“Who do you say I am?”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I invite you to take a brief adventure of creative imagination this morning, and put yourself in today’s story from the Gospel according to Mark. Imagine you have been a part of that band of disciples that followed the young rabbi all around the Galilean territory. You witnessed his healings and heard him preach, and you are hooked. You cannot return back to the place you were before, because you are on a new journey and you would follow him anywhere.
You and your companions now find yourselves deep in Gentile territory in Caesarea Philippi, a city, in which there is a plethora of spiritual practices, a collection of images of various deities, and a culture of pluralistic religious dogmas. Caesarea Philippi was an ancient Roman city that had a grotto and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan.
It was in this setting, Jesus posed this question to you his followers, “Who do people say that I am.” You look around you and watch your fellow disciples as they answer. One says, “Elijah.” A couple of your clan retort, “John the Baptist.” A few in the group exclaim, “A prophet.” Now, despite your colleague’s boldness to chime in, you keep silent and watch Peter, the outspoken one whom you know will have something profound to say, but interestingly, he too is silent.
Next, Jesus looks at each person in your group with great care in his eyes, pauses and asks, “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter can hold back and proclaims boldly, “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.” Surprisingly, Jesus tells you all to keep quiet about what was just said. You and your friends, being good first century Israelites, certainly understand what expectations your culture puts on the one who bears the title “Messiah.” Jesus however, knows what Messiah really means; suffering and death. Is the self-giving suffering servant really the kind of Messiah we Jesus’ followers seek?
“My Jesus” vs. Jesus, the Messiah
Peter the apostle proclaimed boldly to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” However, upon hearing from Jesus what his Messiahship really meant (suffering and death), Peter could not accept it and rebuked Jesus; the same guy who later denied Jesus three times. Peter did not want a suffering servant Messiah that Jesus self-described, the one who would be rejected, beaten, and killed. Peter was seeking a Messiah of his own making, maybe one in his own image, a powerful, bold, outspoken Messiah who would overthrow the Roman establishment, and honestly many of us may be just like Peter.
I imagine if I took a poll right now here at St. Monica’s asking, “Who do you say Jesus is,” I would hear a variety of responses. I wonder if each of our own imagined Jesus personas and the real Jesus Christ are at odds with each other. Some of us think of Jesus as ‘Good Teacher Jesus,” a mere ancient sage who provided the world with some really good wisdom about how to live. Some of us think of Jesus as “Politically Conservative Jesus” or alternatively, “Politically Liberal Jesus” either of which depends on your own political affiliation, because we often pick, choose, and apply which of his words move our own agenda forward.
Some of us think of Jesus as “Vending Machine Jesus,” the Lord we only connect with when we find ourselves in dire straits, or we experience life’s difficulties, or when there is something we want or need. Maybe we think of Jesus as “Episcopalian Jesus,” the Lord who wears the most beautiful vestments, never ever breaks the liturgical rubrics, never changes anything because we have always done it that way, or the one who can chant the entire mass with grace and style.
We (just like Peter) have in our own minds who it is we want Jesus to be, but often that image is cleaned up, tidy, and non-confrontational or too demanding. It is often based on who we are and our own agendas, desires, and priorities. Christopher Henry, in his Christian Century article wrote, “We must be ready to embrace this Messiah, the one who will question our deepest allegiances and demand absolute discipleship, the one who requires us to move from selfishness to generosity, from fear to love, from hatred to compassion, from the narrowness of self- righteousness to the wideness of mercy.” (1)
Jesus is Lord?
Is Jesus Lord of our lives? In our culture, we are focused on pursuing self-actualization, individual gratification, and personal success and thus, we are the real lords of our lives. We cannot forget that the master of our lives is the one who “underwent great suffering, and was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and was killed, and after three days rose again.” The chief orchestrator of our lives is the one who tells us to “Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”
Theologian Christopher Henry explains further, “If we want to follow this Messiah, it’s going to take more than acceptance and assent, more than a moment of decision. It’s going to take a change in habits, assumptions and actions.” Jesus is pretty clear about his expectations of his followers, and every day we face the decision to follow Jesus, or not. Jesus tells us to care for the least lost and lonely and says, “when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.” He tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and neighbor means everyone with whom, we come in contact.
So, when we encounter a member of our local community who is an outcast, whose dignity as a member of the human family is challenged, when those around us lack the basics of life, when our neighbors experience a level of loneliness and isolation that we can only fathom, when our local citizens wrestle with a dark and depressive hole of despair we have never tread, or when a growing generation of our local residents are living with a spiritual emptiness like never before, will we deny ourselves for their sakes? How will we respond to Jesus mandate to “love our neighbor as ourselves?”
Denying ourselves, taking up our cross means we must be changed so much, that we begin to deny our own priorities, and say, “Yes” to Our Lord’s way of self-giving love. Claiming Jesus as Lord means that we must take up our cross or rather, die to our old selves, thus denying that self who stands in the way of God’s mission of grace for all.
Losing your Life
It may be that the church has to stop looking inward for her mission statement, and start looking outside her four walls, outside the priorities of inner church life, so they she rediscover what it was God was calling her to be and do. Matthew Skinner in his Word and Worldarticle wrote, “one who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony, for the refusal of a certain way of living directly impinges upon one’s identity and possibilities.” (3)
We are bearers in our lives of the promise that death does not get the last word. “Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead.” (2)Maybe that is what it means for us to be cross-bearers and to identify with Jesus. The church must constantly die to who it has been, so she can be raised to new life everyday. Our willingness to die to those parts of our nature that rejects the one we call Lord, and to bring hope to the world is the way to experience the promises of new life.
Then Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” I think he is saying to the church, “Lay down your own priorities, your own sense of yourselves, and your own agendas.” “Be willing to lay down parts of the communal life you hold so dear, and let go of who you think you are, and get out there and do what I do every day through you. Go out there and change the world of the other people around you by bringing them my grace through you.
We will truly discover who we are as a community, when we get outside ourselves, yes denying ourselves, and when we begin to serve those around us just like Our Lord does. That is when we identify with who Jesus is. So, imagine once again you are there with Jesus and he asks , “Who do you say I am?” Maybe we respond with, “You are my good teacher,” or you are my “Political Jesus,” or you are my “Vending Machine Jesus,” or your are my “Episcopalian Jesus.” I know he hopes will all will say, “Jesus, you are the Lord of my life.” Then, he will say to us, “I know you think you cannot leave your own agenda, desires, and comfort behind so easily and bear this mission of love , but I will show you the way, and be with you all along the way.” Then, he reaches down, picks up his cross, and invites us to pick up ours as well. Then he looks us in the eye with love and peace and says, “Come on now, follow me.”
(1) Henry, Christopher A. “Living By The Word: Reflections On The Lectionary [S 16, 2012].” The Christian Century129.18 (2012): 19. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.
(2) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” The Christian Century117.24 (2000): 860. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.
(3) Skinner, Matthew L. “Denying Self, Bearing A Cross, And Following Jesus: Unpacking The Imperatives Of Mark 8:34.” Word & World23.3 (2003): 321-331. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.