We have reached the halfway point of Mark’s narrative, and our journey with Jesus continues toward Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was renowned for its temples. In particular, there was a magnificent temple to Pan and, after Herod had finished with his efforts, a wonderful marble temple to Caesar, the son of a god. A God of nature and a self-proclaimed god serve as the background to Jesus’ questions and instruction right smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel.
The scene starts out innocently enough. Jesus asks those following Him who people say that He is. The disciples throw all kinds of answers at Him. Some say you are John the Baptist. Others say you are Elijah returned. Still others say You are one of the prophets. The answers all make sense in light of what Jesus had done and what people expected of the Messiah. Since Jesus had come with no army at His back, no doubt some thought He could be the one announcing the coming of the Messiah. Plus, given the possible family resemblance, some may have even argued that John had not been killed, but saved by God for this wonderful ministry. Even the proclamations that Jesus was Elijah make sense. Only Moses and Elijah lacked graves. Elijah, in particular, we are told, was carried up into heaven by the chariots of fire in full view of Elisha and the company of prophets. Jesus miracles of raising the dead would certainly call to mind the idea that Elijah would come again.
Jesus then asks that important question: But who do you say that I am? These men and women have followed Jesus around as He has taught and performed various miracles. Better still, they have had the parables explained. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus exerts power over nature and the supernatural. He casts out demons with nary any difficulty. He walks on water. He even meets with Moses and Elijah in His transformed glory. Peter, of course, takes the plunge. You are the Messiah!
For Peter and the disciples, this was quite the leap. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have only called Jesus, Teacher. Sure, they have wondered who He is, but they have been unwilling or unable to account for Jesus. He has cast out demons, He has walked on water, He has fed the 5000 men besides women and children, and He has performed any other number of miracles. But, until this point, none of His disciples have been willing to voice the answer all no doubt wondered. To be sure messiah was a loaded word in Jewish culture. Depending upon whose school of thought one belonged, the Messiah could be a prophet like Elijah, a military leader like David, a wise teacher like Solomon, and a few other exemplars of their history. Certainly others had claimed to be God’s messiah, or had the title thrust upon them, only to be crushed by those who had conquered the Jews. Nobody, of course, thought of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant. Yet, right here in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, the point at which Jesus will demonstrate His faithfulness and His power by being obedient to the Father’s will and suffering the indignity and horror of the Cross, and right after all the works and signs of power and the Transfiguration, Peter makes His famous confession.
The answer is important not just to Peter and the disciples, but to all of us. Who do you say that He is? A hippie teacher from Nazareth? Someone who tapped into the eternal consciousness of the divine in nature? Someone else? It is an important question to ponder because, in the end, if He is someone other than Messiah, then His words can be ignored, shrugged off, as captive of His time. But if He is the Messiah, as Peter confesses, then we are all like Lucy with a lot of explaining to do.
Jesus, after ordering them to tell no one sternly, begins to teach them about His impending suffering and death. Mark’s Gospel will take a dramatic turn, not just in the sense that Jesus will now head to Jerusalem, but also in the sense that we will be focused more upon His suffering than His works of power from here until His glorification. Notice that Jesus no longer teaches them in parable. Mark says that He began to teach them plainly. Peter’s response, of course, makes sense from a human perspective. Mel Brooks may have made a small fortune off “It’s good to be the king,” but we laugh because we understand the joke. What good is it to have all power if one cannot do as one wishes? If Jesus is Messiah, from Peter’s perspective, then He should be glorified even more than the greatest king, the greatest prophets, the greatest of the men and women who have served God. And Peter is right. In God’s economy, Jesus ranks number 1. Everything in the end will be placed at His feet, precisely because He walked the way set out by the Father. But it is the path to that glorification that will scandalize and shock so many people along the way and those of us who hear of it centuries and millennia later.
Fortunately, you and I live on this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb. We know that Jesus has walked obediently the path set before Him. Unlike Peter and John and all the disciples and the crowds and those who opposed Him, we know He is the Messiah that Peter claims. He is God’s anointed. And He will accomplish for Jew and Gentile far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined.
