Why we are here


A sermon preached on September 13th, 2009 based upon Mark 8:27 – 37, and on the occasion receiving eight persons into membership, and of baptizing Maya Laxmi Roelofs into the Body of Christ.

Jesus 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.

31 Then 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.’

34 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. 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?


There is some puzzling and challenging stuff in this morning’s Gospel lesson.   

It takes place at a critical moment midpoint of the Gospels.    The disciples have been following Jesus around the Galilean countryside.  They have witnessed the growing crowds drawn to Jesus by his remarkable inner authority and the extraordinary miracles of healing and feeding the hungry he performs.   

Through it all, the question grows more insistent:  who is this Jesus?   

And so now Jesus asks the question that has been on everybody’s mind.  Who do people say that I am?   The answers are impressive.  A prophet; John the Baptist reincarnated;  maybe even Elijah, the forerunner for the end times.

Now Jesus puts them on the spot. “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter speaks up.  “You are the messiah.”  It is a bold thing to say.   In those days you don’t just go around casually claiming someone was the messiah, the anointed one of God, the one come to save the people. You had better be right, or else you are committing blasphemy.   You could get yourself stoned for saying such a thing.

Now, here is where things began to get puzzling.   Peter’s given the correct answer, right?  This is the claim that the church has hinged its belief on for 2000 years, right?  That Jesus is the savior, come to redeem the people.  

The first puzzling thing is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Bingo.  You’ve given the right answer, Peter.”  He doesn’t say it’s the wrong answer, but he’s strangely reticent about commenting on the answer Peter has given.  In fact, he tells the disciples not to talk about him to other people.

Jesus then proceeds to talk to them about his destiny, but he doesn’t call himself the messiah.  At the very moment where they are looking to put him up on a pedestal, Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man”, a title which, although it had associations in the tradition with the concept of the messiah, is a very humble title indeed — a title that in essence identifies him with all people.   “I am a man, a human being, as you are a human being.  We are all in this together.”

And then he proceeds to tell them how he will be rejected by the religious establishment — the elders, the scribes, the priests — and that he must suffer and die.  He also says he will be raised after three days, but the disciples seem to be so freaked out about the suffering and death part that they don’t even hear what comes after it. 

Peter takes Jesus aside, intent on correcting Jesus’ thinking.  “Whoa, hold on just a moment, Jesus.  You’re getting off message.  You’re not going to suffer and die.  You’re going to give us what we’ve been waiting for.” 

To which Jesus explodes:  “Get behind me, Satan!  You are talking about human things; not divine things.”  

Ouch.  This is the one and only time Jesus called a human being “Satan” — to the guy, no less, who will later come to be viewed as the first pope — the guy who represents the Church.   

There are some great ironies here, particularly in the light of the fact that we are hearing this on the day in which eight of you have just taken vows in regard to Church, and we have baptized little Maya into the Church.

Isn’t Church a good thing?   Again, I don’t think we get a straight answer:  Maybe, maybe not.  It is remarkable that right here in the heart of the Gospel story, there is this critique of religious institutions, indeed the church, in our inclination to lose our way.   Be careful, Jesus seems to be saying.  Don’t use your religion to escape from God.  

One of the things that religion often tries to do is to reduce the great mystery of God, and to deceive us about the adventure that is faith.  In place of trusting with our heart, we are encouraged to believe in doctrine.  We are led to think that if we can get the terminology right — Jesus is the messiah, for instance — than we’re in the club of the saved.   In place of the adventure of following Jesus, we’re given dexterity with the club’s code words.  

At this point in the passage Jesus immediately goes into talking about what it means to follow him.   Again, he doesn’t say anything about what they are required to believe about him – rather, its all about living the kind of life that they see him modeling:  a life of love, willing to sacrifice all.  

There was a great 20th century preacher by the name of George Buttrick who served as the chaplain at Harvard.  He said that from time to time a student would walk into his study, and say, “I don’t think I can believe in God.”   George would reply, “Well, sit down and tell me about this god you don’t believe in.  Chances are, I don’t believe in him either.”  The student would be taken aback.  Invariably he’d sit down and proceed to describe a God who resembled Santa Claus, rewarding people who live good lives, making their paths through life happy and blessed, and giving coal to the ones who do bad things.  “Yep, I don’t believe in that God either,” George would say.

