(a sermon for September 12, 2021, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 8:27-38)
“’Who do people say that I am?’”
The question was bound to come up sooner or later. After all, at this point in Jesus’ ministry, his disciples had been traveling with him for quite some time; and along the way they’d seen some amazing and wondrous things. They’d watched as Jesus cured the sick and the lame, casting out demons; they were there when he’d restored the life of little girl that everyone else thought had died; and just a couple of days before they’d helped Jesus to feed some 4,000 people with nothing more than seven loaves of bread and a few fish! Not only this, but they’d been there day by day as Jesus taught all about the Kingdom of Heaven and moreover, they had first-hand experience as to how he made those teachings real in the ways he welcomed in those that the rest of the world – most especially the religious powers-that-be – were so intent on shutting out; and in that regard, the disciples could also bear witness to the many circumstances in which Jesus went head-to-head with the local Pharisees and Scribes!
But something else was happening, and the disciples were certainly taking notice: with every passing day the crowds were growing. Everywhere they went, all these people: people who wanted, who needed to see this man Jesus; people clamoring around him day and night that he might heal their diseases, bless them and show them the truth. And the thing is, at this point none of these people had any real and clear understanding as to who Jesus was, but every one of them had an opinion; so when, in our text this morning, Jesus asks, “’Who do people say that I am?” – what’s the crowd out there all saying – we already know that his disciples had a great deal to share, because they’d pretty much heard it all. Some were comparing him to John the Baptist; others saying that Jesus hearkened back to Elijah; and of course, there were a great many who were calling him a prophet, one who was offering up a true sign of God’s return of Israel to its glory.
And actually, it’s a fair assessment of how Jesus, as we might put it today, was “trending.” But it turns out that this question is only a prelude to the real matter at hand, because of what Jesus asks next: “’But who do you say that I am?’” And though Mark does not specifically point this out, you have to imagine that what follows is a moment of profound silence and great discomfort; because, friends, we all know that it’s one thing to talk about what everybody else is saying about this person standing right there in front of you, but it’s quite another to say what you’ve been thinking in front of that person! So now we have these disciples all looking to the ground and wondering who might be the first among them to speak up! Someone has to answer Jesus’ question, someone has to say something here, because something needs to be said;but who… and what?
The Rev. Martin Copenhaver – pastor, author and one-time president of Andover-Newton Theological Seminary – actually compares this moment to “how hard it is to be the first to say ‘I love you’ to another, to be the first to break the silence with such a large truth.” Copenhaver writes that “one does not say anything like that for the first time without sweaty palms and a dry mouth. We may hesitate, not because we doubt that the words are true, but because we know how powerfully true they are, and because having spoken the truth, we can no longer ignore its implications for our lives.” In other words, to say it is to claim it; it is to make a commitment to the truth of it; which is what makes it all the more monumental that it’s Peter who finally breaks that long moment of uncomfortable silence with a single, simple declarative sentence that speaks volumes about his faith, and ultimately, about yours and mine as well.
He says, “’You are the Messiah.’” You are the Christ.
Do you see here the difference between the first question that Jesus asks, and the second? In the first instance it’s all pretty objective, isn’t it; I mean, you look to all the people out there and all the stories that have been circulating, you collect your data and then make an assessment as to the identity and the relevance of this Jesus. In one sense, we so-called “post-modern Christians” tend to do much the same thing in our approach to scripture; and truthfully, the gospel narrative makes it, if not easy, then at least somewhat logical to make some kind of statement as to who Jesus is: from the biblical perspective, out of a historical context, from a cultural point of view, and based on the experiences of those who encountered Jesus in his life and ministry; in other words, there’s a great deal that we can say about what the world thinks about Jesus!
But what we get from this text is that ultimately, that’s not what Jesus is interested in knowing from us; because the kind of answers that come from a question like, “Who do people say that I am?” never require from us any kind of commitment! Jesus wants something more from us; and when Jesus looks squarely in our eyes and asks, “What say you?” we no longer have the luxury of basking in the comfort of what the late Pete Seeger used to refer to as “maintaining our academic objectivity.” To quote Martin Copenhaver again, “this is a question that demands from us not such much the insight of our minds as the allegiance of our lives.” To say it is to claim it as your own, and that’s the hardest thing of all; but in the end, that’s everything!
