Message by Rev. Jenny Carter
September 16, 2018
Based on Mark 8:27-36
Before jumping into the intriguing, elusive, and utter captivating gospel reading, I want to begin with a question. Well actually three questions that are deeply intertwined. What gives you the greatest joy in life? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? When do you feel most alive, most true to the person God created you to be? So just take a moment to ponder the questions, and we will return to them in a bit.
The passage we heard read is intriguing, elusive and utterly captivating, and if you ever had trouble understanding what the author of Mark was trying to say about Jesus, God and faith, well this is the passage for you. The story takes place in Caesarea Philippi. Which is where the sin city reference in the sermon title comes from. This place was, in a nutshell, an example of everything that was oppressive and wrong in first century Palestine. A real sin city. And I’m happy to report, I and several from this congregation went there on our trip. Nestled in the modern day Golan Heights, it is now abandoned – yet you don’t have to have much of an imagination to see it as it would have been in Jesus’ day.
Caesarea Philippi was a Roman styled city built by one of King Herod’s sons, who really wanted to be king. In his quest to curry favour with Rome, he built this lavish city complete with pagan temples, a palace and luxurious homes for the rich Roman citizenry that lived in the country. This was not the kind of city a Jewish person would go to. In fact, it was the kind of place they would have avoided at all costs. No good Jewish person would be caught dead or alive in that place. So it is not insignificant that Jesus took his disciples to that city. It was a choice made by Jesus. The city wasn’t on the road to anywhere they would have been going. It wasn’t a place that good Jewish people went or were particularly welcome – and yet here they were.
So, picture it. Jesus and his little band of followers sitting down right smack dab in the middle of the city. Jesus is teaching. Up until this point in Mark’s gospel, none of the disciple’s had any real understanding of what Jesus was talking about, nor who he really was. Every time we, as the readers of the story, would think they finally understood, it wouldn’t be long until we knew that no, nobody understood a darn thing. So when we finally get to today’s reading and Jesus’ question about who do people think he is – we almost cheer in relief when Peter, in a flash if insight, finally gets it right by saying he is the messiah. Yay, we think, he has finally gotten it!
Or has he? Sure he has the title right, but he doesn’t seem to understand what that title means. When Jesus goes on to talk about what the messiah must do, go through, and suffer as the road to freedom is found, Peter rebukes Jesus. No, no he says, that’s not how it is supposed to work! But Jesus rebukes Peter right back, and in terms laden with sharp disapproval, with the Roman city serving as not only a backdrop to the story, but as a central character in the biblical narrative, Jesus tells Peter that this is exactly how it works.
Which calls into question our own understanding of Jesus. Because we have to admit that Peter’s definition of “messiah” is usually the one we prefer as well. Peter, we, and just about everyone we’ll ever know, want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses, provides ample prosperity, guarantees our security, urges our sports teams to victory, and can engage in a little smiting of enemies along the way if circumstances get dire.
But that is not what Jesus offers. Instead Jesus points us to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering and loss. A God who meets us in the moments where we really need God, when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart – and we realize we are mere mortals, incapable of saving ourselves all by ourselves, and who are in desperate need of a God who meets us where we are. Even if that place is in the lap of Roman occupation in the sin city of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus’ identity proves elusive precisely because God shows up just where we least expect God to be. Which means, we don’t get the God we want, but we get the God we need.
Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has only been talking to his disciples. But after this encounter with Peter, Jesus calls to the crowds and asks them to come closer and to listen up. Again, it is important to remember where they are. They are in a city where human life is viewed as cheap, where power is something to lust after and kill for, and where the way of the oppressor is seen as a valid, even glamorous, way to live. These are the people Jesus is calling to and inviting them to come closer and to listen on what makes for a good life and to encourage them to take up their cross and follow him.
Since we all think we know what that means, that “taking up the cross” invitation, let’s slow down just a little bit and not jump to the end. You see, we all too often view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories where ever possible because surely those things can’t be right, can’t be Christian somehow.
But this isn’t the whole story, and it is not what Jesus was trying to say here. He wasn’t saying to the citizenry of sin city to give up a life of hedonism to embrace a life of dour denial and suffering, where they must constantly fall on their own swords. I think he was trying to tell them that how “life” had been “packaged and sold” to them isn’t real life. That society’s notion of the “good life” isn’t all that good. That there is a better more abundant way to live. So he is inviting those people, and us, to die to the illusions of life that we have learned so well over the years, so that we can be born into a new way of living and being. This is what is behind Jesus’ words of giving up one’s life in order to follow.
We tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. But it turns out that life isn’t a commodity at all. Life is like love – it can’t be earned, or bought or won, it can only be given away. The more you live for others, the more life you have. That somehow, in thinking about how to fulfill the needs of others, your own deepest needs are met. Call this the mystery of life, or as Jesus termed it, the keys to the kingdom.
This story and its teachings are the pivot point in Mark’s gospel. From here on in, Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, and we all know what that means. So it is crucial that we understand that his message isn’t about the nobility of suffering and martyrdom – not at all. His message is a counter cultural one simply because we too live in a world of quid pro quo and scarcity and where there is never enough, and the only thing you can count on are the things you own. This is what Jesus turns on its head by teaching that the only things we can hold onto are the things we give away; like love and mercy and kindness and compassion.
Which brings me back to the questions I asked way back at the beginning of this sermon. So what did you say gives you the greatest joy in life? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? And when do you feel most alive, most true to the person you were created to be? My guess is that your answers were not rooted in things that can be bought, but instead were grounded in relationships, and helping others, and the times where you were able to express caring through acts of service large and small.
The good news for today is that a life of faith, a life of self-denial and cross-bearing isn’t about being less happy. It isn’t about going through this life looking for ways to suffer more, all in the name of Jesus. It is about discovering what real life is all about. It is about giving away the life building things like love and compassion and simple kindness to everyone. It is about finding God in the unexpected places which are always exactly where we need God to be. It is about finding where joy lives and bringing that joy home.
May it be so in your life, and in mine.