What About You? Living the Question (September 16, 2018)
What does it mean to be a Christian?
I’ve heard all kinds of different answers to that.
Some say that to be a Christian means to go to church regularly.
Some say to be a Christian means to follow the 10 Commandments, or a different set of rules, such as not being able to dance or drink, or shop on Sundays, or engage in other fun things.
Some say it means to be against many of the things that our society accepts … like being gay, or being in favour of a woman’s right to choose. The unfortunate result of this is that many people see Christians as those people who are against things.
In the 70’s and 80’s, people said you had to follow the Four Spiritual Laws to be a Christian — in short, 1) God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; 2) people are sinful and separated from God, so we can’t know God’s plan for us; 3) Jesus is God’s only provision for sin; and 4) we must receive Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour to know God’s love.
Some say that to be a Christian means to be more conservative in your social attitudes and political leanings.
Some say that to be a Christian means to affirm a particular belief about Jesus — such as “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” or having a particular view about the work Jesus did on the cross.
I’m here to tell you this morning that none of that is true. It’s both more simple and more complex than that.
Mark’s gospel this morning says quite clearly and quite simply that the heart of what it means to be a Christian is to follow Jesus on the way to the cross.
Now following Jesus doesn’t mean clicking a button on facebook or twitter. It’s not just liking or sharing Jesus’ posts on a small screen.
Following Jesus … it’s going to change us. It will change our lives. It will change our priorities. It will change the way we think about things, the way we treat people, the way we live. It will change our hearts. The fancy word for this is transformation.
The story comes right in the middle of Mark’s gospel. This story is the heart of how Mark understands our identity as Christians.
Up until now, Jesus has been teaching that God’s kingdom is at hand. Everything he says and does shows the power and love of God for the world.
And now, Jesus and his disciples are in the area around Caesarea Philippi; it’s in the north of Israel, at the margins. He asks the disciples, “What are they saying about me? What’s the word on the street? What are you hearing?”
“Well … some say you’re John the Baptist … or Elijah returned from the dead … or one of the prophets.”
Then Jesus asks the key question: “What about you? Who do you say I am?” And something clicks for Peter, and he answers, “You’re the Messiah. You are the Christ. You are God’s anointed one.” That’s what “Messiah” means; it’s the Hebrew form of “Christ”, and both words mean “anointed”.
Peter has the right answer. But here’s the thing … you can have the right answer and still not understand what it means. That’s why Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone about him.
He begins to explain that God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ, must suffer … be rejected … be killed … be raised.
It blows Peter’s mind. This can’t be right. That’s not what a Messiah is for. Jesus has it all wrong, so he pulls Jesus aside to tell him. What kind of Messiah is that? But Jesus cuts him off. “Get out of my way Satan! Get lost! You have no idea how God works!”
Jesus explains that following him means to deny yourself, take up your cross, and really follow.
Here’s the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus is harder than clicking a facebook button. Following Jesus means to go where Jesus goes, to do what Jesus does in the way that he does it.
Back in that day, people thought that the Messiah would come and lead Israel to victory. The Messiah would kick the Romans out, and as the decisive figure in Israel’s history, the Messiah would usher in God’s future. The Messiah would ensure God’s power and victory in the world.
But that’s not how Jesus understands his mission.
It wasn’t just back then. There are still all kinds of Christians who think that being a Christian is about winning the victory. We hear that kind of language all the time. We want a saviour who is a winner, a savior who makes us winners, a saviour who will give us prosperity and power.
But that’s not how Jesus understands his mission.
“If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.”
Now when Jesus says to take up the cross, he’s not talking about the kind of suffering that is simply part of life in a broken world—like annoying neighbours, or serious illness, or natural disasters, or a difficult family situation, or anything like that. We call it “our cross to bear”. But that’s not what Jesus means.
Neither is Jesus calling us to seek suffering or martyrdom. Although this reading has been used this way, Jesus is not telling people to stay in abusive relationships, because that’s your cross to bear.
Denying yourself and taking up your cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be:
- we do what is right and faithful, even if there are consequences;
- we help those who need help, even if it takes time and money;
- we stand up for the truth even if it is unpopular;
- we speak up for the environment, even when everyone else is yelling that we need to grow the economy;
- we reach out to invite and welcome;
- we live with compassion and grace, we speak words of hope and love.
Sometimes, that kind of witness succeeds. Other times, success comes only after a rock through a window, or an arrest, or dealing with a threat.
That’s what it means to deny yourself and bear the cross. It means putting God’s priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort and security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.
In other words, Jesus calls for a complete reorientation of our lives. We make the gospel our highest priority — not family or security or wealth or popularity or how we look. The fancy word for this is transformation.
And that’s when Jesus says, “If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life for the sake of the gospel, you’ll save it.” The Greek word for “save” has to do with health, healing, wholeness. If you want a whole life, a life lived with integrity, a life which is a healing presence in the world, you’ll live this way.
And the wonder, the sheer wonder of it all, is that God meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss. God meets us in those moments when we really need God.
God meets us in those circumstances when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart and we realize that we are mortal, incapable of saving ourselves and desperately in need of a God who meets us where we are.
God meets us precisely where we least expect God to be.
At the beginning of worship this morning, we sang, “Be Thou my vision … naught be all else to me save that thou art. Riches I heed not, nor the world’s empty praise.” At the end of worship we’ll sing, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?” Are we ready to sing those words … and mean them?
That’s what this is about. It’s about God being the very center of our lives, just as this story is the very center of Mark’s gospel.
Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus asks us, “What about you? Who do you say I am?”
And the whole of our lives is about living out that question. Moment by moment. Day by day. Year by year.
What does it mean to you to be a Christian?
Where in your life are you showing the marks of God’s love for the world?
How are we living out our baptismal covenant?
How are we living the Marks of Mission?
With God’s strength, we live out that question, every single day.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
September 16, 2018 (17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24)
Mark 8: 27–38
Proverbs 1: 20–33
James 3: 1–12