Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 for Pentecost +16, Year B, September 13, 2015
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.”
This past week, one of the presidential candidates got in trouble for using a song at one of his rallies without the permission of the band who recorded it. The band, REM was not at all pleased that their song, “The End of the World as We Know It” would be used by a person whose politics are about 180 degrees opposite theirs.
Is it the end of the world as we know it? As you know, I love history – although I am not sure why, because so much of it is so depressing, but anyway, it strikes me that the world we had known has ended with great frequency.
Every war ends the world as it was known before. We were just watching a documentary about the enormous refugee crisis that followed the First World War. That war ended the Ottoman Empire on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. It changed the maps of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It was the end of the world as it had been known.
Those changes set up the conflicts of the 20th and now 21st centuries. Those conflicts continue right up to the present day in which ISIS is fighting to get the old pre-WWI caliphate back. Refugees by the millions are again on the move. It is truly the end of the worlds they had known before.
What are we called to be and to do in such times as these?
As Christians, we take our cues from Jesus. Jesus was similarly living in the end of the world as his Israelite community had known it. Actually, a lot of people wanted the end of the world that they knew; they wanted the Romans gone. They wanted their old Israelite kingdom back.
There was good reason to want the Romans out. Rome was a bitterly oppressive imperial power. Roman tribute taxes were oppressive, and their collection system amounted to legalized extortion – and none of it went for schools or health care.
The Romans were not at all reluctant to publicly torture people to death for any and every perceived opposition. The method they used was called crucifixion: it was as slow and painful a death as had yet been invented. Rome crucified thousands and thousands. It was their favorite method of deterrence.
Profiting from, and supporting this Roman occupation, was the aristocracy of Israel, the land-owning class comprised of “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.” They were also the people running the temple, with its additional taxes and obligations.
Jesus Preaches the Kingdom
In this context we find Jesus. And what is his theme? The Kingdom. It is not at all surprising that people flocked to Jesus. It is also not surprising that they misunderstood him. When people heard the word “kingdom” they immediately got the idea that Jesus was starting the revolution, as they expected messiah would do.
It is true that Jesus had the mission of bringing to an end to the world that they had known, but not in the way most of them expected. Jesus was, to be sure, in absolute and defiant opposition to the injustice of the Roman system and opposition to the unjust oppressive Israelite aristocracy who were running it locally. But Jesus’ opposition was not violent.
As much as Jesus was opposed to the injustice of Rome and the Jewish elite, he was equally opposed to something deeper. Jesus wanted to bring to an end the world of the violent God of sacrifice and retribution.
For Jesus, God was not known best by a temple and an animal sacrifice. God is known best when two or three people gather together, and in Jesus’ name, break bread together in a bond of inclusive fellowship.
For Jesus, this is the kingdom of God; a new family – so perhaps we should say kin-dom of God. A family comprised of people who had been strangers to each other, but who welcomed one another, and became each other’s support system.
Now, it is true that this kindom vision had a very practical side. Jesus knew, as anyone could see, that violent revolution was coming. He opposed it, but he knew it was on the way. So, when it happened, he knew what the Romans would do to suppress it, and he knew it would be brutally violent. People who followed his non-violent way would desperately need each other as they tried to stay alive.
But in a profound sense, our lives, our deepest experience of what it means to be human, our most profound sense of meaning and purpose still depend on our willingness to embrace Jesus’ kindom vision of a reconciled community.
We were made for each other. We were made to love and serve each other. We were not meant to be isolated autonomous individuals or even privately barricaded nuclear families. The dream of the gated Hollywood mansion style of life is not paradise; unless you are a divorce lawyer. Rather paradise is the vision of a common table around which are gathered all kinds of common folks, breaking bread and sharing wine together without distinctions.
Anyway, back to the gospel. Jesus is curious if his disciples, who have been pretty blind to his kindom mission have opened their eyes yet. So he asks who they think he is. This is where it gets odd. They bring out some traditional answers – Elijah, one of the expected prophets. But then Peter blurts out
“You are the Messiah.”
The weird part is that we know from chapter one that that is the right answer, but Jesus treats it as a mistake, sternly telling him to keep it down.
Then, Jesus talks about himself. But instead of using the title Messiah, he switches to another title from the Hebrew Bible, calling himself “the Son of Man.” And every good Jewish child knows that the Son of Man is going to go up to God, the Ancient of Days, and receive from God the right to rule as king; he gets a kingdom. That is from the book of Daniel.
