September 13, 2015 by jmar198013
My sermon today (September 13, 2015) from Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.
The readings today were:
Act 1: Jesus takes his disciples on a trip, and dashes their hopes
Our Gospel reading today begins: Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. Have you ever noticed that the Gospel writers went out of their way to tell us where Jesus was going? Most stories in the Gospels begin with: And then Jesus went to such and such place. Or Jesus was at so-and-so’s house. Why do you think they did that? To give us questions for Bible trivia? Can we safely skim over the details about where Jesus was at? Isn’t the meat and potatoes what Jesus actually did and said?
Or does location matter? What if location is the key to understanding the story?
Caesarea Philippi was just about as far north as you could go in ancient Palestine. It was mostly populated by pagan Gentiles. Herod the Great had built a temple honoring Caesar Augustus there a generation earlier. His son Philip had ordered extensive redevelopment of the area. Hence the name, Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi was a site for the worship of the emperor. It was a sign to anyone who cared that Herod was no friend of the people. All the Herods were sellouts. They didn’t care about the needs of their subjects. They were too busy sucking up to the Caesars.
It’s there, in the shadow of the temple built in Caesar’s honor—where a human was worshiped as a god—that our Gospel lesson today takes place.
On the way, Mark tells us, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This phrase, the way, is very important for Mark. Yes, he’s talking about the path Jesus and his disciples were taking to Caesarea Philippi. But he also means something else. At the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, when he introduces us to John the Baptizer, it is with a quote from Isaiah: Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight” (Isa. 40.3) Isaiah was promising a new Exodus. He was actually quoting Exodus 23.20: I’m about to send a messenger in front of you to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place that I’ve made ready. The way is the path to freedom God makes for his people. Mark is trying to tell us that Jesus has launched a new Exodus. Jesus is forming a new people. Leading them to the place God wants them to be. A place where the people of God will be challenged and learn and grow. A place of spiritual formation. Caesarea Philippi is just one stop along the way.
Incidentally, church—we are still being led along the way by Jesus. We have not arrived. Jesus is always leading us into new places, new challenges, new learning and growth. The Exodus God initiated in Jesus continues even now.
Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” You might recall that news of Jesus’ ministry really freaked out the wicked king Herod. He had John executed, and rumors he was hearing about Jesus led him to believe that John had been resurrected. People still have all kinds of ideas about who Jesus is. But notice here, most everyone—even the paranoid tyrant Herod—could see God at work in what Jesus was doing. The buzz on the street was that God was in the business of reincarnating the prophets. If you were part of the unwashed masses, rumors about new prophets probably filled you with hope. The prophets always stuck up for the little guy. But if you were Herod, a new prophet only filled you with rage. Or terror. Prophets were always challenging authority. And sometimes God even spanked the rulers, just like the prophets foretold. No doubt Herod knew he deserved to be on the receiving end of some divine justice.
Just outside this place where people say Caesar is Lord, Jesus continues to grill his disciples: And what about you? Who do you say that I am?
Now it’s personal.
And walking in spitting distance of Caesarea Philippi—with its temple that said Caesar is Lord—Peter makes an incredibly bold claim: You are the Christ. The Messiah. The liberator. The one who says Caesar is no more a god than Pharaoh was. You are the Christ. You are the one God has anointed to show Caesar who the Lord really is.
I’ll return to Peter’s confession soon. For now, let’s just agree that you can say the right thing, give the technically correct answer, but still have no idea what you are talking about.
Here’s the thing, church. We are always in spitting distance of some temple, some shrine, some system, some cause, some person that demands our allegiance. That call first dibs on our loyalty. We are always living in the shadow of something or someone who claims absolute authority. And Jesus stands with us right in front of all these other voices crying out for our allegiance, and confronts us with the question: Who do you say I am?
He’s asking me. Asking you. Asking all of us: Who do you say I am?
And we probably know all the right answers. The Bible answers. The churchy answers. Son of God. Emmanuel. Prince of Peace. Lord. Savior. But Peter teaches us that we can know all the right answers, and still be so wrong it’s tragic.
Peter rightly answered: You are the Christ. But Mark says Jesus did something crazy. Mark says: Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Let’s get this straight. Jesus is the Messiah, the liberator, the new Moses that the remnants of Israel and Judah have been waiting on for hundreds of years. He is God’s long-awaited promise to his people. The only hope they have. And he has finally arrived. And now he tells his disciples—the first ones to recognize him for what he truly is—not to tell anyone the Messiah is here at last.
Talk about hiding your light under a bushel!
No, the problem is this: Peter and the disciples know he is the Messiah. But they have no idea what that means. They are totally oblivious to what God has sent Israel’s Messiah to do. They’re clueless.
