13 September 2015

Getting Real about Jesus

Mark 8:27-38

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 13th September 2015

“On the way he asked his disciples…” (Mark 8:27). 

On the way. 
Not before they left Bethsaida. 
Not after they arrived.
On the way. 
In transit. 
On the road. 

Where were they going?  Caesarea Philippi.  You need to know something about this town (and region).  It was named to distinguish itself from Caesarea, the seat of the Roman government, which was situated along the Mediterranean coast.  Caesarea Philippi was originally known as Paneas, in honor of the sacred grotto or cave of the Greek god Pan located there.  Today, you can stand in the grotto and peer down deep into the blackness of the cave, believed to be the entrance into Hades, into the underworld.  Centuries before Jesus the place was associated with the worship of the Baalim, the ancient gods of the Semitic people.  Nearby, Herod the Great (d. 4 BC) built an enormous temple honoring the divinity of Caesar Augustus (63 BC–19 AD), an Augusteum. In Jesus’ time the region was a Gentile place, an unclean place, a transgressive place.  There were temples to many gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon; none for Yahweh.  After Herod’s death the Roman Senate divided his kingdom into four smaller kingdoms, forming a Tetrarchy, with one kingdom given to each of Herod’s sons.  The city of Paneas was rebuilt by Herod Philip (d. 34 BC) and named by him Caesarea, Caesarea Philippi.

That’s where they’re heading.  That’s where Jesus is leading them.  Beyond—beyond the familiar, beyond their comfort zones, beyond the religiously and socially acceptable (from a Jewish point of view), to this secular place, this profane place, this unclean, unsure, uncertain, deeply disturbing place.

And on the way, as they journey from one place to the next, from the known to the unknown, in this in-between place, this threshold place, this liminal place between origin and destination, Jesus asks them two questions.  Thresholds, these liminal places—liminal, from the Latin, limen, meaning “threshold”—are by nature unsettling (or can be).  At least the Romans thought they were.  That’s why Romans often marked the thresholds of their homes with oil or had little shrines near the doorways of their homes or sought the blessing of a god whenever arriving or leaving home.  Doorways, thresholds, places od transition are sacred.  These places on the way, where people are in transit are liminal places—think of airports or train stations or bus stations—and they’re often places where all kinds of things get stirred in us.  That’s why a liminal place is often a good place to talk about serious things, to explore ultimate concerns. 

“And on the way [Jesus] asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’”  Away from the crowds pressing in on Jesus, away from the Jewish community, away from tradition and culture and convention, out there in the country, on the road, they’re free to talk.  You can imagine them walking at a comfortable pace, perhaps a little nervous, filling the time and silence with small talk or chatter, passing the time.  You can imagine Jesus saying, perhaps in a moment of extended silence, “So, what’s the word on the street?  What are you hearing?  What are people saying about me?”  They open up and share.  “Some believe you’re John the Baptist.  Can you believe that, Jesus?  We hear some say you’re Elijah.  A lot of people say you’re one of the prophets, not sure which one.”

Some more silence.  Then I imagine that Jesus stops walking, turns to them and asks, “But who you do say that I am?  What about you?”  Peter, always quick to open his mouth, often without thinking, blurted out, “You are the Messiah.”  Then Jesus “sternly ordered them” not to say a word about this to anyone.

Jesus takes advantage of this teachable moment in this liminal space out there beyond convention and begins to share how the “Son of Man,” meaning himself, “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.”   Jesus says all of this “quite openly,” Mark tells us.  There’s nothing to hide, it’s out there for all of them to hear.  But it was too much for Peter, who has his own agenda, and so he took Jesus aside and asked, “What, are you crazy?  What are you doing?  You can’t say stuff like this, Jesus.” 

Jesus turns away from Peter, looks at the rest of the disciples, and rebukes him—without looking at him—“Get behind me, Satan! [Get out of my sight.] For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

And then, remarkably, Jesus turns away from the disciples and calls out to the crowd, now looking on, “If any want to become my followers”—implying that some of these disciples obviously don’t want to be his followers—“let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).  And we know what comes next, these searing words of call and judgment and warning, “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” (Mark 8:35-38).

At one point—or many—on the way of our lives we, too, have to make a confession.  At one point—or many—along the journey of our lives we have to answer the two questions Jesus posed to his disciples.  In Mark’s gospel, the place of discipleship is always “on the way.”[1]  On the road.  That’s where the confession is made.  When we’re moving.

Who do people say that I am?  People.  The crowd.  The collective.  External voices.  It’s important for us as contemporary Christians to ask the same question.  What are people saying today about Jesus?  What’s the word on the street where you live, where you work, here in the United States, and in different parts of the world?  If we’re going to proclaim the gospel we need to understand our audience, appreciate the questions and concerns and (mis)perceptions people have of Jesus and his church—and there are many. 

We don’t live in isolation.  We are all social animals. We exist simultaneously in multiple communities.  And these communities shape us.  Your social context informs and structures the way you see yourself and the world, which includes something about your faith commitment. 

Think about the many publics you inhabit on a given day.  What’s being said about Jesus?  In your marriage?  In your family?  Among your neighbors?  Your church family?  Your co-workers?  Your friends?  What are people saying and how are “the people” shaping your own views and perspectives?  Do you share their views?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  Help or hindrance?

