15 th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19), September 17, 2006
Mark 8:27 Jesus 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?" 28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29 He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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." 34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those 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."
Who Do YOU Say That I Am?
Sam woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, his blankets, covers, and sheets kicked off, and with his pillow in a big jumble at the end of the bed. He sat bolt upright in bed, looked around, looked at his clock, and looked over at his wife sleeping next to him. Finally, he touched her. She woke up just long enough to say, “Not tonight. Go to sleep.”
But that’s not what he wanted. He just wanted to make sure that she was there, that she was real, because he had one of those Dickensian dreams, like Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” and it was so vivid, it was so real that he had to stop for a moment to make sure that it wasn’t, to make sure that he had another chance. He couldn’t sleep. He got up and he sat downstairs thinking, puzzling over what he had dreamed. And finally the next day he called in sick and then called his pastor to make an appointment.
He hadn’t had much conversation with Pastor Jim over the years because it didn’t seem like they were on the same wave length, but today he wanted to talk to Pastor Jim. He came in, sat down. They made small talk for a minute or two, the kind of “Hi, how are you? How are things going? How are the wife and kids?” kind of things, and then he said, “Pastor, I have to tell you about my dream.”
Jim said, “You had a dream?”
“Yeah. It really, really bothered me.”
“Ok, go ahead.”
“Well, I dreamed I had died.”
The pastor said, “Well . . . ”
“I dreamed I died, and I’d gone to heaven, and as I was looking around everything was deserted.”
“Everything was deserted?”
“Yeah. Oh, there were trees and grass and streets and houses and buildings of all kinds. There just were no other people.”
Pastor Jim said, “You got to heaven and there were no other people. Are you sure it was heaven?”
“Well, yeah. It was heaven. I mean Jesus came finally, and he welcomed me, and I blurted out, I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I mean, Jesus right there in front of you in heaven, you’d think . . . , you’d think you could think of something else to say besides, ‘Where is everybody?’ But that’s what I said. I said, ‘Where is everybody?’
And Jesus said something strange to me, he said, ‘You were expecting other people?’
And I said, ‘Well, yeah. I’d kinda hoped that maybe my family, you know, or somebody else, anybody else. I mean, am I the only one who made it?’
And Jesus said, ‘No, of course not. Lots of other people. God loves everyone. I died for all humanity.’
‘Well then why am I the only one here?’
‘Well, you know your favorite hymn. You sang it nearly every day of your life, hummed it to yourself, thought about it. “I come to the garden alone,” you sang, “and He walks with me and talks with me,” but it never mentioned any other people. And when you talked to other people about your faith, you claimed me as your personal savior. And there’s nothing wrong with that but your meaning was private. How you imagined me in life is how you get me in death. So here I am, and here you are. Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you wanted?....’
‘And suddenly Jesus faded away, and I woke up. And I just wondered . . . can you tell me . . . is that what heaven’s going to be like for me . . . because if it is then I’m quitting church right now.’”
Pastor Jim, as was his custom, didn’t answer right away. He sat, rubbed his chin, thought.
Finally Sam said, “Well?”
Pastor Jim inquired, “Well, what do YOU think your dream is about?”
Sam answered, “I’m not sure. Do you really think how I imagine Jesus now will affect what happens to me in heaven later?”
Pastor Jim answered, “That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Why don’t you tell me more about who you think Jesus is?”
Let’s leave Sam and Pastor Jim for a minute.
Taking Faith to the Edge
I suppose we all wonder sometimes what heaven’s going to be like, and we all imagine that it’s going to be full of people and all kinds of other things. But like Sam, I find that what we think heaven will be like has everything to do with who we think Jesus is. Who is Jesus for you? Interestingly enough, that’s not a new question. In our Bible lesson today, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is asking his disciples that same question. Not only “who are other people saying that I am,” but “who do you say that I am?” Of course getting an answer to that question is very complicated because Jesus is not a simple man. He does lots of things for lots of people. But the question that I’m asking you is the same question that Jesus asked the disciples, “who do you say that Jesus is?”
