Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 12, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 16

Pentecost 16, 2021
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In today’s gospel reading, Peter calls Jesus the Christ, or the Messiah.  You and I just kind of gloss right over this and say, “Well, yeah.  Welcome to the club, Pete.”  But it’s important to see this reading in the scope of Mark’s entire gospel.  In the first chapter of Mark, in the first verse, we read, “The beginning of the good news[ of Jesus [the] Christ, the Son of God.”  Right at the start, Mark calls Jesus the Messiah.  And then . . . nothing.  All this exciting stuff happens for 8 chapters, healings, and teachings, and feedings, and nowhere is Jesus called the Christ, or the Messiah. 

And then, suddenly, we come to today’s reading.  Chapter 8, verse 29, Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the Christ.  And we would expect Jesus to say, “Exactly!”  But he doesn’t, does he?  Before that, Jesus asks them, who do people say that I am.  And they give that list: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asks “But who do you say that I am?”  Or, actually, what he asks is more like, “Who are you saying that I am?”  You know, when you talk to people about me, who do you tell them that I am?  And Peter answers, we’ve been telling them that you are the Messiah.  The Christ.  By which, Peter means, We tell them that you are the one who has come to take over the world, and destroy Rome, and restore Israel to its rightful place.  And then Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone.

Why?  Why doesn’t Jesus yell, “Yeah buddy!” and high five everyone in the group?  I mean, he is the One they’ve been waiting for.  Jesus is the one foretold by the prophets, the one proclaimed in the Psalms, the one who will finally lead God’s people to victory over their oppressors.  And Jesus says, don’t tell anyone?  What kind of PR strategy is this?  And then it gets even stranger, as Jesus starts describing what he is going to endure. 

And after Jesus describes what he must go through, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him.  And then Jesus rebukes Peter.  And then calls him Satan, for setting his mind on human things, rather than divine things.  I mean, wow.  This story does not go where we would expect it to go, does it?  Instead of heading to the front of the class, for having the right answer, Peter gets called Satan and is told that the right answer is the wrong answer.  How did this happen?  Well, we get our answer in what Jesus says after his rebuke to Peter’s rebuke.

It’s important to keep in mind that Peter has this Hail the Conquering Hero mindset about the Messiah.  And he’s not alone . . . everyone did.  God’s Messiah was supposed to be a great military leader, riding victorious over God’s enemies, because the only way to beat military strength is through greater military strength.  That’s how the world works.  Remember President Reagan’s slogan of Peace through Strength?  The Roman Emperor Hadrian—who was born around the time Mark’s gospel was written—said, “Peace through strength or, failing that, peace through threat.”  To bring peace, God’s Messiah would need to be a powerful warrior in order to overcome a powerful oppressor, called Rome.

But Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake . . . will save it.”  This is not how we think.  You save something by losing it?  You lose something by saving it?  This makes no sense to us.  If you want to win, you have to be strong.  That’s how winning works!

We want to stand strong for God.  Stand up for God.  Be the Christian nation that conquers for God.  We want to be the championship 2016 Cavaliers, not the 2017 one-win Browns.  We want to be winners, but God comes to us in our losses.  We want God to see us standing strong; but we need God in our weakness and pain.  The idea that Jesus prevents suffering is a lie.  (We have all suffered plenty in our lives.)  And the idea that Jesus causes suffering is also a lie.  (Jesus spends all his time healing people, and feeding people, and helping people, not hurting them.)  But those are two lies that are hard to shake.  The earliest Christians were tortured and killed.  But in our modern understanding of Christianity, we like to believe that Jesus will keep us safe.  Yet we know that’s not true.  Jesus does not save us from suffering.  Jesus saves us in our suffering.  

So, Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake . . . will save it.”  This is radical to Peter.  And it is even more radical to us.  Every message we hear is the opposite of this:  Get more, hold tighter, secure the border, protect what’s ours, take from the losers and give to those who have plenty.  The idea of laying down our life for others is radical, foolish, stupid, and even rebuke-able.

We think that more will make us happy.  Jesus says less will.  We say strength gives life.  Jesus says weakness does.  A world where you win by surrender, and gain by giving away?!?  Who wants THAT world?

Jesus does.  

Look.  Nobody said Christianity is easy.  Well, that’s not true.  Everybody says it is.  Everyone except Jesus.  Which should tell us something about what we think being a Christian is all about.  We must be careful not to tie Christianity to world domination.  Or winning.  Or defeating our enemies through strength.  In today’s culture, that is easy to do.  The military and the cross are two very different things, literally representing victory and defeat.  To conflate the two brings a rebuke from Jesus.  We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

And let me be clear:  I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a strong national defense, or that protecting us by serving in our country’s armed forces is somehow wrong.  Every country needs to protect its citizens.  I’m just saying that conquering our enemies is not what Christianity is about.  How do I know?  Because Jesus says so.  Right here.

When Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, he is counting on a righteous military overthrow of the enemy.  He is planning to follow Jesus with a sword into victory.  And Jesus says, yes, follow him.  But carry your cross, not your sword.  Only by walking into death with Jesus will we rise to new life in Jesus.  This is what baptism is all about, and that is why it is the entry point into the church.  We are drowned in the waters of baptism, and lifted up into new life with Jesus.  In some ways, that dangerous, powerful imagery of the Rite of Baptism gets lost in the gentle sprinkling of drops on a baby’s head.  But the message is still there:  Only by giving up will we gain.  Only by dying will we live.  Only in the death of Jesus will we find new life.

Jesus came to serve on earth, and now rules in heaven.  Peter got it backwards in today’s gospel.  But it’s easy to see how that happens.  We worship the one who laid down his life for us.  This is a hard teaching.  This is an upside down teaching.  This goes against everything we know and trust about the world.  But it is what Jesus tells us.  And it is what Jesus shows us.

And you can see it most clearly in the Eucharist.  Only by laying down his life can Jesus be present at this Altar.  The one we gather to worship promises to, somehow, be present in this bread and wine.  He offers himself to us again this morning in a tiny piece of bread and a few drops of wine.  He gives himself to us so that he can live inside us, providing healing, and forgiveness, and hope to a broken world outside those doors. 

These mysteries are hard to understand.  Christianity is not easy.  Jesus told us so himself.  And it’s okay that we get it wrong.  But today, may God give to each of us the courage to surrender, the strength to serve, and the will to lay down our life for others.

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