Sept. 12, 2021 Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Mark 8: 27-35.
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning’s gospel reading starts off pretty well for everyone involved; Jesus chooses Caesarea Philippi as the spot where he asks the disciples the burning theological question of the day.
“Who do people say that I am”? And after that, to the disciples directly, “who do YOU say that I am?” It seems intentional that this location was chosen, for it was an area chock-full of temples to Roman gods. And the name itself was a mix of the names of Phillip, son of Herod the Great, who dedicated the town to Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor. What better place for Peter to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the prophesied leader of the Israelites who was to lead them as their warrior king; to free them from under the heel of Roman occupation? But here’s where things start to take a turn; right after this acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah, he tells the disciples that he must suffer and die for the salvation of all God’s people.
This was too much for Peter, who fully anticipated that he and the other disciples would accompany Jesus in his victory over the Empire; they would all rejoice in the liberation of the Jewish people. Peter, overcome with disbelief at this news took Jesus aside, and as the gospel tell us he “rebuked” him. The English dictionary defines rebuke as an admonition or a reprimand. The Greek word, however is “epitimao”, which is translated as “shut-up”! And, in a rather odd reversal, when Jesus then says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”, the same word for rebuke is attributed to Jesus. So, in essence this discourse went something like this; Peter says to Jesus, “shut up!”. And Jesus responds, “no, you shut up!”. This would look like a schoolyard disagreement if the topic weren’t so incredibly important. Poor Peter is unable to process the devastating news of Jesus’ announcement, and Jesus, undaunted takes this opportunity to reach out to the entire crowd to proclaim what they need to do if they are to become his followers.
And, here things get even more uncomfortable, what with all this talk about denying oneself and “taking up the cross”. This denial is less about giving up those material things that people surround themselves with, or everyday necessities, or placing oneself into want or hardship. Rather, it’s more about the dismissal or the rejection of one’s former nature; a “denial” as it were of what we once were, how we thought, how we acted. The “taking up of the cross” then becomes the metaphor for the act of embracing a new way of being, a new identity as a follower of the Way of Christ.
Together this “denial” and the “taking up” constitute our acknowledgement that our former selves must be abandoned and our new existence is one that requires that we have become part of God’s family though our willingness to fully follow Jesus. And, with the understanding that this means our journey requires us to accompany Jesus to his cross. We don’t necessarily have to hang upon it with him, but we must absolutely embrace all that the cross of Christ means for him, for us, and for the world. And act accordingly.
Which brings us right back to the way this morning’s reading began, with everyone in what popular culture today would deem, “a good place”. With Jesus, the disciples, and the crowd engaged in the kind of back-and-forth method of teaching Jesus used throughout his ministry. And since we’re there with the others, perhaps we ought to explore this same vastly important question, one that is central to our faith and theology. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Who do we say that Jesus is? Now, we are all keenly aware of what the wider church teaches about the identity of Christ, in fact, in a few moments we will recite this accepted doctrine in the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed. From Luther’s Small Catechism:
I believe in Jesus Christ, Gods only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven; he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come to judge the living and the dead.
Luther asks and answers: What does this mean? I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
So, there we have it; everything we know to be true and profess to believe in, concerning Jesus. This is the official doctrine of the Church; excellent!
But, does this rather scholarly explanation answer the question for us as individuals, does it really define for each of us the identity of Jesus on a personal level? When he asked the question of the disciples, Jesus was not expecting to hear what the not-yet-established Christian church would eventually come to state as accepted doctrine. He wanted to know what each of them personally believed about who Jesus was, what he came to earth to do, and what these individuals felt about their relationship with him. The other disciples stumbled a bit; that’s understandable, because they were steeped in centuries-old Jewish theology regarding the prophets and others. Peter got it right, at least in some ways. He did accept that Jesus came to free the world, but from the world’s sin and not necessarily to free one small middle eastern country from Roman rule. And while Mark doesn’t include this, Matthew’s gospel quotes the words that Peter utters next, after “you are the Messiah”; he states, “you are the Son of the living God”. Well said, Peter!
But this still leaves us with the opportunity to answer the question of what Jesus means to us as individuals who are called to deny ourselves and take up the cross. Have we actually looked within ourselves to answer this question in any great detail since Sunday School, or confirmation, or the occasional Bible Study? While the Creed does a fine job of defining Jesus in an academic way, have we each composed our own individual theology, our own personal understanding of Christ’s identity and his relationship with us? Our understanding of “who do you say that I am?” likely centered around one of our earliest memories from church. We were taught that “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. Again, just as the truth is found in the Creed, this lovely song also speaks to Jesus’ nature as our loving Savior. But, is this enough, or must we delve even deeper into our personal answer to Jesus’ question?
I submit to you that this is absolutely what we should do, and I encourage each of you to do just this. The more we acknowledge about our individual understanding of Jesus’ identity, the greater will be our ability to “deny” ourselves, that is to abandon our former nature. And, we may be even more willing to “take up our cross”; to embrace our new identity as a Christ follower.
So, you are invited to undertake this exercise; how would you answer Jesus’ question if you were there with Peter and the others? How do you answer it today?
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, we are called to put away who we once were and to begin anew as followers of your Son. Help us to move beyond an external acknowledgement of Jesus as Savior and into a more deeply personal relation with him. Guide us as we answer him when he asks each of us, “who do you say that I am?” And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who commands us to deny our former selves and to take up the cross and join in his mission and ministry. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.