Proper 19B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). Jesus questioned the disciples as they walked toward Caesarea Philippi.  The area was well known for its dedication to the Roman nature-god, Pan; and for honoring Caesar who was often regarded as divine.  Jesus asked them in public as they walked among crowds holding differing views and all the other forces competing for their allegiance.

The disciples parroted back what they had heard others say.  “They answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28).  I think it’s worth asking, how you would answer Jesus’ question today?

Obviously, Mark has already clued in to the answer.  We know how this story ends.  Moreover, we know what will unfold over the next two thousand years! Yet, in this case, I’m not sure hindsight is 20/20.  Let’s pause a moment. Picture Jesus talking to the disciples in this gospel.  Does your mental image include any women among them?  What about Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-10 and John 20:17-18), and the other Mary (Matthew 28:8-10), or Joanna, and others (Luke 24:9-10) who are named in all four gospels as the first to witness of the resurrection. Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna were among the first funders of Jesus’ work (Luke 8:1-3). Others like Phoebe, Prisca and Junia, will become leaders, deacons, and even apostles in the early church (Romans 16:7).  If women had kept silent in the church, there wouldn’t be a church.

Now let’s widen this experiment.  What images first come mind when you try to picture God?  Some of you try to tell me you picture a bright light or indwelling love. Yet I’m pretty sure somewhere near the top of the google search for God images stored in each of our brains—a bearded man, or king seated upon a throne, comes to mind. God told Abram my name is El Shaddai (Genesis 17:1).  This name for God occurs 48 times in the bible.  It can mean the “many breasted one,” or “mountain refuge.” In other words, some joke, the ‘Grand Tetons.’ It is a wonderful and feminine image of God as the divine mother of us all.  Yet again and again El Shaddai appears in our English bibles and even some of our liturgical prayers as ‘the almighty.’

Your image of God creates you. We read the bible through a patriarchal lens.

It changes and distorts the way we hear this familiar gospel story. Like Peter, we know the correct answer to Jesus’s next question. Jesus is the son of God. Yet also like Peter, we often have the wrong idea about what this means, if it means we imagine an angry Jesus, ruling from a throne, threatening us with damnation, provoking fear rather than inspiring love, operating in an all-male trinity with God the father and holy Spirit.

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29a).  We admire Peter, who spoke plainly and with courage.  He said, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29b).  The one who is coming into the world.  God’s anointed, the Christ of God.

Our lesson for today begins with triumph and ends in confession.  Peter had the right answer.  He understood who Jesus was.  But, in the very next breath, he fell miserably short from understanding what Jesus said he must do.  When Peter tried to redirect him away from going to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:3).

Peter is a fine example of how many of us hear the gospel and see the work of Jesus –of how we can come to church again and again; read the scriptures before going to bed; and still come to the wrong conclusions about who Jesus is and about the real source of his power.  You and I do it all the time.  We want Jesus without the cross.  We want the power without the suffering.  Is it impossible for us to comprehend how power and suffering fit together?  Can we be strong even when we are vulnerable?

For a thousand years the Church gained power by scaring people about what would happen to them without the church. “Are you certain that if you died today, you will spend eternity in paradise?” We are all too familiar with a church of the past which operated more as some type of protection racket, by casting fear than by inspiring love.  But thanks be to God, the gospel of Christ has begun once again to shine through and to re-emerge from behind the patriarchal lens, and from so much other self-interested baggage of the last two thousand years.

This week if feels our nation closed the book that we’ve all be reading together on the past twenty years from 911 to the end of the war in Afghanistan. We were spell bound and in a daze.  We emerge as if stepping out onto the sidewalk after a gripping movie. We now realize that we made mistakes. We overstepped. We often did more harm than good.  Yet also we have learned. We clearly see there is a limit to what military power can accomplish.  When we say, ‘Never forget,’ will this be one of the lessons we carry forward? Jesus has shown us the way.  He told us how to the endless cycle of shame and blame.  He has shown us how to harness the destructive power of fear and use it for doing good. Jesus   points us toward the way of the cross.

Take up your cross, Jesus says.  Take up your mortal, flawed life, soaked in God’s love and tears, and follow me, Jesus says.  Look upon the cross and learn its message.  There is nothing any more that can stop us.  No obstacle is too great.  No loss too daunting.  There is no tragedy too incapacitating that the love of God, through Christ Jesus, cannot open a way for us to make progress toward a better future that is lasting and good.  The fruits of love and grace working to build up God’s kingdom can never be erased.  They cannot be destroyed.  But they become like treasures stored up in heaven “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).

Rather than a god who is angry and quick to destroy, the God revealed in Mark’s gospel is a patient teacher.  Each of us is ‘on the way.’ Being “on the way” is a common theme throughout Mark’s gospel. We encounter it here in today’s gospel as Jesus and the disciples are walking on the way together to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27).

We’ll encounter this evocative phrase repeatedly in coming weeks.   In Greek, the word translated the ‘way’, can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life.  Jesus will be “on the way” next week when the disciples argue among themselves about who is greatest (9:33-34).  Jesus will be ‘on the way’ next month when the rich man asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life; and again when he will tell the disciples a third time about the cross and resurrection. (10:17, 10:32).

On Reformation Sunday we’ll read the story of Blind Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus from the “side of the way” (10:46).  Once Jesus heals him, Bartimaeus is able to follow Jesus “on the way”.  Many of you know that The “Way” became a title of early Christians (Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

Little by little, along the way, there comes a realization that only Jesus’ way of the cross can give us what we truly crave—a life that passes through death; bonds of fellowship and belonging that cannot be broken; a purpose and meaning to our mortal endeavors that cannot be erased even after countless ages of time have done their work.  We might wish to be granted honor, safety, success, and power over others.  But God through Christ has shown us the way to life comes through power with others.  It is the power of love.  The power of trust.  The power of faith.  The power of tears.  The way of the cross.