Proper 19, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
We live in what can best be described as the post-post-modern era. We exist at a time when technology often far surpasses our wildest dreams, but also somehow fails to solve our biggest dilemmas. Just yesterday I was at the Baxter County Fair, and inside the commercial booth section was a man who asked me, “Have you ever had your identity stolen?” I told him I had not, to which he then proceeded to give me information about his company that protects your identity, and not in the existential way. We are always reminded by financial institutions that we should be checking our credit scores and our credit reports. When you are applying for jobs it is recommended that you search for yourself on Google or other search websites to make sure there isn’t anything negative or questionable to be found. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, any business or employee in a service industry job, can be rated online. Your reputation can be ruined in an instant by one disgruntled customer. There is great power in what Google tells you about someone. When I typed into the Google search bar, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I received two hundred fifty two million results in less than a half second. (ask Siri who Jesus Christ is)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus has been actively working his ministry now for some time, so there is bound to be some talk of him. Recall also he is always telling people not to talk about the miracles he performs or the revelation he teaches. But people, being human, are going to talk. So Jesus wants to know…who do people say that he is? The answer is not surprising really. Some people say he is Elijah, some say he is John the Baptist, and others say that he is a prophet of God, the likes of which have not been seen for nearly 500 years, since the death of the prophet Malachi. Each of these responses also carries with it certain expectations. If you recall your Hebrew Bible, Elijah was a prophet who stood against the worshippers of Ba’al, who founded a school of prophets, and who never died, but was taken up into Heaven by fire. In Jewish tradition, Elijah is very much a candidate because he is still whole in body and could be brought back into play by God at any time. In fact the prophet Malachi says the Elijah will return before the great and terrible day of the Lord, making him a harbinger of the Messiah and the eschaton. The expectations people have about Jesus being Elijah is that he is signaling the entrance of the messiah, that a powerful servant of God is walking the earth, and that in the dark times of subjugation under the Roman Empire and the insane ruler Herod, a figure has emerged to lead them to greatness. But Jesus is not Elijah. If anything John the Baptist, played the figurative role of Elijah, as the herald of the messiah to come. So what about people thinking Jesus is John the Baptist? At this point in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is dead, killed by Herod, and everyone knows it. The disciples know it; the people saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist know it. So this would mean that God has returned John the Baptist from the dead, and ideally now John the Baptist will become a powerful prophet or leader of the people.
I have a fairly active imagination and often times I like to visualize these sorts of scenes. I can absolutely see this, Jesus and the disciples walking down the road, and he asks this question. After hearing the responses hi s eyebrow lifts, either out of surprise or amusement, and then with a sort of squint asks his disciples, “well, who do YOU say that I am?” Good old Peter. He jumps right in. God bless Peter. Sometimes he gets it really right, and sometimes he gets it really wrong. Well, in this instance it’s a bit of both. He says, “you are the Messiah.” Correct Peter. Well done. The problem is what Peter and the rest of the Jewish people expect out of a Messiah is not what they are going to get with Jesus. That’s why when Jesus, who again tells them not to say anything about him being the messiah to anyone else, explains what will happen to him, Peter speaks up. The Messiah is supposed to be this figure of strength, another king or emperor to lead the armies of the righteous into a great triumph over those that would enslave or subjugate the chosen of God. The messiah is militant, war-like, not unlike those prophets of old but a lot more muscle…at least according to Jewish tradition. That is not what the Messiah truly is and it is not what Jesus is. So when Jesus explains to the disciples what will happen, what must happen with his persecution and death, this violates everything they know about who the messiah is supposed to be. In steps Peter again, bless his little heart. Peter tries to convince Jesus not to go that route, but Jesus knows what must happen. Regardless of how you believe our salvation comes about through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, there is nothing if there is no death, resurrection, and ascension. So Jesus rebukes Peter for telling him to take a different path. Peter here is not evil, he is not trying to stop the salvation of humanity, he just can’t reconcile the image of a triumphant messiah with one who is persecuted and dies. Peter cannot imagine a messiah that looks weak, that does not fight back, that does not strike first, that does not crush the enemies of God.
So who do YOU say Jesus is? How do you talk to people about Jesus. Yes I know you’ve probably internally chuckled and said, ‘that assumes I talk to people at all about Jesus.’ So setting aside all the baggage that comes with words like evangelism or all the uncomfortable seat shifting that happens when I start suggesting we go out into the community and talk about our faith, let’s start simple. How do you talk to your children about Jesus? Your grandchildren? Your neighbors? I don’t mean that we sit down for coffee and say, “well Gladys, I’m glad you invited me over because I want to talk to you about Jesus.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think that’s in the purview of most Episcopalians. The thing is though we have so much to offer a world full of self-centered, money worshipping, Herod following sycophants who are in desperate need of hearing the Good News. This place we live in also has a desperate need of letting everyone know they are welcome, that they are loved by God, that all sin has been forgiven and what God asks for us to live according to simple rules. Love others, love God, love yourself. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked. We should be standing on every street corner sharing a message like that right? That is our message here, and yet, it’s hard, it’s really really hard to even tell our friends about it. We fear what they will think. We fear how we will be treated. We even fear sometimes for our well being. That’s completely understandable. Peter fears what will happen to Jesus. But Jesus offers us an invitation to something greater. Our ultimate goal should always be to lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel. What good is any of this otherwise?
I have not been here very long, but I am beginning to see ways in which this community of committed believers already does show who they believe Jesus is, and I can see places where we could get the word out even more. It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always comfortable, but you know, I find that it always feels pretty good once you take a chance. We have to be the ones to tell everyone else out there about, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls it, the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. We should never expect they will find us because we are listed in the phone book, or have a website, or have facebook. Some people will find us that way, those are helpful tools, but it doesn’t reach everyone. Nothing substitutes a genuine, loving, honest conversation about what this sort of faithful life has to offer. Our words, our actions, our lives are always testimony to something. Do your best to make sure that testimony reflects the Good News of Jesus Christ, the salvation of humanity, and the glory of the Kingdom of God. Who do you say Jesus is?