A sermon given on September 16th based upon Mark 8:27 – 37 and on the occasion of three persons – Betsy, Paul and Anna – affirming their faith in Jesus, taking the vows of membership, and expressing their intention to live as His disciples.
The question asked in our passage this morning is, “Who is Jesus?” The larger question is, “Who is the God whom Jesus reveals?”
Our passage occurs in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. Up until this point, Jesus has been engaged in a powerful ministry of healing and teaching. Without exception, Jesus has healed every person who has come to him for healing. There is not one instance of Jesus saying, “It’s good for you to be sick, paralyzed, or blind; you need this to learn a lesson.” One time a child died before he could get to her; he brought her back to life. The two times he is in the presence of people who are in danger of going hungry, he sees to it that they are fed. The clear message in all this is that God doesn’t lay these sorts of sufferings on people. God doesn’t want people to be sick or lame, God doesn’t want children to die people their parents, God doesn’t want people to go hungry. These afflictions aren’t God’s will. God wants people to be whole. This kind of suffering is in the world, according to Mark’s Gospel, because an evil power at war with God’s purposes is at work in the world oppressing people.
This is significant because it is common to hear people attributing these kinds of sufferings to the hand of God. But this isn’t the God Jesus reveals.
William Sloane Coffin was the chaplain at Yale in the 70s and later the pastor at Riverside Church in New York City. His adult son Alex was driving in a rain storm when his car slipped off the road and went into the Boston Harbor, taking his life. Afterwards Coffin spoke about how upsetting it was to him when people would refer to his son’s death as God’s will. He was sure it wasn’t, pointing to all the time Jesus spent relieving this kind of suffering. Rather, Coffin said that “when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.”
Now God can help us bring good things – often very good things – out of such tragic suffering. But that is quite a different thing from saying, for instance, that God gave someone cancer.
So with this clearly established in the first eight chapters of Mark’s Gospel, the story we heard this morning can come like a punch to the stomach, which is the way it seems to have been experienced by Peter.
Jesus asks the disciples who do people say he is, and they give some reasonable answers. Then he asks them who they say he is, and Peter says, “You are the messiah!” Jesus’ response is perplexing: “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” This isn’t exactly what you might call a ringing endorsement for the answer Peter has given. Matthew, writing his Gospel twenty years later, has Jesus bless Peter, patting him on the back for being able to give the right answer to the question. But in Mark, all Jesus says is don’t tell anyone about me. Why? Presumably because the way people understood the mission of the messiah, and how Jesus understood his mission, were so different as to render the title “messiah” as almost an obstacle to the truth.
It makes sense to me. In some settings, I am reluctant to identify myself as a Christian, because if I do so, people assume that I hate gay people. If you ask people in their twenties what word they identify with the word “Christian,” the most common association is “judgmental.”
George Buttrick was the chaplain at Harvard in the middle part of the 20th century. He said that students would routinely come into his office, take a deep breath and say, “I don’t think I believe in God anymore.” Buttrick would smile and invite them to sit down, saying, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in. Chances are, I don’t believe in him either.”
Often times God is imagined to be the great puppet master in the sky, pulling all the strings in regard to what happens in human lives. The God revealed in Jesus is anything but. This God cherishes, above all, human freedom, even though our freedom is the very thing that leads to a great deal of the suffering in this world.
The next verse reads, “Then (Jesus) 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.” The first thing to notice is that Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as the messiah, because people see the messiah as the one who is going to swoop in and fix everything: kick the Romans out, purify Israel, and make it the mightiest nation on earth. Rather, Jesus preferred title for himself is “Son of Man,” one that is inherently humble, expressing solidarity with all humanity. But what becomes really confusing, considering what I said earlier that in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, the God Jesus reveals is one who doesn’t put suffering into peoples’ lives, and here Jesus saying he must undergo great suffering. What gives?
Everything hinges on how we understand that little word “must.” The common way of understanding this is that the must comes from God. God required that Jesus die a painful death on a cross. The image of God that comes through is of a bloodthirsty, angry God. Richard Foster puts it this way: “people were so bad and so mean and God was so angry with them that He would not forgive them unless somebody big enough could take the rap for the whole of them.”
This completely distorts the image of God revealed in Jesus. There is no violence, only love, in God. The must lies with us, not with God. In the freedom God has given us we have chosen to abuse our freedom. We set our minds not on divine things, but on human things. Our heart become attached to our possession, to power, to status, to control. We love things and use people. We try to save ourselves, curling up into ourselves, devoting ourselves to our comfort and safety. But it doesn’t work; we end up losing ourselves – losing a life worth living. We end up losing our souls.
So Jesus chooses in his freedom to go to Jerusalem to lovingly but forcefully confront the hardened hearts of those in power with truth. They sit at the top of a power system that oppresses people. He realizes he must do this – that there is no other way to heal this broken world. His love is powerful, but love is never coercive. Love cannot be forced on anyone. It must be freely accepted and returned.
Jesus isn’t naïve. He knows the darkness that is in human hearts. He knows that those who are in power are attached to their power, and they won’t let go of it. He knows his love will be rejected, initially at least. He knows he will suffer and die. But this is what love in this instance requires.
But there is another must, and this one is God’s doing, not ours. On the third day, after his death, he must rise. This is the thing we could never do; only God can do this. And because of this must there is always reason for hope and cause for courage.
So who is this God that is revealed in Jesus? First, this God is not aloof. This God is with us in our suffering. As William Sloane Coffin put it, this God’s heart breaks when our hearts break.
This God cherishes our freedom, and out of love won’t ‘baby” us. This God won’t do for us human beings what we are capable of doing for ourselves, though we resist taking such responsibility.
A part of us – a rather shallow part – thinks we want a God who will swoop down and fix everything for us. That’s what Peter was hoping when he identified Jesus as the messiah. It’s that same part of us that as a child wanted our parents to swoop down and fix every difficulty we encountered, even though there were times when love required precisely that they didn’t do that which, with a little effort, we were capable of dealing with ourselves.
A deeper part of ourselves yearns for the very God Jesus reveals – one who calls forth from us the wholeness buried within.
This God calls us to be a part of the solution. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The love that is required to bring solutions to the problems that plague us is a love that requires sacrifice – a willingness to suffer in some manner. Harry Emerson Fosdick said this about the call to take up our cross: “The most fascinating thing in Christianity has always been the cross. Why is that? Because in the long run we do not want an easy religion. We want a commanding, challenging religion that will take all we have and then call for more. This the kind of religion we have in Christ.”
This morning Betsy, Paul and Anna – and all of us with them — have affirmed our faith in Christ and our decision to be His disciples, to take up our particular crosses of sacrificial love to mend a broken world. We are called to lose the small self that wants to staff coddled in our comfort zone, in order to find the self that God created us to be: free… brave… strong… giving… loving… gifted… whole.