Here is my sermon from Sunday, September 16, 2018. It is the first of three weeks that we’re going to be hearing Jesus predict his death and resurrection. Every time he does so, the disciples (in this case Peter) don’t really understand what this means. This first time that Jesus predicts his death, it’s preceded by him asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, a question we would do well to answer as well. So, who do you say that Jesus is?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago, I was at an event called “First Call Theological Education,” which those who were required to attend affectionately termed “Baby Pastor School,” for those in their first three years of ministry. Anyway, at this weeklong program, today’s Gospel text was assigned for one of our worship services.
I was sitting with two of my friends, and their three-year-old, Eve. Pastor Jenn Ollikainen, whom many of you know from women’s retreats, was preaching. She had memorized this passage from Mark, and was really enthusiastically telling the story. After she said Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, she gave a big dramatic pause.
And in the silence of that moment, little Eve responded so convincingly, “I say Cookie Monster.” Poor Pastor Jenn never quite got the room back after that. I couldn’t tell you what she preached about, but I’ll never forget Eve’s four words.
Eve’s parents were embarrassed, although they didn’t need to be. She was clearly paying more attention than anyone gave her credit for. And, although we laughed, she had done something really special. She had heard the words of the Bible story directed towards her. She had heard Jesus’ question to the disciples, and answered it, assumed it was a question directed toward herself. We could all learn a thing or two from Eve.
So…who do you say that Jesus is? Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say a prophet. Much like Eve, the people around Jesus were using the influences from their culture to answer the question. We sometimes do it too. We sometimes form our expectations of Jesus, we sometimes answer that question “who is Jesus,” based on the culture around us.
What types of things, what types of people, does our culture idolize? Superheroes. Money. Fame. Success. And it’s all too easy to lay those characteristics on God. Who is God? A superhero. Powerful. Strong. Able to do anything. To fix anything. A savior.
Who do you say that Jesus is? Peter had the right answer, when he boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. He’s absolutely right in his answer, but absolutely wrong in his understanding of what that means.
Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was influenced by his own culture, too. At the point in history that this takes place, the Jewish people have been waiting and watching for a Messiah for a long time. Since the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and scattered the people. They’ve lived through Greek occupation. And now the Romans. The people were waiting for a Messiah, another King David, who could lead them to overthrow their oppressors. To help them be prosperous and powerful.
And so when Jesus tells his disciples what it means that he is the Messiah, this hoped-for one, that it means he must suffer at the hands of their oppressors. That he must die, and not just die but that he must be killed, be executed. That’s too much for Peter.
Jesus isn’t here to make him powerful or prosperous. Jesus isn’t here to fix his problems. In fact, it’s starting to sound very much like the opposite is true. And Peter’s not really onboard with that. He tells Jesus, “Hey, you really need to cool it on this suffering and dying stuff, ok? No one wants to hear that. Why don’t you tell the people what they want to hear?”
He’s right, though. It’s not what we want to hear. Wouldn’t we rather have a God who is here to fix our problems? When we get the diagnosis that we feared, or when a loved one relapses. When we see hurricanes and wildfires destroying whole towns. When we see immigrant children still separated from their parents. Don’t we, too, want a God who fixes everything? I sure do.
Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus who doesn’t talk about suffering and dying? Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus that doesn’t challenge us? Or call on us to pick up our own crosses and deny ourselves?
And what does it mean to take up our cross, anyway? This passage has often been misused to tell people to stay in bad situations. In abusive situations. That it was simply their cross to bear. That’s not what this means and we are not meant to condone suffering or abuse. Taking up our cross means that we’re going to follow in the way of Jesus, and that way has consequences. Taking up our cross means putting Jesus’ goals and priorities ahead of our own. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others—using our time, resources, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.
Is that what we want. Or would we rather want a Jesus who blends in nicely with our current political and economic and social norms, instead of calling them into question? Would we rather want a Jesus who is gentle and meek and mild, instead of challenging and disruptive? Would we rather have a Jesus who promises us good things if we follow him, instead of the radical call to give up our very selves, and the promise that the first will be last?
Yes, if I’m being honest, I think we often would rather have the easier Jesus. The one who’s here to make us feel good about ourselves, to take away our problems, and to offer blessings beyond belief if we believe in him. I want the God that cures cancer, that stops hurricanes, that keeps children from dying of hunger. I want the God that promises me good things, not a cross. Not self-sacrifice. I think that’s the God we all want sometimes.
It’s the God that Peter wanted. It’s the God that the crowds expected Jesus to be. But it is not the God that we find in Jesus the Messiah. But while we may not get the God we want, in Jesus we discover the God that we need. The God who doesn’t overwhelm us with power, but who meets us in our brokenness. In our pain. In our questions and doubts.
The God who may not fix these problems, but the God who says, “you will never go through this without me. I am here with you and I will never leave you.” The God who is invested in us, whether we’re experiencing blessing right now or whether we’re in the midst of suffering. The God we get is the one who meets us in our brokenness and death, who experiences our pain and hurts, in order to heal, to restore, and to redeem us.
Who do you say that Jesus is? We can call Jesus so many things: friend, teacher, companion, shepherd, Messiah. Any of these are right. I say that Jesus is who we need, when our lives aren’t easy. Jesus is who we need to be with us in times of uncertainty and times of joy, moments of doubt and moments of peace. I say that Jesus might not answer all my questions or fears, but Jesus is who I want with me on the road. Who do you say that Jesus is?