Proper 19B/Ordinary 24B/Pentecost 17

27Jesus 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?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”

34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”

Identity is major issue for many folks.  We want to be identified by our job, our sports team or our social status.  How will we be recognized and will people know who we are in the larger world.  At the same time, We are concerned about identity theft; the deliberate use of someone else’s identity, usually as a method to gain a financial advantage or obtain credit and other benefits in the other person’s name, and perhaps to the other person’s disadvantage or loss.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does not need to worry about some of stealing his identity because throughout Mark’s story up to this point, you see, no one is quite sure what to make of Jesus. In fact, no one even knows who he is. Except, that is, for the reader (and that includes us!), because we’re told in the very first verse that he is the son of God and various demons who recognize him on the spot.

And so, when we read Mark we feel that same sense of tension you do whenever you watch a movie and know something the main characters don’t know – you want them to figure it out and worry what will happen if they don’t. And so, we almost breathe a sigh of relief when Peter, in a flash of insight, is no longer content with viewing Jesus as one of the prophets old or new, but realizes that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the one chosen and anointed to deliver Israel from oppression. Yeah, we think, he’s finally gotten it!

Or has he? Yes, Peter gets the title right, but he doesn’t seem to understand what that title means. And so when Jesus begins to talk not about the road to glory but instead the one that leads to the cross, Peter rebukes him…and then Jesus rebukes Peter right back.

Which calls into question our own understanding of Jesus. Because we have to admit that Peter’s definition of “messiah” is usually the one we prefer as well. Peter, we, and just about everyone we’ll ever know want a strong God,

  • a God who heals our illnesses,
  • provides ample prosperity,
  • guarantees our security,
  • urges our military and sports teams onto victory,
  • and generally keeps us happy, healthy, and wise.

But that’s not what Jesus offers. Instead, Jesus points to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss. A God who meets us, that is, in those moments when we really need God, when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart and we realize that we are, quite simply, mortal, incapable of saving ourselves and desperately in need of a God who meets us where we are. Jesus’ identity proves elusive precisely because God shows up just where we least expect God to be. Which means that we don’t get the God we want, but instead the God we need.

Thus far, Jesus has been talking only to his disciples. But after this encounter with Peter, Jesus calls the crowds (who, it turns out, weren’t too far away) to come closer and listen up. And then he takes up the question of the Christian life, stating plain and simple that those who wish to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross.

But we need to slow down a minute here, because we all too often view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about at all. I think instead he’s suggesting that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us.

Here’s the thing: we tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win.

But it turns out that life is like love, it can’t be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give it away, the more you have. In fact – and as first-time parents experience profoundly – only when you love others do you most understand what love really is. Likewise, only when you give away your life for the sake of others do you discover it. Somehow, in thinking about how to fulfill others needs your own deepest needs are met. Call this the mystery of life and the key to the kingdom of God.

This little story stands at the very center of Mark’s story of Jesus and marks the turn from Jesus’ teaching and preaching throughout Galilee and its environs to his steadfast, even relentless march to the cross. In this sense, it is the pivot point of the Gospel. At the same time, Jesus’ message was and is absolutely and totally counter-cultural simply because we live in east of Eden in a world of quid pro quo and scarcity where there is never enough and the only thing you can count on are the things you own. And Jesus challenges all of that by telling us that the only things we can hold onto are the things we give away: like love and mercy and kindness and compassion.

Which is why this story is simply crucial.  This is why need to reflect upon three questions:

  • What gives you the greatest joy in life?
  • What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose?
  • When you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?

My guess is that it wasn’t something you bought, or even earned, but rather was rooted in relationship, in acts of service, and even in acts of what the world calls “sacrifice” when you are caring for another.

Self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy, you see, but about discovering the real and abundant life – a kind of life the culture can hardly imagine – that comes in and through sacrificial love in service to another.  Another word used to describe this time of life is Forfeit.  Jesus was willing to forfeit his life.  What are we willing to sacrifice in acts of service, acts of worship and acts of caring for others?

Commentaries provided by David Lose, Micah D. Kiel, Scott Hoezee and Nathan G. Jennings