As an art major in college I remember writing one paper on the Italian sculptor, Luca Della Robia. That was it! There might have been one or two more papers but, for the most part all of my exams were paintings, projects, or throwing pottery projects on the potter’s wheel. So when I entered seminary twenty years later it came as a shock to me that I had to write paper after paper after paper complete with footnotes that were precise according to Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Writing’. It was ok after I got the hang of it, and I did quite well.
But for this one professor it wasn’t the style of writing that mattered, it was much more so the content. Good thing this was early in my seminary training because it served me well. In one of her papers I used a ‘canned’ phrase that she reamed me on. That phrase was ‘Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’. “What”, she said emphatically, “do you mean by this? You won’t make it very far in seminary if you don’t learn to reflect in more profound ways, articulate more clearly, and formulate a deeper understanding of just who this Jesus is that you profess to follow.” Yeah! and so I did. Understanding Jesus can be a highly complex issue if you are pushed to think about it.
Today’s scripture is one in which Jesus poses a serious question to Peter. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ That Jesus! Just like my professor he was pushing Peter to dig deeper. From the 8th chapter of Mark:
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.”
Jesus is well into his ministry here in the Gospel of Mark, he has told lots of parables and has healed many sick people. The Gospel has dropped hints about his identity all along the way and it has also given us some idea of the reputation that Jesus was building for himself and for some like Herod, we know, it doesn’t sit well. So it is quite remarkable that this particular kind of confession of Jesus as Messiah, by Peter, is the first of its kind in this Gospel.
Jesus is now back in his own familiar land, not in Gentile territory but in the Northern Galilee in a town called Caesarea Philippi on the coast. Roman influence is great. Having to travel by foot, or perhaps riding a donkey took time, we see that Jesus uses his travel time wisely as he and his disciples traverse the hilly countryside of the Galil. There’s lots of time for talk.
He asks them, hmmm, just “Who do people say that I am?” It looks like he knows that people are talking about him to his disciples. Often that’s the case, right? It’s easier to talk with someone else about a particular person’s issue rather than openly and directly to that person’s face. Jesus was right. “Well”, the disciples say, ‘some call you John the Baptist, some say Elijah the prophet” who is to usher in the messianic age according to Jewish understanding’. Jesus pondered this as they walked further and then he asks more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?” After all, they are his hand-chosen inner circle who dropped their fishing nets and left their families to be with him 24-7.
Peter, quick with an answer Peter, says boldly, “You Jesus, are the Messiah! The Christ! The Anointed One!’ Honestly, I don’t think he had even one clue of what he said and just what Jesus as the Messiah really meant, like I did that first year in seminary. At least he had an answer though which was the correct answer.
And they continue walking. Jesus delves more deeply into the coming events of his life. He relays to the disciples his suffering and subsequent rejection by the chief priests and elders. He talks openly about his death and his resurrection.
But Peter, quick with an answer Peter, really didn’t want to hear any or all of this… ‘TMI’ as they say, too much information. He scolds Jesus. But turnaround is fair play, particularly with Jesus. Jesus scolds Peter and one ups him, get back Satan!
Then Jesus gets down to the nitty-gritty of discipleship or following him. You want to follow me? Jesus asks. Deny yourself, rather get out of your own way. You really want to follow me? Jesus asks. Then take up your cross, pick up the instrument, whatever that instrument is, that can ultimately kill you, which will bring about your death, embrace it then follow me. Embracing death will ultimately bring about the true nature of life, your life and you only have one.
For Peter, death is the question. For Jesus, death is the answer. We, as a congregation have embarked on a quest. A quest for redevelopment, a quest for examination of who we are as God’s beloved, and who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. It is also about who we want to be as Christ followers in the future. You have taken the first step.
But this process takes a whole lot of soul searching and serious deep reflection by each and every member and each one of the redevelopment teams. It’s not about change for change sake. We change channels, we change clothes, we change the light bulb when it goes out. So what we are talking about is just not mere change. Let me reassure you about that. That would be benign with empty theological premise.
It is about discernment of God’s spirit working deep within us. It’s thinking about and prayerful discussion where is God endeavoring to lead us? It’s about asking the question, ‘who do we think Jesus is, where in the world is he leading us; how can we be disciples of Christ’?
It’s not about growing the church for the sake of adding members or increasing the budget. If you think it is you are mistaken, if that’s what you think it is about, you are barking up the wrong tree. It is about answering the question, who is Jesus, who you individually and – we together, think he is, what he stands for and how he makes a difference in the life of this congregation. How he makes a difference in the life of this congregation is how we will make a difference in the community of Orange and beyond.
The redevelopment teams have been hard at work over the summer wrestling with this very question. Who do you think Jesus is and what does it mean to be his disciple. I encourage you to not use ‘canned answers’; to not shy away from them because it seems a bit too evangelical. It’s a starting point.
Who is Jesus for you? It is this Jesus who sets us apart from Jews, Muslims, Jain’s and others. It is Jesus in whom we take our que. What then does it mean to follow in his footsteps? Following his footsteps, his life give us a vantage point that is so different than others. That is what set’s us apart from social services or community attempts to do good and answer the call to humanitarian efforts.
The Faith Formation Team has been diligent in wrestling with this question. They found out that the term ‘being a disciple’ holds a unique definition for each one of them. So canned phrases can either be void of meaning, or filled to capacity with wildly diverse meaning. But this is a question that needs to be answered before we set our course for the future. Several people are hard at work with this. I encourage you to become involved with this important work too.
At the end of this month the team leaders from the redevelopment teams will be meeting to discuss just this and to assess the work thus far. You will be apprized of the work through an after church discussion and Orange Peal reports. I promise you.
So who is Jesus for me? He was the one I turned to for solace when I heard of Margaret Wright’s death. He is the one who’s life work I look at as to how I should act or react to humanitarian crisis and intervention. His death and resurrection is the one that I embrace when I, too need to be reminded that light always breaks forth from the dark, that joy comes in the morning.
How about you?