Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8:27-38

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
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?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”

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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

This one time I heard a story about a rabbi walking along a road. He is deep in thought and instead of making a right at the fork in the road he walks on the path to the left. Suddenly he hears someone call out to him,“Who are you? What are you doing here?”Shaken from his thoughts he sees that he is now standing in front of a fort with a Roman soldier calling out from the wall. The rabbi answers with a question, “How much do they pay you to ask me those two questions?” The soldier replies,“One denarius.”The rabbi answers, “Come follow me, I will pay you double to ask me those same two questions every morning before I start my day.”

So, who are you? What are you doing here? The rabbi recognized the significance of these questions and wanted to remember them every morning. Likewise, we are often confronted with questions of our own identities. Contemplating these questions helps us better understand ourselves.

In our Gospel today we learn that there was some confusion about the identity of Jesus. People were asking, “Is he John the Baptist or Elijah back from the dead? Is he a prophet?” Many people are still asking this very question—who is Jesus? There are hundreds of books about Jesus. Some claim he was a mystic. Some claim Jesus was a prophet. Others claim that he was an apocalyptic teacher. It is no wonder then that Jesus wanted to know what others were saying about him.

Peter is the only one to gets it right. Peter declares, “You are the Messiah.” We know that Peter is right because Jesus then orders Peter not to say anything to anyone. He wants Peter to keep it a secret. How ironic, Jesus asks people about his identity and then orders them to not talk about it anymore when someone gets it right!

What’s more important is that Jesus goes on to teach them what Peter’s declaration means: The Messiah is not a conqueror, but a servant. Jesus will experience everything about being human, not just the good parts. Jesus will suffer, be rejected, and he will even be killed—but in the end he will rise again. Death does not have the final say.

Even though Peter called out the correct answer earlier, he didn’t actually understand what it meant. Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to get him to rein in those words, to stop saying those things. Perhaps this was not what Peter had in mind as the path of the Messiah. But Jesus turns away from the temptation, returning to his path as he returned to the crowd.

Jesus says to the disciples, the crowd, and to us, miles apart and centuries away: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus shows us that we return to our true identities not in trying to be victorious in all things in life; instead, we gain awareness of our true identities by being of service. It is a wonder that as we allow ourselves to be drawn away from our self-focus, the way of Jesus beckons us to return to our own identity. This identity is not marked in trying to rule or control the world, but to serve it. That identity as a child of God given to us with God’s Word spoken, water poured on our heads, and oil on our foreheads in bpatism. In Jesus, we understand that the Messiah came to show us the path to God. The path we follow calls us to new ways of being. Following is not easy, but it is worth it.

This week’s Gospel passage is a good example of how Jesus met and interacted with people where they were, including rival religious shrines. 

The passage from Mark today points to the importance of refusing worldly wisdom in favor of embracing God’s kingdom rule.

The Mark text gives us a good hint about what is about to take place by mentioning that Jesus went into the area surrounding Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27). There, the Greek god Pan was worshiped at the famous Gates of Hades. It was thought that this cave, which gushed forth a spring, was a place where gods and heroes could descend to the underworld and then return again. The rock face outside of the cliff was dominated with niches for idols, and pagan religious practices, including cultic prostitution and ritual bestiality, were common. Worship consisted of ritual acts meant to arouse the god(s) who would then spare the worshipers for another year.

Jesus offered a better way. Instead of trying to save your own life, lose it for Jesus and the sake of the good news. Then you will truly have life. What good is it if you get everything in the whole world, but by doing so, lose your life? Sadly, Jesus’ call to lose your life so that you could save it may sound like foolishness to all too many today, obsessed with not being inconvenienced or suffering for others. But I imagine that to some in that cultic center who weren’t completely sold on the idea of entertaining the gods of death so they would be spared for an undefined period, Jesus’ words were literally a Godsend.

We may see many of our friends, family and fellow citizens running after systems of power or idols who they think have the power to save. If only we  debase ourselves or compromise a little bit, we’ll secure some temporary safety. This isn’t what Jesus says or wants. We are to flee from stupid, foolish, ungodly idolatry (Ephesians 5:6, 11, 17) and not trust in other powers for safety. We don’t compromise with the forces of death. Jesus didn’t promise safety or convenience. He promised that if we lose our lives for him and for his good news of God’s loving salvation for all people, then our lives will be saved.

I think that the message here for us today is that when we actively choose what we seek to gain, there will be things that we passively, maybe even unknowingly, “give up” because of that choice. In other words, we may not have realized the particular consequence of our active choice, but it happens all the same. Jesus’ rhetorical question is actually a profound warning: choosing “glory” from the world means you implicitly reject true glory—the glory of God. We ought to “want it all,” not the whole world, but the life found in Christ. Hard as we try to compromise or hold onto both, we can only have one aim.

As I have mentioned before one of the biggest stories to come out of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer was Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the artistic gymnastics team competition for mental health reasons. Of course, there were some who, like Peter with Jesus, were ashamed of her for her choice; they did not like that she was bucking the mold and image of American success. They thought of it as weak and selfish, and against the ethos of American grit and determination that overcomes all weakness. 

Simone’s decision, though, was to choose a different way. The implicit, passive consequence of her choice meant that her team would not have her scores, but explicitly, Simone chose her life. Professional gymnasts have explained how, for an elite athlete of Simone’s caliber, she could easily have been paralyzed by trying to do what she does while suffering from “the twisties.” 

We saw that by choosing her own safety in that moment, she was choosing to trust that her life is more important than a gold medal. After all, what would it profit her to have a team medal, any medal for that matter, but lose her ability to walk?

It turns out, this choice to view her life as bigger than Olympic performance enabled her to experience an even deeper truth. To use the image that Jesus uses, Simone realized that her life-force has nothing to do with her accomplishments at all. Like Simone, we can think that’s true, but until we have to make some decisions based on it, becoming wholly dependent on the grace of God, then let ourselves melt into the mold of discipleship and its practices, we won’t know it as true.