"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sunday sermon: "But you: who do you say that I am?"


Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct.  I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I was a Pharisee? What if I stood here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? – And I’ll always remember that segment from the film “The Life of Brian” where those on the edge of the crowd get a very garbled version of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the cheese makers?”

Of course, to what extent can someone like me, a product of my own times, truly enter into the experience, the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most importantly, the theological and social conventions of the first century? I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and sometimes I am surprised by the insights I get.

So I imagine myself among a group of friends walking with the sun on my face and the smell of wild flowers in my nostrils, joining in with the banter and half listening to three or four conversations at the same time.

Stepping back into the real me again for a moment, I’ve been taught to consider one or two things about the Biblical passages I read which I ought also to take on board as I read this segment and try and make sense of it.

And of the many things I could consider is the question about who this portion of scripture was written for? Who was Mark’s target audience, if you like, because the audience changes within the Gospel passages? And recognising this helps us to understand more clearly the message in that portion of scripture. Sometimes we see Jesus talking to his disciples but the message he speaks is clearly intended for the Pharisees. The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying but the Pharisees certainly did. They were his audience on those occasions rather than the disciples. So we need perhaps to recognise that sometimes there is an implied audience. Again in today’s Gospel we’ve heard Jesus speaking to his disciples: they were his target audience on this occasion but at the same time we need to ask ourselves who else might Jesus be speaking to? And this time we can see ourselves as the implied audience – at least for the first part of the reading - and I think we’re right to do that because we, too, are disciples. What Jesus said (in the past tense) to his friends – and particularly to Peter, all that time ago, he is saying to us today: is - present tense. Now. This morning.

I’d like us to reflect for a moment on this Jesus. Here is a man who has left his mark on history, which is fairly surprising given that he lived a long time ago in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere; came from a poor family with no political or social clout; didn’t travel extensively; never wrote down his thoughts and ideas and died in pretty ignominious circumstances. In the normal course of events he ought really to have been lost to history. Yet this man became one of the most revered and talked about people who ever walked the human stage and I’m entirely confident that those three or four years of his public ministry have had a profound impact on the lives of each of us here. The problem is that there is a dearth of material from Jesus’ own time and mountains of conflicting material from every generation since. So which Jesus are we talking about? Gentle Jesus meek and mild, as the hymn would have us believe? (Small children and fluffy bunnies?) Remote, mystical Jesus championed by an army of conspiracy writers such as Dan Brown? Radical-revolutionary Jesus so beloved by the downtrodden in the liberation movement?  Nerdy-precocious Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis in the temple in his youth?

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

Today, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus poses a key question. He starts the exchange with his disciples with the opening gambit “Who do people say that I am?” Which may have gone more like, “When you’re out and about amongst the people, in the market place or the synagogue, what are they saying about me?” We can imagine the disciples processing this: and they come up with a variety of first-thing-that-come-into-their-heads answers.

Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” 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’d come up with…… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has just 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 are forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. As modern disciples we are the implied audience for this first segment: it’s not just a story from back then. It’s a challenge for us today. No, it won’t hurt us at all to consider that Jesus is still asking the question of you and I today, here, this morning – and every time we hear this story, so when we ask: “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” his counter question is “Who do you think that I am then?” with a reply swiftly supplied by Peter: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”.

If Peter was actually 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, which is where my Muslim friends get stuck? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time? A political activist with a bad sense of timing?

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 Christ, the son of the Living God?

Yes, Jesus, the Living Lord of the Church, responds, present tense, persistently down the generations “But YOU: who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in our lives. How anyone answers that question is a matter of huge 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.

In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus promised to build his Church upon this confession of faith. So we need, perhaps, to ask ourselves again “Who do I think that he is?” And when we do, we re-live this Gospel story. As we individually and personally reply to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to us - to each of us - “You, too, are Peter and with you, too, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues and it includes us – present tense: it includes us. It’s in the here and now.

And then Peter blows it! "You are the Christ. You are the Messiah." He uses the right words, but he has trouble accepting their full implication. Jesus has to be very sharp with him. “Get behind me, Satan!” How humiliating! Only a few seconds ago he was, perhaps, feeling rather pleased with himself and now he’s being given a public dressing down. These are some of the strongest words in all of scripture, spoken to a man we know Jesus loved with all his heart.


Because Peter had only got half the answer right and he only revealed this by arguing with Jesus about what Jesus truly meant by “Messiah”. “Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

And this is where it begins to get quite difficult. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In my personal fantasy of being there in the story I am there as one of the disciples and so I am part of the target or primary audience, given the fate that we know awaited most of these men.

Every time I’ve been confronted with this passage and its talk of sacrifice in the name of discipleship, I’ve felt uncomfortable as I’ve listened to various people trying to argue the nature of the sacrificial life we should be living because of our allegiance to Christ: a life of loss forced upon us by our discipleship. I understood all the words but put into an argument, they never rang true in my experience. I am fortunate to live in one of the wealthiest and most tolerant countries on the planet: a country which is democratic and socially and religiously liberal as a default position. Where has been my loss and sacrifice in the name of the Gospel?

Certainly as a younger Christian I tended to assume that the fault must lie with me and my model of discipleship. If I wasn’t encountering hostility, perhaps I wasn’t doing discipleship right. After all, this passage and others like it make it clear that I should expect loss, sacrifice and conflict – if not persecution - as the cost of being a disciple.

It hasn’t happened - unless you count indifference.

The right wing tabloids in conjunction with former Archbishop Lord Carey, have tried very hard to convince us that there is an overt anti-Christian culture in modern Britain because some people have been stopped under Health and Safety rules from wearing religious jewellery in the workplace.

I really struggle to believe that this is what this passage means. If the cap doesn’t fit, don’t wear it! It’s about context. It is a warning for the disciples of the first century and with the gift of hindsight we know why. They were most certainly the primary audience for Jesus’ words.  

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that there is no cost for those of us fortunate to live in societies like this and I don’t want to minimise the experiences that anyone here may have had, so do feel free to come and wrestle me to the ground over coffee: I know that there will be people who  have counted the cost in terms of relationships with spouse or family, particularly those who have converted from Islam. I am also very conscious that other people’s understanding and image of Christianity can be ill-informed and that they make judgements about us on that basis. For most of us here there is a struggle at some level to live an out and proud life as a disciple, but when I read these words of Jesus to Peter I think of Christians living in Iraq or Pakistan at the moment and we should, perhaps, give thanks to God daily that this passage doesn’t really appear to apply to Christians living here – under current circumstances, so let’s not use that as an excuse for complacence. Hard to imagine as it currently is, things might change and our brothers and sisters elsewhere might have a lot to teach us about taking up our crosses.


1 comment:

  1. This is a well written article. It is up to each one of us to recognise Jesus for who he is and what he has and is doing for us sinners. Some times its hard to see why we are worth loving to the extend of what Jesus did so that we might be saved.