And then George would proceed to talk with the student about Jesus, a guy who was incredibly loving and merciful, an advocate for the little people of the world, and for all his trouble on their behalf this Jesus gets nailed to a cross.  And oddly, he did what he did, even as he knew exactly where he was headed, telling his followers to trust God and lay down their lives as well.

Life is strange.  Eight years ago this past Friday, we all shared in the greatest trauma that our generation of Americans has endured, when hijackers crashed those four planes, killing nearly 3000 innocent victims.   

That, I think, we would all agree, was a horrible, horrible thing.  

And yet, in the days immediately following, we saw life more clearly than perhaps we ever had.   We realized that life isn’t about accumulating more and more stuff, or reaching a more and more comfortable and privileged station in life.   We intuitively understood what Jesus was getting at when he asked, “What does it profit a person if he or she gains the whole world, and yet, loses his life – his soul?”

And we had these heroic images raised up for us:  Firemen, offering up their lives, racing into burning towers in hopes of saving the people trapped inside there.  

We pondered the courage, the love, the freedom from ego that would allow them to do such a thing, and we admired them intensely, and realized that strangely, in their willingness to give their lives away, they were on to what life is all about.  We got it about what Jesus meant when he said, “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.”

There is this program called Radio Lab I enjoy listening to.  Recently I was listening to one of their podcasts in which a man tells his story – an incredibly gripping story – of the day over twenty years ago when he tried to end his life.   He had fallen into this deep depression.  Outwardly, his life was good.  He had a job, he had a wife and a three year old daughter whom he loved.   But the depression had convinced him that he himself was bad – that everybody would be better off if he didn’t exist, which is what depression will do to people.  He described leaving for work in the morning, kissing his wife and daughter goodbye, telling them he loved them, knowing he would not see them again.   

He lived in the San Francisco bay area.  He drove past his work and kept on driving, until he reached the Golden Gate Bridge.   He parked his car, put coins in the meter, walked out on the bridge like just another tourist.  It was a beautiful day.  He came to an embankment where he could look down to the water below.  He said to himself, it’s time to do it.  And so he vaulted out into the air in free fall.  

He remembers clearly that at the precise moment he saw his hands let go of the bridge, he suddenly realized the terrible mistake he had made.  It takes just four seconds for a person to hit the water after jumping, and in that time he thought of all he would miss — his little daughter and all she would experience in life.  He also saw the pain he was inflicting upon his family and felt terrible regret.  With every fiber of his being he wanted to live.  

Well over a thousand people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.  Only 26 has survived that jump.  Remarkably, he was one of those 26.  Most of the other 25 survivors described having a similar turnaround in their attitude toward life in those four seconds before they hit the water.   

Life really is a good gift from God, but something about the way we approach this life, and the way the world encourages us to approach life, leads us to get stuck inside the prison cell of our little ego, blocking our perception of the gift we have been given.

Jesus knew this.  He knew that life as it is typically lived in this world is a dead end street; that following the path the world prescribes for us — and sometimes it is religious institutions doing this prescribing — will eventually lead us to some version of the Golden Gate Bridge, looking down.  He saw that living our lives focused on getting more and more of the world’s carrot sticks; whether they be money or status or religious brownie points, is a doomed life indeed.

So he said, “Come, follow me.  I’ll show you a better way.   Follow me, and I will help you escape from the prison cell.”  

This is why we’re here.  That’s why eight of us made vows this morning, and why we baptized little Maya into the Church, in the hope that together we will live in such away that as she grows up in our midst, she will catch hold of the truth that life isn’t about more and more stuff, more and more status and prestige and comfort.  It’s about finding a life that resembles the fireman’s willingness to race into those burning towers.  

We probably will never have to do anything as severe as what those firemen were called to do on that bright, sunny morning eight years ago.  But in small ways, simple ways, God will help us shape a life in which we daily lose ourselves in a great love, and in that losing, finding ourselves, and the only kind of life worth living.     

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