Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2012
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark is in every way the center of Mark’s story. It is quite literally the middle of the narrative. And more than that, it marks the turning point in the narrative—from this point on, it is less about Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding, casting out demons and those sorts of things—and more about his journey to Jerusalem where he will die. But maybe most importantly, this text is a summary of how Mark envisions the Kingdom of God and why we have such a hard time accepting it.
In the past few weeks, we heard stories about Jesus and his disciples traveling around Galilee. They are now outside the Roman town of Caesarea Philippi, a town literally lined with statues of ancient gods when Jesus asks two significant questions: who do people say that I am? And, more importantly, who do YOU say that I am?
The disciples answer the first question with promising Biblical figures—prophets and leaders. But Peter comes through with a flash of insight, and says, “But YOU are the Messiah!” What did it mean for Peter to call Jesus the Messiah? The Hebrew word Messiah means “the anointed one,” the one chosen and appointed by God. The Jewish people had been awaiting the Messiah for centuries. They longed for that anointed-by-God hero who was going to lead them from oppression into freedom, from unrighteousness into holiness, from despair into hope. So as good Jews, Peter and his friends had certain expectations about what the Messiah would do and be.
Can we blame Peter for being so distressed when Jesus begins to describe how he will undergo suffering and be rejected by powerful leaders, and be killed? I know that I, at least, have often longed for a God who will come with strength and power when I feel weak and vulnerable. I have hoped for a Savior who would smite all the evil in the world with one mighty blow. And yet, that is not who Jesus says that he is.
Jesus scolds Peter for trying to equate the way human beings understand God with who God really is. Jesus offers not a war hero, but his very own flesh and blood as the ultimate answer to our prayers. He does not come in might, but gently into the broken places of our world, to meet us with healing, forgiveness, and hope. We may find ourselves disappointed by this Messiah. We want to be on the winning side. We don’t want mercy; we want vengeance. But that is not God’s way. We live in a culture that teaches we get what we deserve.
To this kind of thinking, Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.” It isn’t God’s policy that, if we are faithful and good, we will make the cover of Fortune 500 and our families will be models of cooperation and joy. Jesus doesn’t say that if our congregation adheres to his teachings, membership will expand 100-fold and we will never have to replace the boiler or patch the roof again. No.
In the kingdom of God, the rules are all turned upside down. “Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will find it.” Jesus says that if we want to become his followers, we must live as he did, willingly serving one another, blessing those who persecute us, and looking out for the common good. We are to honor those the rest of the world leaves behind—those people who are ignored or in pain, who are afraid and alone, those who have forgotten or lost hope in the truth that they are important, that they are beloved of God and made in God’s image. If we are to emulate Jesus, we must lift up the children, the outcasts, the diseased, as the significant ones among us. We must sit on the lower rung.
Often living like this sounds like a punishment—as if following Jesus were simply an ongoing slog through suffering and misery. That’s because we live in a world that says only by having more or being more important can we truly be happy. We are taught to believe that if we do important things—or at least hang around important people—power and significance and, yes, happiness will rub off on us.
But I wonder if Jesus is calling us to consider losing our lives to find them in a different light. Many of us who work in non-profits have found an alternate truth—that in serving others, we find great satisfaction. Just this week I was speaking with one of the Canopy Center’s newest employees. I asked her how she finds hope, when her work involves counseling families in which abuse has occurred or is likely to occur. And she told me instance after instance of days when she felt like her life really mattered because she was able to walk alongside people when they needed a listening ear, a non-judgmental companion, a clear-eyed, objective coach. She told me of a woman who said that her presence was like that of an angel’s in their family’s chaos.
Like the letter from James and the Prophet Isaiah, this woman has been given the tongue of a teacher. She has taken up the task of teaching, coaching, and helping people who are in distress. She is never going to acquire a lot of possessions or make a lot of money. But she finds her work rewarding, life-giving, significant. Might that be true for others too? I can tell you it is certainly true of my life as a pastor. And I know I have heard this same kind of comment from many people who live lives of service—the reward is in the giving.
But what if your professional life is not in a service role, or you are retired from work altogether? Is there a way for you to find your life by losing it too? I am certain you can. Ask some of the people in this room what they get out of volunteering for various agencies and programs. Ask them if giving up an hour of their time to tutor a teen who is struggling with math, or to help around a hospital, or to hold a sick child gives life or takes it from them. I suspect most will say that in some way, giving away that hour of their life gives them more life. And there are statistics that prove people who give money away to other people are happier than those who spend it only on themselves. Perhaps Jesus isn’t condemning us to a life of pain by asking us to lose our lives in order to find them. Perhaps he is reminding us of what real life looks like, feels like, is like.
Who do we say that Jesus is? What stories do we tell about Jesus? What lessons from him are important for us to teach to others? Were someone to ask you, “why do you go to church?” or “what do you believe?” what would you say? How does the way you spend your money, your time, your energy, show what is important to you? How does your life express what you believe God values? If we, like Peter, say that Jesus is the Messiah, how do we live because we believe that? How are we striving to pick up our crosses and follow our leader?
The truth is, we may never get really good at following Jesus along this path. None of his disciples ever really mastered it either, though many have provided us with admirable examples of how to try. The good news is that Jesus did master greatness as God conceives it. Jesus did live and die for love. And because Jesus was able to lose his life for the sake of the world and then to find it, we are able to do that, too. Because Jesus gave everything away, only to discover new life on the other side of it, all of us can experience resurrection and transformation too. It may not lead to acclaim or glory. But when we risk losing our lives for Jesus sake, we will find that real life is much, much more than merely surviving. In surrendering the whole world as we know it, we will find out what is important. We will discover what it means to be fully human, created in God’s own image. We will come face to face with who God is, and who we are. And it will mean everything.