I remind us of that simple truth because the answer to the question, if we agree with Peter, has a claim on our lives unlike any other claim. There are lots of claims on our lives, claims by families, by friends, by workers, by political parties, by sports teams. Only one person, though, died for our sins and rose again. Only one person paid the cost so that you and I might be made worthy to stand before God, that the chasm created by our sin might be bridged. That gives His claim priority in our lives. Or at least it should. Far too often we let everything and anything get in the way of His claim on our lives. So often we pay lip service to the fact that He was Messiah, rather than living as if we believed His claims were true.
And what is His instruction to those of us who would be His disciple? Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Me. It is a well known imperative from the Gospel. Non-Christians could probably cite the verse as well as Christians, which seems fair since so many Christians do as good of job of cross-bearing as our non-believing friends. Sounds harsh? Listen to Jesus’ words again.
First, He makes three demands upon all of us who would claim Him Lord. The first is that we deny ourselves. Jesus, of course, set this ultimatre example. Though He could have come with angels and chariots and theophanies, He chose to enter the world through the womb of a virgin. He chose to be born into the blue-collar family of a carpenter. He was laid in a manger instead of a crib. He seems to have had no house to call His own. He wandered about from place to place teaching, healing, and heralding the kingdom. Those who should have recognized Him did not. If anyone ever had reason to promote themselves, it was Him.
Yet how many of us are into self-aggrandizement or self-promotion? Ambition is a two-edged sword, is it not. Yes, we need some drive, but do we need the accolades that stroke our ego? Jesus says no. In fact, Jesus makes this the first of His demands of discipleship. How often do we expect God to be happy that we gave him 80 or 90 minutes of our lives each week, as if we were doing Him a favor? How many of us want to take the selfie or create the perfect tweet that shows our humility. Mac Davis wrote a funny song about the difficulties of being humble, but we tend to live as if He were speaking the truth of the messiah rather than Jesus. And, do not hear this as a specific attack on anyone in the pews, it happens to those of us in collars or behind the pulpits. My guess is, now that election season is upon us, there will be a huge fight for some to become the next Billy Graham or next kingmaker.
Jesus’ second demand of His disciples is that we take up a cross. You and I understand the context far better than His disciples gathered in Caesarea Philippi. We know that the path to glory passes through Golgotha. Nevertheless, how loathe are we to accept danger, to be willing to sacrifice, to be counted among the ranks of the enslaved and despised. To Jesus’ contemporary audience, these words would have sounded nuts. Rome excelled in putting people to death. Crucifixion was just considered one of the more, if not most, shameful ways to die. Generally, one died of exposure rather than blood loss or anything else. And while you hung there, in pain and thirsting, passerbys could hurl insults or worse at you. The historian Appian recounts how the people of Rome responded to the thousands of slaves and gladiators that were crucified by Pompey after the insurrection of Spartacus. And Jesus wants me to carry my instrument of execution willingly?
Jesus’ last demand of His followers is that the cross must carried to the destination He chooses. Sometimes we forget, I think, that our lives really are not our own. I’ll pick up my cross Jesus and head that way, the way of my own choosing. Jesus reminds us that He will choose our direction. We might think we are unqualified or not educated enough, but Jesus does not care. He understands that His power and His grace are sufficient for each one of us. Besides, when we know we are totally unqualified, the egos cannot really be stroked at the successes!
Why do we follow these three commands? Jesus points out that the way we seek to ensure our safety, to shield our lives, are all doomed to fail. The translation misses the Greek at play here, but Jesus is instruction His disciples, you and me, that to enliven our psyche, we must be willing to give up our lives. We have a hard time understanding what Jesus is proposing, but it makes sense. The psyche is what makes Leslie, Leslie, Dick, Dick, Jerry, Jerry, Brian, Brian, and so on. One of the unique claims of Scripture is that you and I will be known as ourselves throughout eternity, if we declare Jesus as Lord. The psyche, of course, was that identity God gave to us at our creation. It was that image of Him stamped into these fleshy bodies. And to get life for that psyche, we need to be willing to give us our lives.
How many of us, though, plot and plan as if this life is the reward? Know anyone who saves and saves and saves, so that they never have to worry about anything? They are like the man who built bigger barns. Know anyone who eats just so and exercises just so and is super-fastidious about everything related to their body so that they might avoid sickness or death? How does that work out for them? Know anybody who chases titles and accolades as if those are the real measures of life? I do. Heck, I was one who really used to. The problem, as some figure out, is that we cannot take our health, our riches, or our titles with us. We may become so enslaved to chasing after our security blankets that we sacrifice family, reputation, friends, and who knows what else. Some may even chase them to the point of rejecting Jesus and His claim and demand on each one of our lives. Yes, we know some who live as if they do not agree with Peter’s insight that He is the messiah.
