Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sermon: "But you - who do you say that I am?"

Isaiah 50.4-9
Psalm 116.1-9
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38

So, our Gospel today begins with Jesus’ question to his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and as I was reading it struck me how like being in the classroom today this ancient conversation was: I often ask questions of my pupils and get this scatter-gun approach to answering. “I’ll just say the first random selection of things that come into my head and hope that I strike lucky with one of them.” And this is what the disciples do here: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets come in close and fairly desperate succession. (One of the interesting things about Mark is that he never misses an opportunity to paint the disciples as slow-witted.)

“Oh for goodness sake you guys get a grip.”…. isn’t what Jesus responds. (Maybe too much about my classroom management style there.)

No. Instead he poses another question: “Who do you say that I am?” Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further. Now they know that Jesus is referring to himself and you can’t help but wonder at this point how foolish the disciple who offered “John the Baptist” as an initial answer is now feeling. Perhaps there is some friendly teasing at this point as they laugh at the daft answers they came up with …… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Messiah.” (Pause) We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has said and begin to consider it themselves.

Perhaps there is a similar mental back-tracking taking place here as we also realise the implication of both the question and Simon Peter’s response: after all, every time this passage is read we’re forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. So, yes, in a way Jesus is still asking the question of you and I today.

If Peter was indeed the first to have fully understood the nature of the man he had been travelling with and sleeping cheek by jowl with, what had he thought before? How had the others understood this Jesus who had called them from their ordinary routines to this life on the road as religious itinerants? Which of the disciples’ answers best represents ours? Are we at that stage of spiritual awareness where we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet, perhaps? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time?

Or like Simon Peter, have we recognised something beyond that? Have we had that moment of dawning realisation where we recognise that Jesus is …. not was …. is indeed the Messiah?

Now I think I know most of you here well enough to be confident that your answer, albeit two thousand years after the question was posed, would be the same as Peter’s. I think I would be surprised if anyone here came up with something other than Peter’s “You are the Messiah.”

So, there you go then: the shortest sermon on record at St. Small's. Thank you very much, you’ve been a wonderful congregation. I’ll see you next week.

Well, if only it were that simple.

It isn’t though, is it?

How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in worship. The answer is of the utmost significance. It goes to the heart of our relationship with God; it goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves; it goes to the heart of how we lead our lives; to the heart of the relationships we have amongst ourselves and to the heart of the very motives which drive our lives and our decisions.

Do you see Jesus? Not just the form of His crucified body on the crucifix but the Risen Lord with the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and side standing before you alive today as the Lord of your death and life?

Of course we can assent to the intellectual proposition that Jesus is Messiah without it impacting in the slightest on our lives. In many ways this is what the role of the church is, to bring people into a living relationship with that same Jesus, not as an abstract intellectual concept but in terms of discipleship and commitment.

Maybe we need to backtrack.

What does the term Messiah mean to you? Anybody?

The dictionary definitions variously offer us: “The promised and expected deliverer of the Jewish people.” “God’s anointed one.” “God’s chosen one” and then helpfully offer the rider “Jesus Christ is regarded by Christians as fulfilling this promise.”
With the benefit of hindsight we know that at least one of the disciples misunderstood the idea of Messiahship when applied to Jesus: perhaps at this stage more of them did. How easy to get carried away by the image of the “expected deliverer of the Jewish people” and think of violence and insurrection and a political overthrowing of the Roman occupation.

So maybe Messiah isn’t a particularly helpful image for us …. but it wasn’t used for us. Although Mark wasn’t particularly written for a Jewish audience, many of his readers would have been Jewish, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he uses such a loaded term in his attempts to bring more Jews into the ark of the church.

I don’t know where Judas had gone at this point, or whether he simply wasn’t listening, but Jesus makes it very clear that his Messiahship would not fit the common expectation. Quite the opposite: Jesus would “undergo great suffering, 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” even though Peter, who also clearly hadn’t been listening, then blots his copy book by arguing with Jesus.

You see, Judas and Peter – and probably most of the others - wanted the traditional Messiah; the Messiah who would lead them to military victory against the Romans and establish an independent Theocratic Israel. To them Jesus needed to be so much more than a mere prophet.

From top to bottom of the class in one easy step.

Interestingly, Matthew’s version of the story has Peter responding to Jesus with “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God” which I think may make more sense to us.

“The son of the Living God.”

What are we going to do with this Jesus then?

Interestingly, to us in a denomination which uses the word Evangelical as part of its title, we see that Jesus cautions the disciples not to tell anyone. That injunction does not apply to us. Whatever reason Jesus had for demanding silence from the disciples – and the theme of Messianic secrecy continues throughout Mark – he does not require it of us. Quite the opposite as we witness in word and deed.

What he does require though, is an understanding of the cost of our discipleship.

Is this Jesus then as disappointing to us as he seemed at that moment to the disciples?

He shouldn’t be, of course, because unlike the disciples we have the benefit of hindsight: we know what they didn’t. But is there somehow something that we feel is missing in the path of discipleship that Jesus offers us?

I speculate that if there is, it is the sense that we are missing something. What does Jesus go on to tell Peter and the others? He tells them that the road to discipleship is hard. He spells it out to them as such: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That doesn’t reflect my pilgrimage of discipleship thus far and if I’m honest I’d very much like it to stay that way.

Maybe it reflects yours, but I’m guessing probably not.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it…”

It’s a bleak picture. Who wants suffering?

Yes it was told in a far away place in another time; a troubled and uncertain time to be precise and yes, we don’t face the same problems and anxieties, but this is a call to stand up and be counted. It is a call to show the world, who may not always appreciate the honesty, that we stand with Jesus and that his values are our values.

When I was on my parish placement in Tallinn last summer, I arrived the day before Russia invaded Georgia. The shock waves reverberated around the former Soviet states, particularly the Baltic States. What was I to do? What could I do? Was it any of my business? Was it in any way my problem?

I decided it was and I joined a pro-Georgian rally in the Old Town Square which then moved to outside the Russian Embassy. I could have sat in a café but I felt the need to stand up and be counted and to show that his values are my values even though those rallies became increasingly volatile and even though my presence would not have been missed at all. But before I set out I wondered to myself “How many others this afternoon are mulling it over and concluding that their absence wouldn’t be noticed? If we all think like that and act accordingly…….”

I mention that particular example deliberately today because there is a situation brewing here in Leeds that needs concerted action: on 31st October the self-styled English Defence League is intending to come to Leeds for an Islamophobic March of Hate. A similar march in Birmingham last weekend ended in rampant violence and untold pain and conflict with running battles in the street sending terrified shoppers running for cover.

Do we share the values of the haters or do we share the values of Jesus?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to suggest that we go into the city centre and join in the fray. Quite the opposite. We should probably* stay well clear but we can stop this march like a similar march in Luton was stopped by the intervention of the Home Secretary following a public outcry, by contacting the city council and the West Yorkshire Police and saying “Not In My Name.” See me at Coffee and I will give you the details. HERE

The Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke’s statement "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Is from the same stable as “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So is Pastor Niemoller’s equally famous "First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me."

In today’s passage Jesus makes it quite clear that God is concerned about our priorities, and God cares more that we share and express his values than he does about our comfortable lives.

That we share and express those values when we have the opportunity – and particularly when to do so is hard – is an indication that Like Peter, we can answer Jesus' question “But you: who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

* If they come, I'll be there.