So, is Jesus ready to be king and put the Romans to the sword after all? No! Just the opposite. Jesus has rejected the notion of a violent God and of violence. But he is still opposed to injustice. So the only inevitable conclusion is that if you are going to oppose the violence of injustice non-violently, you will inevitably suffer.
So Jesus predicts the obvious. He is going to face opposition from the ones with the vested interests in the unjust system, and they will use the means at their disposal to shut him down. They will kill him.
“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.”
Peter is not prepared for this, which leads to his confrontation with Jesus, but Jesus will not be dissuaded. If you want to fight Rome with violence, even if you won, you would loose. You would have sold your soul to violence for the sake of a material kingdom. That would be the greatest loss you could bargain for.
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their [essence] life [“soul”]?”
Real life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life that is truly and fully human is a life lived not for self, but for others. Not for the ego-props of status, power, money, fame, material possessions, but a life that has learned to say no to the ego, no to the false self, no to the small self. A life lived saying yes to our true identity as children of God, one with God; at one with the God who manifests God’s life in the totality of the world God has made, and every creature in it.
Here is how Jesus put it:
“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.”
Of course it is a paradox: that is how we know it is true. It is the non-dual thinking that mystics are capable of. Loosing life for others is actually gain, while the self-concerned life is loss.
The old paradigm of the God who is opposed to the world of humanity is simply wrong. For Jesus and Jesus’ followers, it is the end of the world as we knew it. It is the beginning of the world where the miraculous happens as we are open to finding God in all of the world that traces its common source back to God.
Transforming the Cross
So, in an act of ultimate trust, Jesus will continue to oppose injustice and the inhuman systems that cause such suffering, and he will loose his life in the process. His willingness not to be dissuaded, even by brutal crucifixion, will take away the one tool that Rome depends on; the deterrence of the death penalty. Take that away, and they loose.
Jesus’ living, life-giving spirit cannot be killed by Rome. The cross, their greatest tool of oppression, will come to symbolize the coming of the Son of Man in power, breaking the threat of death, giving rise to new life; the kindom of God; God’s will being “done on earth as it is in heaven”.
This is the life we are called to. The life lived in the present Spirit of the risen Christ who calls us all into the family of God. As children of God, members of this diverse family, we come to experience the presence of God in and through each other. As we break bread together, share life together, journey together, we come to know God at work in our lives.
As we pray and worship, we become alive to the Spirit alive in us. And as we let go of our egos, our false selves, we open up to the world where God is present in the victims, the refugees, “the least of these.”
Our World as We Know it Now
I have recently been reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” I think he gets Jesus better than a lot of our politicians do. He says that for Christians,
“The teachings [of Jesus] must be practiced as they were lived by Jesus” (p. 70).
I think Pope Francis gets Jesus too. He has recently called on all parishes and all Christian communities in Europe to each sponsor one refugee family. It is a tall order, but the need is huge. There are already 4 million registered Syrian refugees. Turkey alone has two million.
Germany is expected to receive 800,000 refugees. Our country has just announced that the administration intends to take 10,000. This is a pittance, especially compared with our size, our capacity, and our often-repeated public assertions of Christian values.
Even this tiny number will be opposed, I am sure, by people telling us it will be the end of the world as we know it. Why is it that so many politicians hire the Chicken Little political consulting firm? And why do so many smart people get seduced into thinking the sky is falling? It is beyond me.
But I wonder: if our community here in Gulf Shore were given the opportunity, would we be willing to sponsor a refugee family from Syria? Would we be willing to help find them a place to live, get them set up with appliances and furniture? Would we help them get the kids enrolled in school and make sure they had adequate food and clothing? Would we help make sure they had transportation to doctors and to the grocery store until they could get themselves settled in new jobs?
I actually believe we would be willing. But I want to hear from you. I want to be able to have a conversation with session and tell them what I have heard from you all. Then I want us to pray about how we can respond.
It may be that we will not have that opportunity to personally sponsor a refugee family. There are, nevertheless, ways we can concretely respond right now, even though, unfortunately, it is help given at a distance from the real humans who are suffering.
But help is needed. And we are going to be part of that help.
How? One way is this: “Gift of the Heart Kits”