PROPER 19 B
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Polls. Love them or hate them, we’ve got them. Marketing polls, opinion polls, internet/online polls and the all pervasive political polls. Especially in this season of our country’s political cycle we cannot escape them.
About a year ago there was a poll published in the Christian Post Reporter confirming what all of us probably suspected. This national survey confirmed that Jesus is a pretty popular guy. He’s the second most popular in the nation as it turns out. At 90% approval, Jesus gained higher ratings than the immensely popular Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose 89% approval ratings inspired the survey. (Jesus was edged out, incidentally, by Abraham Lincoln at 91%.)
Today’s gospel reading marks the midpoint of the gospel of Mark. Not only is it the physical middle of the book of Mark, but it also marks a sea change. Today’s reading marks the shift from Jesus’s journey across the countryside, healing and teaching and casting out demons to Jesus’s journey to the cross. At this crucial junction, Jesus seems to be running his own poll. “Who do people say that I am?” He gets an interesting range of answers. Elijah, John the Baptist, the prophets. Keeping some pretty good company in this poll so far. It’s not the answer he’s really looking for though, so he asks a follow up question, “But who do you say that I am?” In a flash of divine inspiration, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus makes no denial, but indicates that the results of this poll are not to be published.
Peter got the answer right, but it didn’t mean what he thought it did.
The lesson from James today illustrates with beautiful clarity the immense power of words, of human language. From our post-Easter vantage point, we can see that Peter was correct, but within his own culture, his own time, the word “messiah” conveyed precisely the wrong idea.
The idea of a messiah was popular in 1st century Judaism. The oppressive Roman regime was in full force, the Jews were oppressed and marginalized. The Messiah was to be Israel’s savior, the mighty warrior who would overthrow the oppressors, send the Romans packing, restore Israel to all its former glory, and serve as their honored king. The word “messiah” conjured images of military conquest, political domination, national supremacy. Any person with any sense wanted to ride in the wake of the Messiah, to enjoy the immense advantages of supremacy.
Small wonder Peter strongly protested Jesus’s prophecy of suffering and dying at the hands of the very oppressors that Peter meant him to overthrow. Unofficially appointing himself Jesus’s public relations manager, Peter basically says, “This is not the way to boost your popularity, Jesus. Suffering, rejection, and death are not big selling points for any plan. Can we tone down the gloom and doom stuff a little?”
Are we any different than Peter, really? We look to Jesus for comfort, to God for protection. We cling to our faith as some sort of insurance against the very things Jesus now portrays as his own inevitable fate: suffering, betrayal, even death. We, like Peter, set our minds on human things, not on divine things. As Christians, we say that we follow Jesus, but who do we say that he is? Messiah, Savior, Comforter, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, Redeemer, Teacher. Powerful words, but what do they mean, really mean, to the deepest reaches of our hearts and souls?
As powerful as words are, no one word explains Jesus. Adding more words may not help. I read about one bit of graffiti, found I presume in a seminary:Jesus said unto them, “Who do you say I am?”
They replied, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”And Jesus replied, “What?”
The words are not wrong. They give us structure, a basis. But to understand we must follow. The path Jesus describes is not an easy one. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian author, eventually a Nobel Prize winner, who spent about 10 years in a Soviet prison camp, incarcerated for daring to write truths inconvenient to the ruling authority. He described the power of denying self he discovered in the brutal, hostile environment of a Soviet gulag:
“From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself, ‘My life is over, a little early, to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die — now or a little later. . .’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogator will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Self-denial is never just a series of isolated acts of mortification or asceticism. It is not suicide, for there is an element of self-will even in that. To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. Once more, all that self denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to him.”
Jesus did not ask his disciples; does not ask us, to suffer for the sake of suffering or to die for the sake of dying. He instead asks us to live. To live for his message, for the gospel of truth, no matter how inconvenient; the gospel of justice, no matter how unpopular; the gospel of compassion, in all its pain and all its joy.
As we journey together away from self, and toward life, I pray not that you walk in my shoes – nor I yours – but that together we walk so close to Rabbi Jesus that we are covered with dust from his sandals. (Neal Rylaarsdam). Amen.