One of the ways to get at the answer to that is to take your life to the extremes, take it to the very edge and see what you find there. That’s what happened to Sam. In his dream he was taken to the very extreme of his ideas and his ideals and his thoughts about what Jesus was, and at the edge of things, at the very place where his ideals meet the world they collapsed, they didn’t hold together. Either Jesus was not able to deliver the promises that Sam assumed that Jesus was making, or the promises that Sam assumed were different from the ones that Jesus was making. I suppose Sam is a victim of that old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.” But what about us, when we take our faith to the edge of things, where our lives meet the world, what does it mean to have Jesus as our Savior, as our Lord, as our Messiah?
You see, Peter had the right answer in today’s lesson, Peter was able to say, “You are the Messiah. You are the Christ. You are the Anointed One of God. You’re the one we’re supposed to follow.” Yet when Jesus began to sit down with his disciples and teach them what it meant for him to be Messiah, Peter who probably literally seconds before had made this bold proclamation, (at least in Mark’s Gospel it comes immediately) suddenly finds himself on the defensive and finds himself needing to take Jesus aside.
“Jesus, get over here. What are you doing!? Messiahs don’t suffer. Messiahs don’t die. Messiahs take control. Messiahs rule! Messiahs smash their enemies and put us in power.”
Peter had the right words, but the wrong ideas. How about us? Can we also have the right words and the wrong ideas? I suppose. I know that I have on many occasions done that very thing, only to have Jesus gently, kindly, with a wink and a smile, also rebuke me the same way perhaps as he rebuked Peter.
“Get behind me, Satan. You’re putting your mind not on divine things but on human things. You’re thinking about what you want, about how you want to be in charge and control, and that’s not what you get with me.”
Then, in order to get the disciples and the people on the same page at least for a moment, Jesus pulls the crowd in and tells them and the disciples, tells us, one more time what this is about. And here comes the haunting news. It isn’t about us. It isn’t about us saving our lives. It isn’t about us guaranteeing our spot with Jesus in heaven. It isn’t about us at all. It is instead about Jesus, about his way of the cross, his way of being in the world not for himself but for the sake of others. He found himself with the poor and the outcasts in life, and he found himself poor and outcast on a cross in death because there, not where we get for ourselves but where we give of ourselves, Jesus says, is true life found. Only when we can say who Jesus is, as the one who suffers and dies on the cross, can we begin to understand that. Only then, when we live our lives as the people of the cross, following that same road and giving ourselves for the people around us, do we find that the edge of our life, where it meets the world, does not break down when it’s taken to the extremes.
Let’s drop back in on Sam and Pastor Jim.
Taking up the Cross
Sam talked a little bit about who Jesus is for him. Sam and Pastor Jim read the passage from Mark’s Gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” Then Pastor Jim calmly, gently said, “What would happen if you would imagine your life as a Christian differently? What would happen if you would imagine Jesus’ call to suffer and die for the world as your calling also? What would happen if your faith in Jesus Christ was personal but not private and sent you into the world along with other Christians to proclaim that God reigns through healing not brokenness, through the restoration of relationship, even relationship that is unwanted by the popular, by the rich, by the famous? What would happen, and how would your dream turn out differently if you would see Jesus that way?”
Sam thought for a moment and said, “I’m not sure.” Then he looked up and looked Pastor Jim straight in the eye and said, “But you’re sure that heaven isn’t like my dream?”
Pastor Jim said, “Yes, I’m sure.”
Sam, relieved, said, “Ok, I’ll think about the other stuff.”
Pastor Jim said, “Well, tell you what, why don’t we get together and talk in about a week and see what you’ve come up with.”
Sam said, “I don’t know. A week might not be enough, but I’ll call you.”
So they shook hands and agreed that they would talk again soon. But as Sam went home, he realized that probably what he should do, what would do him a lot more good is if he would go back and listen to God a little bit more and find out what God was actually doing in his life and asking him to do in return. And so he got out his Bible and read once again, “For what good will it do if you gain the whole world and forfeit your life.” And then he prayed.
About a week later he decided that maybe, just maybe, during his lunch hour, he would go down to the homeless shelter and feed lunch to some other folks once a week. He got up his courage and began to do that, after which he felt a little bit better. And about a month later he talked to Pastor Jim one more time and said, “I think I’m gonna be ok.”
Pastor Jim said, “I’m glad.”
Sam said, “I’m working on it, but carrying my cross, that’s not going to be easy is it?”
Pastor Jim said, “It never is.”
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman