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What to do when you’re not gaining the world (sermon)

September 18, 2012

Mark 8: 27-38

Who do you say I am? says Jesus What do you make of me?

Have you ever grappled with that question? Does it matter what we make of Jesus? Should we have a view about who Jesus is? For many people theology is the last thing they want to do. They don’t want to get technical. They would rather not go there. Christianity is a practical matter of living a good life.


Interestingly, in our text, no sooner does Jesus get a response to the question (You are the Messiah), that he tells Peter to keep it under his hat. Why did Jesus tell Peter to be quiet about this idea that Jesus was the Messiah. After all, if it were a Sunday School lesson Peter would have gotten top marks and been encouraged to spread the world.


Let’s put it in context a bit. Jesus is asking his friends, what do people make of me? What’s the word on the street? This is Jesus’ ‘focus group’. There are various theories circulating. Not the kind of theories we would ever come up with, but they are the kind of theories that a first century Jew would take very seriously. Theories that have to do with God’s dealing in history with people, with the children of Israel.


Some say you are Elijah others John the Baptist… (if you like) both of them angry prophets of doom and judgement.


And Jesus turns to Peter directly. What do you think, Peter. And Peter says “You are the Messiah”… which means God’s anointed one, God’s chosen one … same as Christ. Christ is the Greek version of Messiah. The way we talk you would think Christ was Jesus second name. Jesus Christ is the same as saying Jesus the Messiah, which is the same as saying Jesus the anointed king.


So why should that be kept a secret?


Well “messiah” is a term that is loaded with baggage. The words isn’t really mentioned in the OT (Hebrew Bible) but it becomes a popular term between the writings of the OT and the time of Jesus … as people expectation is heightened for God’s arrival to judge the nations of the world and vindicate Israel. The Messiah is a Warrior King, representing a warrior God who brings God’s justice to the earth in violence. In other words if Jesus says he comes to do God’s work and bring in God’s kingdom (which he does claim) he is in grave danger of being seen as the fulfilment of everybody’s hope and expectations – realistic political expectations.


So why did Jesus silence Peter? The very next section makes it quite clear. God’s way to bring history to fulfilment (as Jesus is understanding it at this point in his life) looks pretty different from anything associated with the term Messiah. The God of Jesus is not very Messianic. And Jesus is in grave danger of being enlisted in their messianic fervour.

v31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man (the True Human) must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed.


The ‘Son of Man’ is another of those terms that was loaded with meaning – it can (as in the book of Daniel) have similar resonances to Messiah) or in Ezekiel sound more like (as I suggested before) ‘the true human’.

Jesus uses these terms and they all connect with God’s purposes of salvation. When he says ‘the Son of Man must suffer’ he is making a barely disguised reference to Isaiah’s vision of God bringing salvation through a ‘suffering servant’. He’s playing with the language of their expectations.


All these ‘figures’ from the tradition have significance for many. Theologians call them ‘corporate personalities’ They carry in themselves the future of others. So in using this terminology we might say that Jesus has a sense that God is using him for the sake of others, even for the whole of humanity.


The future as Jesus sees it, the future for the rule of God, will only come through him being thrown out of the world by all the systems of power that control the world. The world will change… the kingdom will arrive, but ONLY through suffering. God will raise him up. God will be on the side of the suffering one. He will be a suffering king and only as a suffering King will he be vindicated and bring in a new age for the world.


This is a story that happens on the roadside. But I like to think that they have reached a crossroads. The question is not whether they have an opinion about Jesus (although that is unavoidable) the deeper question is whether they will follow him. The question is not whether they have the correct label to put on Jesus (because as we have seen none of our labels are likely to fit). The question is whether we will follow him.


The question is whether they will seek to ‘gain the world’ (whatever that might mean). The question is whether they will seek to ‘save their lives’ (whatever that might mean), or whether they will abandon their projects of profit or of security or salvation and throw themselves behind Jesus as a follower on his way to the Roman cross.


Will they abandon all their projects of power and acquisition and carry in their empty hands the only weapon left against a fallen world – the weapon of truth – truth that only in the suffering of the bearer exposes the violence of the world.


This is a moment at the crossroads. Peter rebukes Jesus. ‘You’re insane’ Jesus says ‘get behind me Satan’. He sees in Peter the same temptation that has dogged his footsteps all his life. The temptation to power – that’s why he calls him the Satan. You can read Jesus response as simply ‘get out of my face’… but there is a more straightforward reading ‘get behind me’ as a follower. Jesus says. You are thinking in human ways not in God’s way.


The situation is increasingly one of stark contrast. There is a clash of worlds here.


For the world that rejects him, the world that defines itself as ‘the real world’, love appears relatively powerless and ineffectual. For Jesus love is the only power – it’s the divine power. And in the end the truth can only be told to the world in love… from a roman cross.


Who do you say that I am? says Jesus. The issue is not a technical one. As Christians and as a Christian Community, Jesus can be defined as “the one we follow”, the one who has the authority of God in our life.


And the same choice faces us here today. Each us makes this choice to follow. It doesn’t necessarily mean that our ethical decisions are any less difficult. That we know what it might mean in every situation. But there’s a basic orientation created for our lives by the man who goes to his cross and who abandons violence.


Same goes for our congregation and its decisions. Following Jesus to his cross doesn’t mean that it will be easy to know what to do in every situation. But it does mean that we will be oriented by his direction. And we will find ourselves again and again at crossroads. Some options will mean ‘gaining the world’ and ‘saving our own life’ and others will represent giving ourselves away for others.


As I started on this sermon, not knowing what I was going to write, I called it ‘What to do when you’re not gaining the world’. I hope you weren’t expecting a blue print for the Christian life, for taking up our cross.


Our situation means we may not be martyrs, but I don’t think that lets us off the hook. If we are doing it right, at the very least there will be a clash of worlds. Our lives will be strange as we begin to speak truth to power.



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