Sunday, September 17, 2006

Proper 19B

Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-30

Who do you say that I am?

Being new on the scene, new in a community, can teach us a lot about who we are, or at least who we are perceived to be. Ever since my family moved to Jackson a little over a month ago, I’ve been filling out lots of forms asking for all sorts of information about myself. Name. Address. Phone number. Marital status. Job title. And lots of places now ask for verification with a driver’s license, so they get even more information. Age. Height. Weight. Eye color.

I am Jennifer. I live in northeast Jackson. I am thirtysomething, I am married, and we have a five-year-old son, and two cats. I have a home number, a work number, and a cell phone number. I have blue eyes, I am five feet three inches tall, and I’m not telling you how much I weigh.

There’s my information. But does all that really say who I am?

Who do you say that I am?

Jesus isn’t exactly new on the scene when he wonders aloud who he is perceived to be. But neither is he well-known – his itinerant ministry keeps him on the road, so that some people have seen miracles, others have heard sermons, and still others have listened to him teach. Whether out of joyful expectation, deep desperation or just sheer curiosity, many people have come out to meet him when he enters their community. Others have kept their distance, suspicious of the man who says and does such strange new things.

Who do the people say that I am? Jesus asks his disciples. And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

The people, it seems, had put together all the information they had about Jesus and decided he was a prophet, one who speaks for God. He fit the description – he announced good news for the poor and oppressed, challenged the rich and powerful, performed signs and wonders, and routinely defied both convention and the laws of nature. A prophet, then? It’s all good information. But does all that really say who Jesus is?

Then Jesus presses further, asking But who do you say that I am? It had been easy to report on what other people said about Jesus. But this was personal. The question was now before the disciples who had been with Jesus in every new community, seen every miracle, heard every sermon, listened to every teaching. Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, “You are the messiah.”

Peter and the disciples had put together all the information they had about Jesus and decided that he was God’s anointed one, sent from God – that’s what messiah means. Their holy scriptures spoke of an anointed one, descended from David himself, a powerful king who would rise to the throne, rescue the faithful, redeem the people of Israel. In some ways Jesus fit the description, although he really didn’t look the part. He claimed to be sent from God, and his words and actions were powerful, spoken with authority, and he routinely challenged both Roman and Jewish leaders. A messiah, then? Good information. But does all that really say who Jesus is?

Who do you say that I am? A prophet. A king. A messiah. Did you notice – Jesus never actually tells the people or the disciples that they are completely wrong. But then, they’re not completely right, either. And so, according to Mark’s gospel, he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know who he is. It’s that he wanted them to know all of who he is, and the disciples just didn’t have the whole picture yet. So Jesus began to teach them.

The Son of Man, Jesus said, 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.

You always have to watch out for that often overlooked but ever important “other information” section on forms. Neither the people nor the disciples had read that part. Who does Jesus say that he is? Not a prophet or a king, but one who will suffer, be rejected, be killed, be resurrected.
This was new information. And it made no sense. If he was capable of signs and wonders, why should he suffer? If he announced good news, why should he be rejected? If he was a mighty king, how could he be killed? What good was a dead messiah, anyway? And on the third day be raised….they didn’t even have a category for that.

And so Jesus offers just a little more information, but in it the key to our being able to say who Jesus is: 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.

The key to our being able to answer the question, to say who Jesus is, is to follow him. Follow him - not just talk about him but follow him, step for step, heart for heart. To borrow from our own prayerbook, it is to confess Jesus not only with our lips, but with our lives.

Denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus rarely leads to Golgotha these days. But there is a real death that takes place when we become disciples. Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means putting to death the belief that there can be any part, any single moment of our lives that is not lived for God. It means remembering in the middle of a board meeting, behind a lawn mower, on an airplane, at the kitchen sink, in between classes, on the laundry detergent aisle – remembering always that we are in our baptism sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. When we follow Jesus, really follow him, not just telling his story but living it as his hands, his feet, his eyes, his heart, his loving-kindness, our lives speak….When we live as Jesus calls us to live, according to the promises we make at our baptism, we learn something and we say something about who Jesus is.

Who do you say that I am?

Do we continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Then we are saying something about who Jesus is. Do we persevere in resisting evil, and when we fall into sin repent, and return to the Lord? Then we are saying something about who Jesus is. Do we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Do we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves? Do we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Then we are saying something about who Jesus is.

It is not easy. The expectations of the world are all too often at odds with the expectations of Christian discipleship. Ours is a consumer culture, in which what we acquire, what we have defines who we are; as Christians, though, we are defined by what we give away. Loving-kindness doesn’t typically get us the place on the team, the big account, the car of our dreams, the clothes that make us look the part. But it is in the world of teams and accounts and cars and clothes that we have to live and survive, all too often we set that cross down in order to get ahead or at least keep up. We can pick it up again later, right, when we feel more secure? Even persistant cross-carrying eventually wears us down, the resistance to loving-kindness is so great, the other demands on our time and energy so compelling.

And yet the mark given to us at baptism, this mark, the cross we bear, does not rub off. Let me tell you who I am, Jesus whispers in our weary hearts. I am One Who Is With You Always. When you are being my disciple, and when you are not, I am with you. When you are loving me, and when you are not, I am loving you, and I will not cease loving you and calling you to love. You are my disciples. Now, who will you in your life, by your living, say that I am?

Writer Molly Wolf suggests, “Whatever you’ve got, give it. You don’t know what price tag God puts on it, after all. It’s probably safe to assume that God’s values are not much like ours, and what seems unworthy to us may please God greatly. But don’t worry about it. Just give whatever you have….it will do.”

Like Peter and the rest of the disciples and the whole crowd gathered around Jesus that day, we are called to give our lives away and take up the cross, the burden that loving-kindness must be in a fearful, suspicious, get-ahead-or-at-least-keep-up world. But we do not carry the burden alone. To all those promises we make at our baptism, we respond I will, with God’s help. And we have the help of one another – look around you, at the Body of Christ in this place, the hands, feet, eyes and heart of the One who bore the cross to the very end….and after three days rose again….

Who do you say that I am?

Jesus is how God so loved the world. We are his disciples, and with God’s help, we take up that love and bear it wherever we go. That’s all the information we really need. Amen.

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