Sunday, September 16, 2018
Knowing Jesus, Knowing Ourselves: Sermon for Proper 19 B
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
After many weeks, friends, we have arrived at this place in the gospel of Mark. We are exactly in the center of it. This is the fulcrum. And the center of this gospel turns on the central question of Christian faith: Who do you say that I am?
Jesus starts by asking his disciples who people are saying that he is, and he receives a variety of responses. The Jesus asks a more important question of his followers and his friends:
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter, never one to hesitate, answers first: “You are the Messiah!” he yells out breathlessly. The term “Messiah” (Christos in Greek) means “anointed one” and had been used before, applied to kings, priests, and prophets in the Hebrew scripture. Even Cyrus of Persia had been called the messiah in Isaiah 45 after he conquered the Babylonians who had conquered Israel. Applying the term messiah to a king meant that he had been selected and protected by Yahweh.
Thus, it may be surprising to the disciples that when Peter calls Jesus the “Messiah,” Jesus doesn’t disagree, but then promptly redefines the term as being one that will lead to suffering and death, not great political and military victory. Instead, for the first of three times in Mark, we hear Jesus predict his passion, his death. Jesus connects being the Messiah with the apocalyptic figure of the Son of Man, sometimes also translated “the Human One,” and says that the suffering the Son of Man will undergo is “necessary.”
This is not what was expected of the Messiah. So the question hangs there: “Who do you say that I am?”
And it’s a vital questions for today, friends. Who do WE say Jesus is? Some people want to rely simply on the facts and strip him of any special power or meaning. Is he a distant figure in history, a religious zealot and rebel who caused trouble who confronted the powerful people of his day and was eventually executed for it?
Thomas Jefferson, proponent of the Enlightenment that he was, supposedly spent some time with a Bible and a knife. He methodically cut out every single verse in the gospels that involved miracles or spoke of anything that violated scientific laws or reason. He ended up with about 10 pages at most of a Jesus who was a moral teacher. He tamed Jesus to suit his preferences and biases, but he ended up with a Jesus who not only wasn’t very interesting but also wasn’t any more relevant than any other wise man.
In the four gospels alone, there are a multitude of portrayals of Jesus, and we are reminded of that even in our gospel today, when Jesus asks his disciples who other people say he is. John the Baptist reincarnated, or Elijah. A prophet of some kind. A no-account carpenter who was the son of a carpenter. A Galilean. A peasant from Nazareth.
Yet we are sitting here because we have the hope and the longing of knowing Jesus as something more—a living, loving, healing, saving force in our lives today. In his ministry, Jesus was many things: a preacher of the reign of God. A healer.
In forgiving sins and sitting down at table with outcasts and those considered to be sinners, he was a reconciler and redeemer, upholding the dignity of every person, even those whom “polite society” would have avoided and shunned and shamed. But that leads us only so far. As we hear in our gospel today, Jesus doesn’t just ask us who he is. He is asking us something deeper, too.
Theologian Karoline Lewis-- whom I personally thanked on Twitter for her insights, God bless her-- focuses on Jesus’s question to the disciples, and applies it to questions of our own identities and our concept of discipleship: "'Who do you say that I am?' is at the same time, 'who will you say that you are?' That’s the rub of this question, the heart of its difficulty. If we only had to provide an answer to Jesus’ question of his identity, that would be one thing. However, answering the question of Jesus’ identity is also having to give voice to our own. Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be. You can’t answer Jesus’ inquiry without revealing who you are."(1)
As Christians, who we are reveals who we understand Jesus to be. In our words, and our attitudes, and our actions, we who claim the name “Christian” for ourselves are ourselves the only living testimony other people will ever see or experience about who Jesus is, and about who God is.
As our psalm beautifully and lyrically reminds us, the heavens are telling the glory of God. Isn’t it important that we do the same? One day tells its tale to another, and together they fly by all too fast, sometimes, but those are the building blocks from which our lives are made. What tale do we tell with our words and our actions? Do we proclaim God’s generous grace and abundant love to others in what we say and what we do and who we are?
It’s important to remember that we are given the gift of each day from God, and what Jesus is reminding us here is to use each one of those days as much as possible making the most of that life. That doesn’t mean living selfishly or over-cautiously. It means that the only life worth living is one in which we are willing to be transformed by the power of God’s grace to live for others.
Jesus stretched his arms wide upon that cross as God Incarnate to remind us that God’s arms are themselves stretched wide to encompass the entire world—no exceptions.
Jesus stretched his arms wide upon that cross as a fully human person to remind us that we are all capable of loving each other that much, that abundantly.
God loves us into being and breathes love into us from the moment of our births, and we are called to try to breathe that love and grace into a world that, through our own human folly and selfishness, is gasping for it.
The power of Jesus as we understand him, as the living Son of God who became human, is that he then calls us to a full a complete understanding of what it means to be human, which is no small thing. In Jesus, God works in the world in human flesh and bone, and then calls us to open our selves to God working in us.
This world really doesn’t need
or a Jesus
who is more like us.
who are more like Jesus.
Our lives, as both individuals and as the Church, tell the world who we say Jesus is. Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson suggests that the life of discipleship that Jesus calls us to writes a kind of “fifth gospel,” making story of Jesus relevant anew in our own lives.(2) There's Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-- and you and me and all of us. How would it change us to keep that realization at the center of our lives, every day?
It takes discipline and faith. The lives of desperation and fear, of scarcity and want, that society keeps selling us and reinforcing in us, create a kind of static in our heads and hearts. We feel that we are never going to have enough. We fear the we ourselves are never going to BE enough. But that’s exactly the life that Jesus is urging us to lay down and be willing to give up. In asking us to lay down our lives, Jesus is not asking us to embrace death, but instead, to truly embrace a life grounded in God, who loves us no matter what. Jesus is asking us to be willing to use our God-given lives for the good of others and for the good of the world.
Deep in our hearts, some of us have a hard time believing that God’s love is that limitless for us. But here’s one thing I have learned, and it’s a precious knowledge. Every love we experience in our lives changes us in some way. Choosing to embrace God’s love for us will change us, too. Now, change can be a scary thing. It’s scary, because any real change in our lives involves embracing a death of our former selves- letting go of all that is familiar to us, that made us who we have been in the hope that we will become something better.
Who do we say that Jesus is? Who do we reveal Jesus to be in the world? We are known by the words we use, by the story we tell with both our tongues and with our lives, as both of our readings today remind us. It’s up to each of us to answer those questions for the world as well, in the way we live our lives, to re- member and live and proclaim through the good news, or gospel of our lives, who Jesus not just was 2000 years ago but who he IS for us, right now in this time and in our lives.
Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Let the words of our mouths and the actions of our lives reflect your grace and mercy to the world, Blessed Jesus, as we live into being your companions and disciples.
Preached at St. Martin's Episcopal Church on September 15 at the 505, and on September 16 at 8:00 and 10:15 am.
(1) Karoline Lewis, "Who Do You Say That I Am?" at Dear Working Preacher, September 11, 2018, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220.
(2) Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, pp. 62-63.
1) Mosaic of Jesus
2) Image from the Jesuits of Singapore.
3) Icon of Jesus healing a paralyzed man.