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 8:27-36
There’s a very deep history within the Christian faith, and in the Jewish faith before the birth of Christianity, of people who have boldly stood up for the faith as they understood it and believed it, in the face of opposition. People who have stood up against powerful voices and forces opposing them, and who have often faced negative, even terrible consequences for their determination. People who have been persecuted and even killed in their defense of their understanding of God’s truths. There are lots of examples from the Hebrew Bible of prophets and others who refused to offer their loyalty to kings or other powers who demanded loyalty to them, or to their gods, over loyalty to the God of the Hebrews. There are a number of stories in the gospels where people are asking Jesus what kind of loyalty, if any, they could offer to the Roman Empire, and to Caesar, who himself claimed to be the Son of God, and still be true to their faith in God. Obviously, Jesus himself was killed by the Romans for what they perceived as treason – Jesus’ claims that the people owed their highest allegiance to God, not the Romans. And the history of the faith since then is full of stories of martyrs who suffered, sometimes excruciating punishment and torture, for standing firm in their understanding of the faith over against those in positions of power.
Today’s gospel text is an important part of this tradition. The passage starts with Peter’s confession that he believed Jesus was the Messiah specially sent by God – the first time in the gospels that anyone professes this belief. And immediately after that, Jesus starts to spell out some hard truths, some disturbing and unsettling truths about his impending crucifixion. Peter doesn’t like it, and he pulls Jesus aside and basically tells him that the message has bad optics for Jesus’ existing followers, and is likely to turn off any potential new people joining them. And of course, we heard Jesus’ response to Peter. As part of that reply, he tells Peter that if a person would be his follower, they were going to have to be willing to say and do things that will sometimes sound unpopular or run against the established grain. In order to stand up for and to follow the message of God’s good news, we’ll have to take stands that will sometimes cause us to endure discomfort or even persecution. Jesus said that from time to time, we’ll all have to take up our own cross, in the name of our faith and serving God in accordance with our consciences.
Of course, this has been a very hot topic lately. You know that Kim Davis, the County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, began to refuse issuing marriage certificates to applicants in that county, because she claimed that to issue licenses to same-sex couples applying for them would be contrary to her “sincerely held religious beliefs.” And of course, when she did, all the usual talking heads lined up in their predictable camps either supporting or opposing her decision. And once she was found in contempt of court for refusing orders from the court to begin issuing licenses and went to jail, the debate got even louder and even crazier. A couple of conservative presidential candidates all but got into a fist fight clamoring to get on the stage to get their picture with her. She was painted as a martyr in some supposed War on Christianity, someone in the same category as Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela. On the other side of things, liberal voices attacked her as just a backwoods hillbilly, and denigrated her just for having any religious faith at all. They pointed to her own spotty personal record of marriage, and even criticized her just on the basis of the plainness of her hair and clothing.
In the midst of it all, it seems to me that not many people have zeroed in on the reality of her situation. The essential problem isn’t a religious one, but rather, that Kim Davis has a woefully ignorant understanding of her own job description, and what the meaning of the Clerk’s signature on filed documents represents. The County Clerk is not tasked with conveying official moral sanction to the legal matters being described in the documents that need to be processed by her office. Her sole job is to make sure the legal i’s are dotted and t’s crossed on all those documents. That’s it – nothing more, nothing less. For a marriage license, all the office is tasked to do is to certify that the paperwork is filled out properly, the legal requirements have been met, and that the fees have been paid. The Clerk has no authority to refuse issuing a license that has been properly filed and that meets all the legal requirements. Kim Davis’ situation is not, as the courts have repeatedly instructed her, that her First Amendment religious freedom rights are being abridged; the problem is that she’s illegally and unethically using her position of power to impose her own personal religious beliefs – whether a person agrees with those beliefs or not – on others and to deny them their own rights. That’s a lot more mundane, a less sexy argument than the religious persecution and martyr angle. But really, that’s what this whole matter boils down to.
Imagine a County Clerk who refused to file divorce decrees, because they personally believed divorce was a sin. Or someone in the building department refusing to issue a building permit for a restaurant, because the restaurant was going to serve alcohol, and they believed that was sinful. Or a building inspector refusing to inspect construction of a dance studio, because they believed that dancing was the handiwork of the devil. Or a government worker refusing to process a background check for someone trying to buy a firearm because he was a Christian pacifist and believed that issuing that permit would make them complicit in any future violence that the applicant ended up being involved in with the gun. Even though all of these have a religious component, none of them are valid examples of standing up for your religious beliefs, particularly if these public servants expected to keep their jobs while they improperly imposed their personal beliefs on others. None of these are examples of the kind of taking up of your cross that Jesus has called us to do in this gospel lesson. All of them are illegal abuses of the person’s position. Jesus told us that we had to stand up for our beliefs even when doing so came at a cost to us, not that we were supposed to impose that cost on others. Jesus said we were supposed to take up our cross, not beat other people over the head with it.
Well, this is not a sermon about Kim Davis. It’s a sermon about God, and us, and Christ, and how we’re supposed to live as Christ’s followers. The Kim Davis issue only points us to an important aspect in today’s gospel lesson, and in our own lives of faith. There are times when all of us have to wrestle with legitimate questions of when, and where, and how, are we supposed to stand up for our own religious beliefs in the face of opposition. What ditch should we be willing to die in, and when should we go along to get along, and live to fight another day? And most importantly, how do we really know that we’re in the right? How do we know we aren’t just deceiving ourselves?
I think that Jesus himself gives us the answer to that, in a couple of places in the gospels. He said to look at the fruit – the outcome – of a thing to discern whether it was of God or not. If the thing produced good fruit, it was of God; if it produced bad fruit, it wasn’t. Does the thing advance, or obstruct, the whole intent of the realm of God, and the meaning of the scriptures, as summarized by Jesus – to love God with all our strength, and to love others with the same intensity we love ourselves? So, we can look at the position we want to stand up for and ask – does it advance love, increase love, establish or maintain love, in the world? Does it expand justice, mercy, and compassion? If so, then it is of God, and it should be stood up for, and defended, even when doing so comes at real cost to ourselves. But if the thing would restrict, or limit, or diminish love – if it would diminish or exclude; if it would end up hurting other people – then it is not of God, and taking a position to forward something like that is not at all standing up for God, or God’s realm.
It’s something we have to really think about. We can’t avoid standing up for God’s will in difficult situations – in fact, that’s one of the key tasks that God has created the church for. So we have to choose what we stand up for wisely, and consistent with Christ’s teaching. It would be a terrible shame if we chose incorrectly, and some day, when we met Christ, we told him how much we’d suffered for him, how diligently we took up our cross for him, and he just answered, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not sure where you found that cross, but it certainly isn’t mine.”
Thanks be to God.