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.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 13, 2015) on Mark 8:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
We’re in the eighth chapter of Mark; the halfway point of the entire gospel. Jesus has been traveling around the Sea of Galilee, visiting villages like Nazareth and Capernaum. He’s traveled to Tyre and the Decapolis, lands populated and ruled by gentiles. Jesus keeps on healing people, casting out demons, and debating with the best religious leaders he can find. Jesus is on the move.
So we find him, with his ragtag group of disciples and followers, heading north. They’re near what use to be the northern tip of Israel when King David was alive - but is now a city named after the Roman emperor Augustus. This city, Caesarea Philippi, is relatively new but is the military and governmental hub for the area. It’s here where taxes are collected, gathered, and sent to rulers far away. And it’s here where a large marketplace contains statues and images of Roman Gods and Roman emperors. This is a city that lives, eats, and breathes Rome. It promotes Roman ideals, Roman religion, and faith in a Roman empire that is destined to rule the world. And it’s here - at this Roman city - with all the symbols, power, and images of Rome looking down on the disciples - that Jesus asks “who do you think I am?”
It’s almost unfair, isn’t it? I mean, the disciples knew where they were going. They knew that this city is all Rome, all the time. They could be anywhere else but it’s here where Jesus speaks. It’s like taking an Ohio State fan to Ann Arbor or a New York Yankees fan up to Boston. It’s just not safe. But that’s what Jesus does. He takes his friends to an unsafe place. And then tries to get them to admit, publically, just who this Jesus is.
I feel for Peter. He, correctly, identifies who Jesus is. Jesus is the Messiah. The Savior. The One who God has sent into the world to fix what’s wrong with it. Peter, out of all the other disciples, has put everything together. The healings, the casting out of demons, the feeding of thousands - Peter’s sees in Jesus’ hands, face, and words - God’s love and God’s power. Peter hears what Jesus is saying - he feels that the Kingdom of God has come near. So Peter says outloud what only the demons shared before - that this Jesus is here to change the world. It took guts to admit this. It took guts to say what no one else was saying. It took guts to say, while standing in front of a city that loves Rome, that Jesus is the Messiah and that he will undo everything that Rome has done. For Peter, the Messiah is going to build a new kingdom, right then and there. Peter’s imagining a holy throw down with the armies of God destroying Rome. It took courage for Peter to publically admit this while standing in front of Augustus’ city. And it probably took even more guts for Peter to try and correct Jesus when Jesus’ teaching about what the Messiah is actually going to do - was not close to what Peter knew. Because Peter, like everyone else, knew that Crosses can’t destroy the Roman walls surrounding a Roman City.
But Jesus knew that Crosses can break down the walls that actually matter.
When we hear today’s text, the meaning shifts depending on where the disciples are. If they’re fishing on a boat in Galilee, spending a lazy Sunday afternoon casting lines into the water, Jesus’s question has a different tone. It would sound like a group of guys and gals shooting the breeze without any real care in the world. Peter’s statement - Jesus’ comments and Peter’s rebuke - it all sounds abstract when the disciples are in a different place, disconnected from the world around them.
But place matters. Jesus chooses to ask this question - here, at the foot of the Roman Emperor’s city. We can imagine the disciples standing there, right at the city gates, with the eyes of Roman soldiers and the stone cold glare of Rome’s gods staring down on them. That’s where Jesus’ question is voiced. That’s where Peter’s words are shared.
And so, since place matters, when Jesus’ says “who do you say that I am?” - what do we, gathered here - at Christ Lutheran Church - actually hear?
Now, for me, if I’m honest, I...really don’t know what I hear. During this last week, I’ve heard these words in all sorts of different places. I’ve heard them here in the sanctuary - in my office - in my home. I’ve heard these words in a church in Oakland, at a Costco in Hackensack, and while getting balloons at the Dollar Tree in Park Ridge. These words have snuck up on me while I’m in my kids’ bedroom, while I’m sitting in traffic, and while I’m wiping the sleep from my eyes. And I invite you to do the same. Take these words, this bulletin with you and read Jesus’ words in all the different places you go. And listen to see just what God is trying to get you to hear. Because I’ve heard Jesus’ words in a lot of different places - and, right now, I don’t know what to do with it. Jesus’ question - is the question. It’s the question we’re confronted with whenever our kids ask us why we celebrate Christmas. It’s the question when our friends asks us why we go to church. It’s the question when tragedy strikes and we find ourselves unable to find the words to express why the unfathomable happened. Somedays, we will be as firm in our answer as Peter. Somedays, we will be as silent as the other disciples. And, somedays, we will be like those in the crowd, just watching as this faith thing seems to happen around us. We will find ourselves in places where the words of faith will come easy. And there will be days when these words just won’t come.
And that’s okay.
Because Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples or the crowd to understand. He doesn’t tell them that they always need to get it. He doesn’t tell them that they need to be perfect before they follow him. Jesus tells them, instead, to take up their Crosses. Jesus tells them to deny their assumption. Jesus tells them to just follow him. Jesus doesn’t want to be accepted; he wants to be followed. He wants us to go where he goes. He wants us to take seriously the place around us; the neighborhood; the friends we know and the friends we haven’t met yet.
Because, like those disciples standing at the walls of Caesarea Philippi, we’re here, in this place, with Jesus. And he’s calling us to live in this place, to be with those people who are near and far. Jesus calls us to say that the walls of the world aren’t the walls that we’re going to build or keep up. And that the walls holding up this sanctuary aren’t here to protect us from the world - but are here so we can better serve the world. This is why, I believe, we use this place - this sanctuary - these buildings - this land - to serve people who will never walk through our doors. It’s why 1100 lbs of vegetables, and counting, from our Genesis Garden are feeding neighbors we will never see. It’s why, in a few hours, 200 of our closest Lutheran and non-Lutheran friends will be here to package more than 40,000 meals for the Center for Food Action. And it’s why our annual Trash & Treasure sale in May raises thousands of dollars that leave this place and head to serve Christians and non-Christians all over the world. We’re invited to be in this place, to be in this community, forming relationships with new people and reaffirming our relationships with those we know - because Christ wants us here, crosses and all. We might not always know how to answer when Jesus asks us “who he is” - but we can trust that God, through those silent disciples, that ragtag crowd, and the imperfect Peter; we can trust that through them, God loved the world. We can trust that God, through people like us, with our flaws, our quirks, our inability to always get Jesus right and to understand just who he is - we can trust that God, through imperfect sinners like us - is going to keep loving the world, through our hands, in ways that we don’t even know. Because Jesus has a way of bringing us to the places in our world with walls that need to come down. And, once there, we’re called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus straight on through.
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