You know, whatever else one might say about the reason we all come together here on a weekly basis – worship, fellowship, service – in large part, I think, our being together as the church comes down to a desire to nurture within ourselves a true, living faith. But a living faith, by its very definition, cannot be static or inert or without any source of power; it needs to have the presence and the power of Jesus Christ in order for it to thrive.
In other words, we can talk and sing about Jesus who is Lord and Savior, but the words and the melody will inevitably ring hollow unless we are able to claim him as our Christ, our Lord, our Savior. We can call him Redeemer, Shepherd or King, as so many others have done for centuries; we can proclaim along with generations of the faithful, both past and present, that he is the Bread of Life, Living Water, the Light of the World, the Lamb, the Anointed One, the Son of Man and Son of God, the incarnate Word! But it’s only when we confess and claim those names as our names for Jesus that they really mean something, because only then do they reflect the power and the experience of our faith in him. When Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” he’s wanting to know if what we’ve seen and heard and experienced in him leads us to know who he is, so that we might truly follow him.
Therein lies the other part of this morning’s reading: what’s interesting is that in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus responds to Peter’s confession by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” and it will be upon “this rock,” (16:17-18) that is, Peter himself, that his church will be built; there’s real joy in this moment! Mark, however, takes a much more serious stance; with Jesus immediately and “sternly” ordering Peter and the others “not to tell anyone about him;” and then Jesus goes on to talk in some detail about how “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering… be rejected… and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This, of course, is when Peter pulls Jesus aside to “rebuke” him for his words; only to get a pretty harsh response from Jesus who is quick to point out that Peter, for all his passion, was setting his mind “not on divine things but on human things… 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.”
And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? If you say it, you claim it, and if you claim it, you own it; you commit to it, and you’re going to have to live unto that claim. When you claim Jesus, yes, there is going to be great joy that will make your life brand new, bringing it a fullness you have never known before; with a true and redeeming love. But in confessing Christ, friends, you also choose to live unto Christ. You’ll be walking the way of Christ, which is the way of the cross: the way of risk and self-sacrifice that leads us along pathways of what is right, and godly, and ever and always centered on the kingdom that Christ proclaims.
And make no mistake… this is no small assertion on our part!
Some years ago, I was approached by a family in the church I was serving if I might offer the sacrament of baptism to their newborn baby daughter. Actually, the girl’s mother was a member of our congregation; her husband – also the baby’s father – happened to be of the Jewish faith; but they assured me that they were both very much on the same page where this was concerned, and the father said that he was supportive of their decision to have their child raised in the Christian faith; and in fact, planned to stand up with his wife and the rest of the family at the baptism itself! And so we met together beforehand so that we could go over the baptismal service and the vows of faith the parents would have to make as part of the sacrament:
“Do you desire to have your child baptized into the faith find family of Jesus Christ?” Check. “Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of evil and to receive the freedom of new life in Christ?” Okay, fine. “Will you teach this child that she may be led to profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” Ummmm… wait a minute… “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciples, to follow in the way of our Savior…” Whoa! Stop right there!
Well, you guessed it… the father couldn’t do it; he just couldn’t bring himself to publically make that kind of confession of faith! And it wasn’t, friends, so much because he was Jewish, since in truth he wasn’t orthodox by any many means and really hadn’t practiced his faith in any meaningful way since he’d been very young! No, it was something much more immediate than that; as he explained it to me, “I suddenly realized that what you were asking; what I was being called to say and to promise… it was far more than just words… it was real.”
“Who do you say that I am?” It’s said, you know, that this one question serves as a hinge on which the whole structure of the gospel swings; Jerusalem, the cross, resurrection, even the “great commission” of the disciples: everything else that is to come proceeds from Jesus asking this question; it’s the moment in which things become real for anyone who would claim the name of Jesus in their lives.
The thing is, it’s still the question that Jesus asks you and me today. And how we answer, beloved, serves as the hinge of our lives: how it swings is the difference between merely espousing a philosophy and having a living, vibrant faith; whether Jesus is just going to be for us another good man confined to the pages of a history book, or if he’s the one who sets the tone for how we live, the one toward whom all of our allegiances and priorities will naturally flow.
So…here’s Jesus; and he’s looking each one of us square in the eye; and he’s asking… what say you?
My hope and prayer for us all this morning is that we know the answer… and that we’re ready to speak up with confidence, with joy and in faith.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.