All this instruction and demand serves as a precursor to Jesus’ promise to His disciples and His enemies. Deny Me, and I will deny you before My Father and the angels. Claim Me, and I will claim you as My own before My Father and the angles. The stakes for which we are playing, brothers and sisters, is far greater than you and I can ever ask or imagine. It is so easy to forget who Jesus was and what He did and what He has promised to do. Yet His instructions, His demands, are meant to help us make decisions in our lives with an eternal perspective. If we are going to be glorified for all eternity in Him, how self-effacing is it for us to deny ourselves for the few years we walk the earth? Really? If we are going to be raised, in part, for our willingness to walk with the despised and the condemned, how dangerous is the path in this life that we are walking? Really? And if we know He is the Messiah, why should we ever be stressed out about the route He has chosen for us? Really?
I told the 8am congregation that I lacked specific Advent examples of cross-bearing to share. There I talked of how we in Nashville might be asked to help refugees of Syria assimilate in the community in the months ahead. In a country coming off 9-11, such is nearly unthinkable. Yet, who better to minister to the outcasts than those who have picked up a cross and willingly born whatever shame the world has chosen to give us. And for those among us who are really loathe to help Muslims precisely because they are Muslims, how will they hear the Gospel if disciples like you and like me do not make the effort to be Christ’s crucified hands and Christ’s crucified feet in the world for them? We might serve and serve and never once get ask to account for our accounts of service. But given the cost that He bore for your souls and mine, when is our labor ever really hopeless or wasted? I talked a bit about the difficulties of being faithful witnesses and winsome teachers in this era of the new sexual ethic that is morphing in our midst daily. We will seem to be out of step with the world and even with other Christians. But for some, this will be the cross born and the direction in which it will be carried.
Then Gregg gave me a great sermon illustration of cross-bearing discipleship for Advent between the services. As most of you all know, we have opened our doors to another group of Christians on the weekends and to a homeschool group on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Both pay us, so this is not just an “out of the kindness of our hearts” endeavor. But even a simple gesture of welcoming 80+ youth and maybe 100-150 other Christians each week can be challenging. I laugh now, but earlier this was a consuming problem. The Brides’ Room was locked up tight, and no one knew where to find a key! We wanted to make sure that the room was left unsullied by those who pass through our doors each week, and yet we left the room unusable to us! Where were we going to hold Lectio Divina this morning? I hear the laughter. Yes, God does sometimes speak in sarcasm or irony.
While that scramble was occurring, someone had put away the cutting boards in a drawer wrong. Andrea, while getting ready for snacks, could not open the door. Poor Gregg was trying to help her. I don’t know how many splinters he picked up from that labor this morning. I am glad that he did not stab himself with that screwdriver he was using to wedge the kitchen drawer open. Plus, it meant I could look for the key to the Brides’ Room. I see the nods. You get the idea. You should have been here Wednesday when I was on the floor trying to light the oven pilot with Ron and Peter directing!
No doubt our willingness to open our doors has other nagging consequences. No doubt some of those consequences cost us a bit in terms of convenience or finances; some, like poor Gregg’s ministry this morning, might actually cost splinters or some blood. How big are those crosses, though? Take a pause from the laughter and from your knowing winks and ask yourself how heavy these issues really are. Do the really rise to the level of shaming and death, or are they merely inconvenient? My suspicion is that most of us will come down on the side that they are inconveniences rather than true cross-bearing. Yet, how important are those born inconveniences in the lives of those whom we try hard to serve? The parents of 80+ youth understand that we really do value education and youth, just like Jesus said we should. The members of another congregation saw us in deed trying to help them honor a spiritual matriarch who had passed. Yes, it was quite the service, but so was ours. While they mourned with those who see her no longer and celebrated that she had gone to her reward, we were on the floor like slaves, making sure all could come to that shadowy party of the feast that is to come! And it is those images, of the youth of no account and the immigrants among us being served, that testify to heart of Advent. Do we fail? You better believe it. But it in failure where God’s power is most made manifest in our lives, for only in failure do we often find the humility and need for redemption. Who do you say that He is? More importantly, where has He asked you to be a cross-bearer in the lives of others?