Sermon thoughts for Proper 19 B, 2012
Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
Christians are a people bound together, defined and shaped by a common confession: Jesus is Lord. It is a statement that ought to have a major impact on every aspect of our lives, since, if we really mean it, we believe that we owe our lives to our Lord, and that we have given ourselves over to him; that because of our Baptism, as the Apostle says “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Confessing that Jesus is Lord is a powerful statement. It’s a powerful spiritual statement, and a powerful political, social and personal statement. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are necessarily declaring that no thing and no one else is. It could be compared to the marriage vow to forsake all others.
If Jesus is our Lord, then nothing else ought to have that sort of authority in our lives. No government, family member, employer and certainly no physical item; no idol of wood or stone, gold or silver, automotive parts, brick and mortar, chemical or anything else under the sun. Confessing Jesus as Lord makes all other commitments relative, and bound to be judged in light of that first commitment to God in Christ.
I believe this is the explanation for why Jesus asks this question of the disciples at this point and in this place, as recounted in our gospel lesson for the day (Mark 8:27-38). You see, Jesus and the disciples have advanced to what was once the northern edge of the Israelite kingdom, where, at this point, the Roman city of Caesarea Phillipi stood. But this had been a Greek city since Alexander the Great’s day, and it was a long standing Pagan cultic center. Before it was Caesarea Phillipi, the city had been known as Panaeus or Banaeus, and was named for the god Pan, the goat footed god of shepherds and the forest. But Pan was known for more. I didn’t realize it until I was researching this background, but Pan was also thought to be the source for panic, as one ancient commentator wrote: “During the night there fell on them a panic. For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan” (http://goo.gl/ATfdL).
So Jesus and his disciples travel to the fringes of Jewish territory, to the villages surrounding this city–though they never actually enter it. It’s as though Jesus is looking out over the future mission field, and he turns to his disciples and asks “Who do people say that I am?” Who do all of these folks we come into contact with, the people who whisper along the way… even, perhaps, the gentiles of Caesarea Phillipi–who do they say that I am?
And the disciples answer the the various rumors going around, that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he comes to it: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, always eager and often intuitive declares “You are the Messiah.” Peter has declared the truth of who Jesus is, but he has not yet understood the truth of who Jesus is. It’s easy to perceive Peter as a bit dense. People often play off of his nick name, “Rocky” to say that perhaps it was describing more than his manner. I’ve done it myself. But I’m not sure that is fair. It may be that Peter gets chastised in part because he’s willing to go out on a limb, to take a chance based upon his intuition and understanding. Sometimes–when he understands–it is beneficial. Sometimes–when he acts impulsively or without really listening–it gets him rebuked, as it does in the aftermath of the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions.
Jesus is teaching his disciples a new meaning of messiahship, and it’s hard for them to understand. Peter, being vocal, steps in, takes Jesus to the side and begins to rebuke him for his teaching–everyone knows that’s not what’s supposed to happen to the Messiah! Jesus’ response is immediate: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The problem is that while Peter has uttered the words and made the confession of Jesus as Christ, he has not been shaped by it. It hasn’t sunk in. He’s still setting his mind on human things.
Jesus goes on to define what it means to be shaped by the confession: “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'” (Mark 8:34).
This is the same call that God has placed upon his faithful people from the beginning. We can see it in the words of the Prophet Isaiah who describes the abuses he has suffered: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” Isaiah has, from an objective point of view, suffered shameful things. And yet, these things do not define him. Instead, it is his relationship with God that defines him: The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). What has changed is that God has now become one of us to show us what it means to lead a life shaped by obedience to and faith in him.
To take up our cross and follow Christ means that we will be changed and defined by that obedience.
Our confession of Jesus as Lord is meant to change us. This is what James is highlighting in his letter when he talks about the evils of the tongue:
With [our tongues] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:9-12).
James is hammering on the hypocrisy of blessing God with the same mouth that condemns and curses other people who are made in the image of God. When we do such things, we reveal that we have not been changed by the confession of Christ as Lord, there’s still an area of our lives to be examined in light of who Jesus is, and who he calls us to be. And this is a life-long task. We never cease to have areas of our lives to be brought under the Lordship of Christ, because, as long as we live, we never stop having the need to be changed by the Word and the Holy Spirit into a better likeness of Christ.
Peter–the Rock–had a lot of rough edges, a lot of areas to be honed and polished and worked smooth so that he would be able to live out the exhortation in first Peter (1 Peter 2:5) to “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” But he strove toward that goal his whole life and, in the end, the man who had misunderstood Christ’s messiahship, who denied his Lord before the crucifixion, who cowered in the upper room out of fear following it–this same man was able to encourage the better part of his nature, to the part that had recognized Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, and to live his life for Jesus, to the point of martyrdom.
One of my favorite comics is a picture of a group of people sitting around at a Bible study, and one lady in the study says “I’ve never actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.” I think that’s often how we look at Christ’s admonition to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This denial of self is the denial and refusal to feed the parts of our nature that would curse as well as bless. We’re called to be changed, and we can be encouraged by the examples of those ordinary people who have gone before, and have borne witness to Christ. I think Peter would be the first to tell us, that if he could be made a fit living stone for God’s Kingdom, then so can we, if we take the time to reflect on what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.”