a sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19B/Lectionary 24]
As many of you know, the National Football League begins its season this weekend, which will make a lot of people, including some I live with, very happy. Thursday night saw the league opener pit the Dallas Cowboys against the reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and at some point today the remaining thirty teams will square off against each other. Over the course of the next four or so months, each team will play seventeen games, unless COVID interferes somehow. All in all, this will amount to around $12.2 billion in revenue, based on last season’s numbers. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge pro football fan, but I will say that the weekly games do provide for a nice distraction in the midst of all the fall busy-ness. After living for six football seasons in Pittsburgh, I can appreciate how much football brings people together.
One thing that I think adds to football’s popularity, even if your team doesn’t have a mascot yet or catchy name, is the clear purpose to every season. Every player, every coach, every fan knows exactly where they hope today’s game will eventually lead. The purpose and point to every minute of every game, every snap, every touchdown is to reach and then win the Super Bowl. To take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The team I’m bound by marriage to pull for, the Steelers, have been given a 0.8% chance of winning the Super Bowl this year, but that will not stop them from plotting and planning to overcome those odds. When the going gets tough, when the mission seems to go off course, the coaches and captains will remind everyone what their goal is.
If only Jesus’ mission were always so clear and well-defined to us! Today in Mark’s gospel we reach what many Bible scholars call a turning point in Jesus’ journey with his disciples. It is a turning point because he is needing to re-focus and re-clarify just what he and his purpose are all about. He is sensing that things may have gotten a bit off track and it is time to huddle together and remind them what exactly is at stake.
The place where he huddles them, Caesarea Philippi, is pretty significant. It’s a good place to talk about mission and identity. Caesarea Philippi sat atop a big cliff and had recently been expanded with shiny new buildings and memorials to the emperor by the local ruler Herod Philip. It was the kind of grand, gleaming place that made you think about permanence and legacy and the mark you might leave on the world. We can imagine Jesus having this conversation in Richmond, standing somewhere down along Monument Avenue as the Lee statue was being removed. He’d look up at the big Confederate General being taken down, sawn in two, and would say to his own followers, “What is the point of my mission, after all? What will I be remembered as? What do people say I’m fighting for?” Those were some of the questions swirling in our own town over the past year as the statues were removed and carted away. Jesus wonders them now about himself.
And to answer those questions, Jesus must consider his identity. He has to get his disciples to answer questions about his who he is. At his baptism he was proclaimed as God’s beloved Son. Mark, the gospel writer, calls him the Christ right at the beginning, in the first line, which is to say that is who we need to come to know him as. “Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah, which is a Hebrew term that means “God’s chosen anointed One.” So much has already happened between Jesus and his disciples as he’s taught and healed through the villages of Galilee and even outside Jewish territory, but do they really know who they’re working with? Is his identity clear? He speaks about all of this openly, just so there’s no air of secrecy or chance to get the basics confused.
This is an excellent question for each of us to ponder about Jesus all the time. Who do we say Jesus is? A guy who listens to us and answers our prayers? A leader who calms our spirits when we’re troubled? A personal teacher who helps us understand wisdom? Jesus is all of these things throughout the gospels, but here in Caesarea Philippi he points us to the true mission as Messiah. To know him as he truly is to realize he loves us to the point of his own death. The Super Bowl of this mission, of the Messiah’s mission, is not hoisting a shiny trophy to the roar of adoring crowds. It is not just giving us words to live by. It is not even physically healing us and our loved ones. It is not to be remembered with a statue or monument. His mission is to suffer and die. A cross is involved. Rejection and self-sacrifice are the name of the game.
As the great preacher Fred Craddock once quipped, “it’s possible to get an A in Bible and still flunk Christianity.” That’s what happens to Peter here. Peter doesn’t like hearing Jesus’ true mission. He gets an A in explaining Jesus’ title, but he misses the mark on the suffering and dying. Let’s be honest: none of us really likes hearing these things either. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t particularly like making sacrifices. And we only need to look at the struggles over mask wearing and getting vaccinated over the past year to remind us of that. We are so quick to talk about our individual rights and claiming our personal authority. And yet Jesus is clear: to follow him involves self-denial, not self-assertion. To be on his team will require losing our lives, over and over again in acts of humility and kindness and gentleness.
I think sometimes I trip over the word “deny” in this passage, as if to deny myself means to harm myself or ignore my needs, like some kind of self-flagellation. The Greek word that Jesus uses for “deny” in this prediction of his death means “to act in a selfless way and to give up one’s place as the center of things.” It is what Jesus models for us as he turns around from Caesarea Philippi and heads back to Jerusalem where he will die. He physically turns away from those impressive monuments and statues of the city on the hill and goes toward the cross at the edge of town. Getting an A in Bible is knowing that the Messiah, God’s chosen One, is the leader and the Savior of the world. But getting an A in Christianity means realizing that Jesus becomes Messiah by handing himself over, by letting himself be crucified, by placing us at the center of God’s love.
So if this turning point has to do with understanding Jesus’ true identity, who he truly is, so will our identities and our lives turn on the discovery of who and whose we truly are: God’s people. Because Jesus, the Messiah who loves us by offering us his place, has invited us to join him, so we will go about loving others by offering them our gifts, our time, and treasure. That is taking up the cross. We lose ourselves in the suffering of the world. And in that we will find life.
I heard the story once about a very successful 18th century American merchant named John Woolman. You can look him up. He’s on Wikipedia. He lived a very comfortable and satisfying life until God convicted him one day of the problem of owning slaves, which he did. After that moment, Woolman gave up his prosperous business and used his money to buy people out of slavery. He even started wearing undyed wool suits to avoid relying on dye that slave labor produced. One philosopher historian, Elton Trueblood, reflecting on the life of John Woolman several years ago remarked, “Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and intensity of problems.”
And that’s probably the really hard thing to swallow, and what Peter bumps up against. The path of Jesus is not about solving our problems, of winning our games, because Jesus didn’t come to win his, and he doesn’t seem to be worried about his own problems. The way of discipleship, then, is about taking up the cross and solving others’ problems, of seeing our faith as inextricably bound to the suffering of the world and going there with our love. Discipleship looks at Afghan refugees plopped in our midst and not so much arguing about how and why they’re here but realizing they need basic life necessities to make it through each day and then sticking with them over the next several months so they get on their feet in a new country. Discipleship looks like the actions of one of our young people a couple of years ago who was announced as the winner of a big school-wide competition in an assembly and was handed the grand prize. As soon as the prize was handed to her, a large stuffed golden eagle, she turned around and gave it to another student, a friend of hers, who had not had the same chance of competing. Discipleship is sticking our necks out for our neighbor because we find a funny thing happens. When we stick our necks out our eyesight for seeing divine things automatically gets better. And that’s how Jesus wants us to see.
And discipleship is remembering, above all, that last part of Jesus’ mission in Jerusalem. After the great suffering and the rejection, after the killing and dying, Jesus says he will rise. After three days he will rise again. 100% chance. That is the trophy that comes at the end of it all. And on that day we have faith that all our stories will be told in truth, all our present sufferings will make sense, all our sorrows will wash away, and all our connectedness to others will be clear and beautiful to see. We will see that everything we worked so hard to grasp and hoard is worth nothing, and that everything we let go to others made us rich. We will realize that every monument raised to human glory will eventually come down, but every gesture done in the manner of the cross will live on. Lifting high the cross, we will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living, winners…winners not because we earned it or because we deserve it, but winners of all because God has won the prize and handed it to us.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.