And I suspect that Jesus had zero interest in a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were talking about telling everyone they knew the Messiah. That’s just a PR nightmare. They’d end up making false claims. Generating mass confusion. Fueling misplaced expectations. What a mess!
So Jesus doesn’t want them going around running off at the mouth about the Messiah. Not until he has told them plainly what God has sent the Messiah to do. So Jesus just hits them with it, with no cushion: The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.
By the way, this was the very first time Jesus said anything about his death.
He told them all this on the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi. Where there was a temple that said Caesar is Lord. A sign that their leaders had completely sold them out. A shrine to the system. And Jesus tells them the system will reject him. Will defeat him. Will kill him. And with him, all hope of living again without fear in the land of their ancestors.
Yes, he also told them that he would rise from the dead after three days. But I don’t think they could hear him anymore. I suspect their minds just sort of melted when he dashed every hope they had for the Messiah. Wouldn’t yours?
Some of us have spent our whole lives confessing that Jesus is Lord. What if you found out that didn’t mean what you think it means? What if you’ve been believing and thinking and saying and doing all sorts of things because you think that’s what Jesus wants you to do? And then you find out you’ve been tragically mistaken? How would you feel?
I imagine Peter froze. Eyes wide open. Heart pounding. Lungs deflating. While the other disciples stared at each other and tried not to throw up.
Act 2: Peter gives the right answer, but is still wrong
When Jesus and the disciples set out for Caesarea Philippi, what do you suppose the disciples thought they were going to do?
Maybe paint anti-Roman graffiti on the Caesar temple? I’m serious, y’all. When Peter spoke up and told Jesus, You are the Christ—the Messiah—he was only saying what all the other disciples were thinking.
Why else had they been following him all this time?
Here’s something interesting, though. Jesus almost never uses the phrase Christ or Messiah to refer to himself. Usually it’s other people doing that. And we see here that he is not entirely comfortable when they do. Remember, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Why do you think that is? I think it’s because he knew that when most people said Messiah, they meant a lot of things by it that had nothing to do with what he was here for.
Messiah, or in Greek, Christ, meant anointed. The idea people had in first century Palestine of what that meant came from 1 Sam. 16.13, where Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed David. The Messiah was not yet king, but would be. The expectation was that the Messiah would rise up from among the common people, as David had. And that he would restore justice in Israel and Judea. One way the Messiah would do this was by staging a successful coup against the corruption in Jerusalem. The Messiah would take down the Herods and the chief priests, who were in Rome’s pocket. And then he would remove the impurity from the land by chasing out Rome and destroying all evidence that Rome had ever occupied the land.
Jesus says he won’t even get to the phase where he takes out the corrupt Jerusalem establishment. They’re going to take him out first.
Peter and the others hate this idea, of course. Unlearning is painful and takes a long time. Jesus plainly says, The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed . . . Peter can’t handle it. He grabs Jesus and fusses at him. Knock it off, Jesus! That’s not cool!
There are all sorts of reasons that would explain Peter’s reaction. First, Peter loves Jesus. Jesus is his friend. No one wants their friends to be tortured and killed. Second, Jesus saying this puts everything he has believed, the whole course of his life, into question. Jesus, if you aren’t here to expel the Romans and restore the kingdom, why are you here at all? What have I been wasting my life doing? Finally, there will be this growing awareness that if Jesus is going to be killed by the authorities, his supporters won’t be far behind him. They’re accessories, after all.
Peter is freaked out. Wouldn’t you be, too?
You’d think this would be a great time for Jesus to comfort and reassure his friends. Remind them again of the part where he rises on the third day. That’s not what Jesus does. He calls Peter out using very strong language in front of all the other disciples: Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.
Jesus just called Peter Satan! Those are fighting words!
Yes and no. In the Bible, Satan is not a proper name, but a title. A descriptive noun. Satan meant the Adversary. The one who blocks your way. Jesus is telling Peter that he is an obstacle. Get behind me, Satan was Jesus’ way of telling Peter to stop resisting. To get out of his way. That’s why Jesus immediately says: You are not thinking God’s thoughts, but human thoughts.
The word Jesus uses for thinking here means mindset. Opinions. Agenda. Worldview. Whose side you are on. Jesus is saying, You’re looking at this the wrong way. You need to get with God’s agenda.
You know one of Jesus’ most annoying habits? He gets hold of an idea that makes everyone around him extremely uncomfortable. And instead of being sensitive and toning it down, he insists and drawing other people into the conversation. And inflicting this unpopular idea on them, too.
You ever know anybody like that?
And so, Jesus does what he always seems to do when something he says meets with resistance. He calls a crowd to come gather and listen. And he says to anyone in earshot: All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.
Take up your cross and follow me. Try using that as a slogan for marketing your church.
