Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Center of the Universe
Text: Mark 8:27-38
How misguided Peter seems to us from two thousand years away. We who read this story backward, so to speak, from the ending. We see it through the eyes of tradition, theology, and centuries of learned interpretation. Jesus is not to us as he was to Peter. And we know that Peter often played the fool to Jesus’ wisdom, a tool used by the Gospel writers to reveal a hard truth. Seen this way, with these eyes, history concludes that Peter got it wrong, that he did not see that Jesus was a new kind of messiah.
Yet let us try reading this story forward, as it is played out. Let us become as ignorant as Peter is, and see what it tells us. Let us forget the crucifixion whose story Mark is about to tell. Let us forget the resurrection that we celebrate on Easter and every Sunday, but which has yet to happen in Mark. Let us take things—as much as we can—as Peter saw them.
First, we have to know three things that Peter knew. One: Jesus is the Messiah. Peter has just identified him that way: you are the Christ, he says, the Greek word for messiah. Peter confirms what Mark has told us from the beginning: that this Gospel is a story about Jesus Messiah. Messiah means the anointed one. The anointed one is the one that will be king, for in the Bible, the prophets confirmed the king by anointing him. Jesus is a king.
Two: the Messiah, a king, rules in order to change the world. People’s hope for the Messiah was that he would be a king that would make the world better. People hoped for the Messiah to come to fix things. To repair what is broken in this world. When Peter talks about the Messiah, he is not talking about life after death. He is talking about life now, in times of trouble and pain. This world.
And three: The cross is an atrocity. Crucifixion is a horror. The disciples and Peter do not think about the cross as a symbol of life. That has not yet happened in the story. For disciples and Peter, crucifixion is simply hideous torture followed by death. There is nothing good about it. When Jesus says that his followers must take up the cross—that is a scary thing; that is not a good thing. He is not recommending it; he is acknowledging it.
The disciples are doing something really hard. They are doing something that is so compelling that they are willing to do it even if it means there is a chance they will be executed by hanging on a cross.
Starting from here—Jesus is the Messiah, the Messiah makes the world better, and following Jesus risks crucifixion—Jesus then instructs his disciples how it will be and what they must do if they still want to be part of the program. “If any want to follow me, …” he begins.
The Gospel of Mark is interested in discipleship—our word, not one that appears in Mark—interested in what a disciple is and what a disciple is called to do. Mark defines discipleship as a contrast between what humans value and what God values. Human values: being the greatest, sitting at the head of the table, being privileged, being served. God values: being the least, sitting at the foot of the table, eating crumbs, being a servant. You are thinking like a human, Jesus tells human Peter. Think instead like God.
Here’s how, he explains: If you want to follow me, deny yourself. That’s the first thing on Jesus’ list. To think like God seems to be to think of someone else besides you first. To live for the sake of others rather than your sake. To put someone besides yourself at the center of your concerns. Or everyone else. This is what Jesus did. This is what a Messiah does. This is what, ideally, a king does. This is what a leader of a nation should do. Jesus in John calls himself a good shepherd. This is what a shepherd does, risks all—even his life if necessary—for the sake of the sheep, Jesus tells us. Being a leader is not about the leader but about the led. Being a follower of Jesus is not about us, but about someone else. It is a contrast between human values and Godly values, for sure.
Deny yourself, Jesus says. The word he uses is used most famously to describe what Peter does when, on Good Friday, Peter denies knowing Jesus. To deny yourself is to ignore—to not acknowledge or agree to—the strong claims that you have on yourself in favor of the claims of others. Not, though, out of some creepy joy of suffering or modesty, but for the sake of the Gospel, an expression, according to Mark, of the kingdom of God, a better world.
Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah makes the world better. The world is made better by the disciples who deny themselves. The kingdom of God can come to be when the followers of Jesus put others at the center of their concern. And cannot when they do not.
Putting others first has consequences. Sometimes pleasant ones, sometimes not so pleasant ones. How far can this go? Pretty far. Even to giving up one’s life for others. Those who wish to save their selves—the word Jesus uses here means heart or soul or psyche as much as it means life—it does not work so well if in the end you cannot commit yourself to others. If you wish to follow the Messiah and to help change the world for the better, letting go of your self might be necessary for the sake of the kingdom of God. Jesus is not asking people to plunge carelessly to their deaths; he is saying that there is nothing—even life, if it comes to that—that his disciples can finally value more than the Gospel, more than the kingdom of God.
Jesus does not teach that we should have no fun. Jesus was a fan of good food and drink and companionship. He liked a good argument. He seemed to enjoy the camaraderie of his friends and colleagues. But Jesus was not afraid of risk, risking as much as necessary, without calculation. The disciples are known as those who take risks in this way.
The season of Lent is a good time to ask ourselves and God how we should and can live as Christians. What is it that being Christian calls us to do? And more important, what is it that having the benefit of the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus enables us to do?
You are thinking like the human you are, Jesus tells Peter. Think instead like God thinks. Is not that what we are trying to learn to do through our lives of faith: when we pray, and worship, and study, and talk to one another, and serve others? When we take little experimental risks for the sake of the Gospel?
Aren’t we trying to learn how God thinks? So that we may be followers of Jesus Christ, a Messiah who teaches his disciples how to help bring about a changed world, the kingdom of God.