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?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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.”
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. 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 8:27-38
(In passing, I suppose you need to know that earlier in the service, I did a Children’s Message based on the classic kids’ story “Stone Soup.”)
A good story has a good structure to it. It has twists and turns, and highs and lows, calculated to add intensity and emphasis to the storyteller’s point. Today’s gospel text is the high point, and the turning point, in the overall story that the author of Mark’s gospel is trying to present. It’s the end of the first part of the story, that tells people about Jesus and points to who they’re supposed to understand him to be, culminating with Peter’s proclaiming here, in this passage, that he’s the Christ, God’s specially blessed and anointed one. That’s the peak of the whole gospel. And then it turns, and becomes all about Jesus’ journeying to Jerusalem to be crucified.
In this passage, Jesus and the disciples have traveled to the area of Caesarea Philippi, north of the Sea of Galilee. This is the site of the origin of the Jordan River, and for many years it had been a place of great significance to the worship of numerous deities. It was a place of religious pilgrimage, and talk about the various gods who had temples or other places of worship there was commonplace. And that provides the setup for Jesus’ famous question to the disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?’ and then, “Who do *you* say that I am?” followed by Peter’s statement, making him the first person in the entire gospel to call him the Messiah.
But right after that, Jesus starts to talk about all the trouble that’s going to come his way; that he’s going to be arrested and killed, but that then he’d rise from the dead. And Peter scolds Jesus that he shouldn’t say those kinds of things, that people would think he was nuts, that saying things like this was going to have a negative effect on recruiting new believers into the fold. It just wasn’t going to look good.
And here Jesus turns the tables and scolds Peter, saying that he needs to stop seeing things from a human perspective, but rather, from God’s perspective. And that God’s perspective includes some hard truths, hard realities, things that people were just going to have to accept if they want to be among Jesus’ followers. According to the writer of the gospel, Jesus put it in terms of taking up one’s own cross, just as he himself was going to take on a cross for the sake of God’s kingdom. He said that if you worried too much about saving your own life, you’d have missed the point of his message, the whole point of the kingdom of God, and that people who lost their lives for the sake of God’s kingdom would gain real life in that same kingdom.
It’s hard to read this passage and not think about the Christians who were kidnapped and executed by ISIS recently. Or the countless other Christians around the world who are persecuted every day for their faith – and I’m not talking about the ridiculous claims of persecution by some crybaby Christians in this country who claim persecution because they want the right to pray a Christian prayer at the beginning of the school day in a classroom filled with kids from all sorts of religious backgrounds; or who claim they’re being persecuted for their religious beliefs when they’re told they can’t use their religious beliefs to discriminate against people in the public workplace. I’m talking about real persecution; life and death persecution. It’s hard to not think about the fact that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in this century than in all the previous centuries combined since the beginning of the faith.
From our own place of relative safety, we tend to understand Jesus’ words as allegorical, metaphorical. We don’t have to think about losing our lives for the sake of our faith. But maybe during Lent, and the deeper reflection of the meaning of Christ’s life and our relationship with God that we’re called to be having during this time, we might ask ourselves if we were in such a place of risk, what would we do? Would we have the strength of faith to do it? What if Jesus were serious about us needing to be willing to lay down our lives for the faith? It’s a very difficult question to think about, let alone to try to answer. I’d like to think that I would have that strength, but in the actual moment, would I? Or would I find some way to justify why it’s better for my family, or my congregation, or whatever, that I should survive, so I should do what it takes to save my life? And in so doing, would I have just lost my eternal life? What if Jesus was serious about that?
Maybe, as part of that process of reflection, we could ask a related, but more manageable question: even if we don’t know if we’d give up our lives for our faith, how much would we be willing to give up? How much of our comfort are we willing to sacrifice for the kingdom of God?
How much of our financial security would we give up? A lot? A little? Did you know that this year, the congregation is budgeted to run a bit of a deficit, but that if every pledging household committed to giving just another eight dollars a month, the deficit would disappear. Eight dollars a month; not even an extra hundred dollars for the year. Would we be willing to sacrifice and discomfort ourselves to the tune of eight dollars a month? What if Jesus was serious about that?
How much of our time and effort would we give up? Would we be willing to designate space, and to participate in fundraisers and donate our time to take the first bay of the basement in this building, level the floor up, put in a dropped ceiling, and let it become the place where the congregation re-starts its youth ministry, showing the current youth that we believe they matter, and showing the kids in the Children’s Worship Center that they have something to grow into, to look forward to as they get older? As the church, the scriptures tell us that we have an obligation for the nurture and development of disciples in the faith, especially including the youth, who aren’t the church of the future but who are the church of today, and they need every bit as much attention as part of the congregation as anyone else. Would we be willing to put ourselves out to that degree? Jesus said following him wasn’t always going to be easy or comfortable. Jesus said take up our cross. What if he was serious about that?
And what if we did make that space, and we had another bitterly cold winter like this year? What if someone suggested that at least a couple of days a week, when the youth weren’t using it, that we could open that room up for homeless people to at least come in and get warmed up for an hour or two, and maybe get a bowl of soup and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Would we be willing to be discomforted enough to make something like that to happen, to help the neediest in our community? Jesus said to take up our cross. What if he was serious?
I’m offering those scenarios as reflection exercises, in order to spur the Lenten reflection, “How far am I willing to go personally for my faith? How much am I willing to be discomforted personally in order to follow Jesus, the one I profess to be my Lord and Savior? Where are my personal lines in the sand? And is that where they should be drawn? Because the truth is, I think we all realize that yes, Jesus was serious about that. None of us are likely to risk death for our faith, like many others are. But where are our supposed sacred cows, or our lines in the sand of comfort or familiarity that we aren’t willing to go beyond? These are extremely important points to consider, certainly for our own lives, our own awareness, and our own personal spiritual growth, but they’re also very important things to ask ourselves as a congregation, especially right now as the Mission Study Team is in the middle of its work, and as you’re getting your surveys to help the Team identify our congregational mission into the future.
Keeping our congregation vibrant, and keeping our own personal faith healthy, always requires stretching outward into new areas, into areas that can and will initially cause discomfort. The townspeople in the Stone Soup story I shared with the kids today didn’t originally want to share their own vegetables and meat for the soup. But once they did, they ended up experiencing the joy of having done something good, and that the whole community benefited from. By allowing themselves to be stretched into a place they didn’t originally want to go, their lives, and the lives of others, were made better. That was the high point of the kids’ story today. And it’s the high point of the kingdom of God, too.
Thanks be to God.