Of course, Mark’s Gospel is not a marketing strategy or a branding campaign. He was writing to a church in a time and place where following Jesus could—and did—get people crucified.
The problem, church, is that over 2,000 years we have watered down the meaning of the cross. We might call anything from a nagging in-law to an illness or a mean boss or a tendency to eat too much pie the cross we are called to bear. I’m not trying to minimize any of those. And following Jesus certainly gives us resources for living through those circumstances well. But none of them are the cross you or I are called to take up.
The cross only had one meaning for the people Jesus spoke to, and for the church Mark wrote his Gospel for. It was an instrument of political terror. It wasn’t just a way to execute ordinary criminals—Rome had plenty of efficient methods for that. Crucifixion is how Rome silenced dissent. It’s what they did to rebels and rioters. Anyone who challenged their authority. Anyone who refused to honor the status quo. Anyone who shook up the system. That’s what crosses were for: Making an example out of you. Putting the people back in line.
What made the cross so effective, was that it instilled fear in entire communities. The point of crucifixion was that you hung somebody up where everybody could see them, and left them to die a diabolically slow and merciless death. A public death without dignity. And the subtext of every crucifixion was a threat: You could be next.
Jesus was forming a people who were going to go against the grain. They were going to share their stuff with friends and strangers alike. And share meals with disreputable people. And welcome foreigners. They would pray and fast in private, but love their enemies in public. They weren’t going to be bullied into submission. They weren’t going to kiss up to the temple authorities. They weren’t going to tone it down to make the Pharisees feel more at ease. And they certainly weren’t ever going to bow down to any Caesar.
The cross is the splinter you catch when you go against the grain.
Act 3: Losing your life to save it (or, resurrection is the engine of discipleship)
But here’s the thing: What if there’s a people who won’t be kept in line by fear? What if there’s a community in your empire whose members aren’t afraid to die?
Sisters and brothers, that’s what we call the church!
Disciples of Jesus have done, and will continue to do, absolutely crazy things because they know they have more to gain than they do to lose. Do you know why Christians stayed behind to care for their pagan neighbors during epidemics in the ancient world? Because they weren’t intimidated by death.
Have you ever heard of Dirk Willems? Dirk was a Dutch Anabaptist Christian in the 16th century. The Anabaptists, like us, practice believer’s baptism by immersion. And back then, it was illegal. So when local authorities found out Dirk Willems was baptizing his neighbors, they put him in prison. He knew they were going to execute him. Well, one winter day, Dirk Willems was able to escape from prison out a window. The moat surrounding the prison was frozen over, so Willems was able to run across it. The prison guard who was pursuing him fell through the ice. He knew the man would die without help. But he also knew that he would be killed if he went back to prison. It was literally his life or the prison guard’s. Dirk Willems turned around and pulled the guard back through the ice. A few weeks later, he was burned at the stake.
The pagan authorities and pagan gods left their people to die and rot during the epidemics that spread through the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Christians and our God stayed and brought comfort and healing. What do you think that did to the power of the authorities and their gods?
Dirk Willems loved his enemy so much, he was willing to die for him. Where do you think he learned that? What do you think his death accomplished? Do you think more people would be drawn to the faith he was willing to die for, or the religion the rulers were eager to kill for?
Jesus incites us to create all sorts of holy mischief in the world on his behalf for the sake of the gospel. And he knows this will often put us in conflict with the powers that be. Every time we welcome the wrong people to our tables; go to the wrong neighborhoods; or pull one of our enemies through the ice, it undermines their power. And when their diplomacy fails to put us in our place, they will resort to force. Jesus knows this. It happened to him, too.
But he also brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Where Caesar was worshiped as a god. Near a temple that honored the ones who put people on crosses. And he defiantly announced that not even death on a cross will defeat him, because after three days, he will rise from the dead.
Resurrection is the engine of discipleship. Because it neutralizes the most powerful weapon of our enemies: the fear of death.
And Jesus wants those who follow after him to know that God never leaves his people to rot. Jesus’ own cross and resurrection before us teaches us that God does not allow death to have the final word. All who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them, is how Jesus puts it.
Resurrection makes discipleship possible. It’s what drives the difficult work of reconciliation and faithfulness and truth-telling and turning the other cheek and loving our enemies and showing hospitality to strangers. That’s resurrection work, church.
And so Jesus looks to us—even now—and promises: All who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.
And if we really believe that, I suspect that our churches will start to look more and more like those early churches who reached out to their sick and dying neighbors when everyone else was afraid to. When everyone else was so afraid of dying themselves that they abandoned their neighbors in need. I suspect we will have a church full of Dirk Willemses.
And I also suspect if someone asks who Jesus is, and we say he is the Christ, we will know what we are talking about.