesus understands us so he says, those who would follow me must take up their cross, share with me this ministry, understand what it means to be a disciple . . .  sometimes that cross is to let go of the things that would bind us to another definition of Christ and free us to be his followers in truth.

As soon as we begin to cram him into these boxes and confine him to our own limits, we will suffer the same rebuke as Peter . . .  if we are lucky.   Worse, we will drag people along with us chasing a false Christ, one easier to swallow, bearing a false and shallow hope.  More pliable and amenable to our demands, but not the Christ of the cross.

It is important that we come back to revisit this story of love again and again, because we hear differently, because we’re different people.   I attended a conference once and one of the presenters told us this. . . that in a congregation this size, there are six to 15 different lifestyles, married, single, gay, young, older, widowed, retired, divorced. . . you get the picture. . .  we each have different world view. . . and if we pack Jesus into a box that fits only our criteria. . . well, it’s not the Christ who came to be one with the world.

He is the Lord of all, the one who calls us into a common community, who says because of me, you belong here, this is your place today . . .  and I’ve gone to prepare a place for you tomorrow. . . .  Crazy, isn’t it?    Mysterious.

The good news today, folks, is that mystery is back.   All these years we have struggled to confine the love of God in Christ to our definitions and we constantly run up against the limits of our language and our thought and our own capacity to love and we restrict Christ by that.

But the mystery of this great gift is back, God loves us, we old vain, stumbling, sometimes faithful, most time defiant people of God, loves us. . . . that’s a mystery.

Five hundred years ago, God was the center of all truth . . .St. Anselm said, “I believe so that I might understand.”   A couple of hundred years later came the Enlightenment .  Reason was God.  I think, therefore I am.  I don’t need God.  I am self-referring and self-understanding.   All things provable are truth, all the rest is not.    Vestiges of that linger still  Now, at a time when science and technology have advanced beyond our wildest dreams, they prove to us the mystery of God’s divine order.   Mystery is back and at the van are the physicists who peer into the farthest reaches of understanding. . . .  and find. . . . mystery.

Yet, all this can’t get us to the mysterious heart of God’s love. . . that the God of the universe comes to live with us and identify with us, and suffer with us so that he would always be this close.   Remember how it goes, “the Son of God though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness. . . . so he would always be this close. . . . mystery. . . . who died and on the third day rose again . . . mystery.

Who do you say that I am?  The one who comes to us with this mysterious, uncompromising, unbending, sacrificial love.   And he says, now that you know who I am, here is who you are.   If you are to believe, to follow, to buy this.  If you are to step into this mystery, you are one who is bound by a different cord  to a higher power and a greater truth, and you will have to cut some of those other cords, free yourself from that which binds your life, and free yourself to soar with the mystery of God’s love. . .  that’s the cross we often must hoist, our struggle against those things that keep us from loving him and each other.

The consequences of that love is the peace which passes all understanding.   This is not mystery for mystery’s sake, not power for power’s sake, not cosmic drama because God is bored, but because God loves you and me.  And wants for us wholeness and community and place and peace.    Who do you say that I am?   The one who loves us beyond all understanding.