And, then, what about you?  Jesus’ question goes deep and plumbs the depths of our souls.  But who do you say that I am?  It’s important to know what everyone else thinks and believes, but it’s not essential.  At a deeper level, though, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters most is what you say.  Yes, it’s good to know what others think.  It’s good to honor and value their viewpoints.  But you can’t stop there.  You have to go deep.

“Are you there?”

One of my professors and mentors at Princeton Seminary, James Loder, would often stop in the middle of a heavy, demanding lecture and ask us, “Are you there?”  It woke us up.  Some were, no doubt, sleeping (although I don’t know how anyone could sleep during one of his lectures).[2]  By asking this question, Loder was calling us back to ourselves so that we would be present, there and not somewhere else, in the moment, so that we would become aware of ourselves, not in a selfish way, but in a self-affirming way that then allowed us to participate more fully in what he was offering us.  Jesus seems to be doing something similar.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you think?  Are you there?

One of my favorite writers is Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the nineteenth century Dane, philosopher/theologian.  Yes, he could be a bit of a downer.  But what a generous heart and extraordinary mind he had.  He was a man who had an extraordinarily deep commitment to Jesus Christ.  Kierkegaard often said, “The crowd is untruth.”[3]  That is, “The crowd is a lie.”  He was always suspicious of crowds, of the so-called wisdom of the collective, what everyone thought or believed (including the church).  Kierkegaard knew that the majority is often wrong.  I tend to share his view.  I, too, am wary of crowd wisdom.  We’re all susceptible to the influence of the crowd, when we worry too much about what people say or think about us.  Why should we care what others think or believe about us?  If we did this all the time we would lose ourselves (and not in a good way) in what everyone else thinks and believes about us.  We would then lose the capacity to think and believe for ourselves. 

What about you?  Away from the crowd, when you’re not here in worship, who is Jesus to you?  Not what your spouse thinks or your family or your parents.  Not what your church school teachers taught you (despite how well meaning they were and are).  Not what your pastors believe.  Not what the church believes.  At one point—or many—we have to answer this question for ourselves—existentially, personally, individually, from our hearts, from our souls, from the depths.  Not what you think you ought to believe.  Not what you think the Bible says you need to believe.  Not what you think you’re supposed to confess when you stand to recite the creed.  What do you think?  Who do you say Jesus is?  And, why?  You have to put words around it.

There comes a time when we have to get real about Jesus.  Each of us, on the way of our lives, need to figure what Jesus means to us.  Who is he to you—really?  Teacher? Moral exemplar?  Son of God?  Prophet?  Fully human?  Fully divine?  Fully human and fully divine?  God in the flesh?  Lord?  Christ?  Messiah?  And what does it mean to answer, however you answer, and what difference does it really make in your life?  Does the answer make a meaningful difference?  If you never posed the question and never offered an answer would your life right now be tangibly different?  What do you believe about him?  And why?  Is it your faith or someone else’s faith that you adopted or inherited?  Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am?

We need these moments to reconfirm and recommit to what ultimately matters.  There’s a trend that’s emerging, primarily in more evangelical churches, where the membership roll is wiped clean on an annual basis and people are asked to commit to following Christ for another year as a member of that church.  I’m not advocating this.  But there’s something to be said for it, particularly for folks who take their “membership” and participation in a church, indeed, their commitment to Christ, for granted.

At one point or many along the way we need to get real.  It can happen once. But for most of us it happens many times throughout our lives.  For every time we reflect on these questions from a different stage of our lives, shaped by our life experiences, the answer will (or should) be different.  We’re not supposed to have the same faith we had when we were twelve or twenty or three-times-twenty. 

Later this month I will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination.  Every year since then, wherever I am, I take time during that day to re-affirm my ordination vows.  I ask myself the questions that were originally asked of me at the First Presbyterian Church in North Arlington, New Jersey, and prayerfully consider my answers.  I can still answer those questions with integrity (I’m sure you’re happy to know).  However, what I affirm about “Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord of all and head of the Church and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (the first ordination question), what all of this means to me has changed and is changing and will change, along with my response to all the other questions.  And that’s the way it should be.

Why? Because we’re “on the way.”  And as we walk with him and go where he wants to take us, we discover—on the way—what it means to confess Jesus as Lord or Messiah.  We figure out the answer to these questions when we walk with him.  There’s a Latin saying that goes like this: Solvitur ambulando.  It is solved by walking.  What matters most is that we move with him.  Step out.  Enter the way.  Go where he wants to take us.  We’ll figure everything out on the way.

We kickoff today a new program year at CPC.  In this upcoming year, our overarching theme will be grace and gratitude.  In worship, in study, through Christian education, mission, and fellowship, together we will explore the meaning of grace in the Christian life, grace as the source of gratitude.  As we embark on this new road together, let us commit or recommit to Jesus—not to the church (!) but to him, which is to commit or recommit to the work of God at work in him and through him in the church.  And may we, individually and together, discover a new and more profound answer to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?”


[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Readingof Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 1987), 241.
[2] For more on Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Single Individual”: Two “Notes”Concerning Myself as an Author, 1846-1847, published posthumously in 1859.  

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