16 September, 2012 –– 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 50:5–9a / James 2:14–18 / Mark 8:27–35
Who is Jesus? Of course we in the Church already “know” the right answer –– we confess it in the Creed. That could be an advantage for us, but more often than not it is a hindrance to the awe and wonder we should have as part of our faith. This can be particularly true if our faith is based on someone else's answer to who Jesus is. Jesus asked his disciples who the other people thought he was. Our own faith, though, does not come merely through the questions and answers of other people. After Jesus asked the disciples who others thought he was, he focused the question on the disciples themselves: But who do you say that I am? That is the beginning of personal faith. Before we can develop a faith of our own, we must each decide who Jesus is.
Peter's answer was right. We know that. But Peter, at that point, was like some people today: he was on the right track, yet he answered better than he knew. Certainly the confession that Jesus is the Christ of God is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Peter had his facts right, but Jesus needed to develop the significance.
Have you wondered why Jesus silenced this confession of faith? Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him. Why, after sending the disciples out as ambassadors of the kingdom, would Jesus tell them not to disclose his identity just when it appears they are beginning to catch on? It's because their expectations of the Messiah did not match the initial confession. That Jesus is the Christ was becoming obvious to them, but what it meant that Jesus is the Christ was still beyond their understanding. Faith in Christ is based on two confessions.
The second confession comes from Jesus in this passage. Peter's first confession tells rightly who Jesus is: the Christ. Jesus' confession tells what it meant for him that he was the Christ of God. Peter's confession said, "You are the Christ." The second confession is Jesus saying: "I must die."
It is not popular today to proclaim that Jesus died for our sins. But above everything else –– more than the physical healings and his teachings –– Jesus came into the world to save us from all that sin does to us. Sin ravages our lives. Sin is what causes our society to continue its spiral into chaos. For Jesus to do what he came to do –– to save us –– there was but one course to follow: "I must die."
To the disciples, the confessions of Messiahship and death did not go together. And for people today who think in categories of personal power and glory in this world, they still don't go together. There are many people who would make the first confession of Jesus being the Christ IF it could be done apart from accepting the second confession of death. There doesn’t seem to be much glory and power in a crucified Messiah; meekness and weakness are not high on our scale of values.
As if to even further complicate things, Jesus makes it clear that the second confession doesn't apply only to him; it applies to those who would believe on him. Jesus wants Peter and other disciples (including us today) who would confess him as the Christ of God to know that after the first confession another waits to be embraced. Yes, Jesus is the Christ of God, but to embrace that is also to embrace death.
The emphasis in our culture is on self. We have self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and the quest to find ourselves. Words like “repression” and “submission” are made to be bad words. Self-gratification is the goal, and whatever it takes to meet that goal is legitimate. If it takes a total immersion in lasciviousness (that's sexual lust), then go for it. If it takes more and more material possessions, then do whatever it takes to get them (that’s greed). If it takes walking away from marriage vows and family responsibilities, so be it. If you don't please anyone else, at least please yourself. Take the career you want. Live where you want to live. Live the way you want to live. Spend your money the way you want to spend it. Do whatever it takes to make you happy. After all, if you don't take care of "number one" who else will? That's the so-called "gospel" of our culture.
It is in the face of all of this that Jesus spells out what it means to confess him as the Christ of God. It means being like him....
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing....
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death--
even death on a cross! (Philp 2:5f)
Jesus fulfilled the Isaiah prophecy in today’s reading: he gave his back for beating and did not turn his face away when spat upon.
Jesus is explicit about what this means for us. The two confessions "You are the Christ" and "I must die" mean just the opposite of what the culture around us says. Jesus says, Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (v34). There's no self-actualization here; it is just the opposite. The one who would make personal the confession of Jesus as the Christ must also be willing to make personal the confession, "I must die." When self makes demands, the person confessing Jesus chooses denial. When self screams for its own life and expression, the person who confesses Christ chooses the cross.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it (v35). Here's where faith meets works (see the Epistle reading for today). We show our faith that Jesus is the Christ when we choose to die to our selfishness. The unhappiest people in the world are those whose sole preoccupation is with themselves.
In my “previous life” I was an obsessive bird hunter. From September through March I was in the field with my birddog every Thursday on my day off (and as many other days as I could arrange). That was my time, and few things would cause me to change my priority. But in the late 90s, just about the time I began to ask the Lord to give me more intimacy in prayer, my daughter hit a crisis. We had taken Katie to Africa on a mission trip when she was ten years old, and we had all taken a drug to prevent malaria. It turned out that the drug could have serious side effects (particularly on young people), and Katie began to experience clinical anxiety and deep depression in her freshman year of high school. One Thursday morning she was unable to get out of bed because of fear and emotional darkness. I was already dressed for my day of hunting, but it was quickly apparent I needed to stay home with her. There was no question of what I would do, but how would I feel about it? The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and the issue was clear: would I stay home all sullen and feeling sorry for myself that I could not be doing what I wanted to do.... or would I embrace this opportunity to love my daughter in a tangible way? So I prayed –– right there in the hall outside Katie’s bedroom –– and told the Lord to change my heart. That was one step in my journey to be here with you this way today. When Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake, he means for it to mean something in our day-to-day choices. We show our faith that Jesus is the Christ when we choose to die to our selfishness.
Christians believe and proclaim that this man Jesus who lived almost 2,000 years ago is the Christ of God. If you are confessing Christ, are you also embracing the cross –– dying to the urge to have your own way? If you can see what God was doing through a crucified Christ, can you also see that it means the same thing for us as we follow him? We live by dying. We win by losing. We gain by giving. We save by expending. All of that is true when it is our response to the Son of God, who came to die so that he could give us his life. We give up our lives so that we can have his life. That is how Christian Faith works.