Learning Discipleship – September 16, 2018
May God’s word only be spoken and heard here, in the name of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
When my sisters and I were teenagers, my mother instituted a rule. Whoever asked the question “what’s for dinner?” was supposed to come up with the answer. Mom would cook it, but we had to decide. Of course, when we caught on to her and no longer asked the question, she would decide on her own and prepare whatever she had on hand.
What’s for dinner is one of the questions I ask nearly every day of my life. What am I going to cook for which I already have the ingredients, something we didn’t eat last week. And of course, I have the luxury of asking the question. Lots of people here in Fairfield county don’t know where or what their next meal will be. So my question is hardly an existential one, not on the par with the BIG question Jesus asks the disciples today in the Gospel.
Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the country. By the time this story happens, Jesus has made quite a name for himself. He’s been traveling the countryside on a streak of healings and exorcisms and other miracles; he’s been saying a lot of things that are sometimes provocative and often insightful, and the crowds follow everything he says and does. And, of course, he’s got a closer group of followers, the disciples.
Now the word disciple simply means student, or learner. But Jesus’ students are not doing too well in class. They’ve been following him all over; they’ve seen everything he’s done and heard everything he’s said, but they can’t seem to master the course material, to understand what he’s about. This scene takes place about halfway through the Gospel of Mark, so I guess you could say this is the midterm exam. Jesus wants to know how much they’ve understood so far.
So he asks, “who do people say that I am?” In other words, “what’s the word on the street about me?” And their answer is a little like what you’d get from a Gallup poll. ‘Well, 38% say you’re John the Baptist; 23% say you’re Elijah; 39% are undecided.’ These are guesses, efforts to understand their enigmatic leader. Christians for 2,000 years have been trying to answer this same question about Jesus.
So then Jesus asks again. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks. And, somehow, something clicks for Peter, and he actually comes up with the right answer. “You are the Messiah,” he says simply, and he passes the test.
And then comes the turning point: Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, and no one – including Peter – can believe it. Why? Because 1st century Jews, including the disciples, were looking for a powerful leader, perhaps a military figure like David to overthrow the Roman oppressors, and so were disappointed with Jesus’ pronouncement. Then he tells them that he will suffer and suggests… If any want to become my followers…, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
But the King of Kings, the Anointed One is not supposed to suffer. Kings, presidents, heads of state are not supposed to suffer. But in the Gospel for today Jesus turns upside down all of our stereotypes. Jesus redefines what it means to be the Anointed One. At the first station of the cross in Jerusalem, when Jesus is condemned, Jesus is given a crown of thorns.
Kings and queens of this world wear crowns made out of gold, adorned with precious jewels. But Jesus is given a crown of thorns. A crown that will pierce his skin. A crown that will cause blood to flow. This king is different. This king calls for compassion, for forgiveness. This king calls us to love our enemies. This king calls us to put aside our own prejudices and fear. This king calls us to put aside all that enslaves us.
This Messiah, our Messiah, is the one who preached non-violence, who taught not to return evil for evil, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to pray for those who want to hurt us, that those who are peacemakers and show mercy to all are blessed by God, this Messiah is the one who calls us to walk in his ways and follow him. To take up our cross.
Our Amish brothers and sisters have learned this well. Twelve years ago the community of Nickel Mines, PA was rocked by the murder of five school girls. And within a day or so after the murders the families of the girls, and the whole Amish community, forgave the murderer and embraced his widow and family. While much of the world stood by in disbelief at their actions, forgiveness was a normal response for this community that takes seriously the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and believes that they will not be forgiven their own sins if they do not forgive others. They practice forgiveness in the “small stuff” of the day to day, and when confronted by such a horrific thing as murder, while it’s not easy, they’ve had a lot of practice.
They embrace as their model the suffering Jesus who carried his cross without complaint. They try to exemplify Jesus who hung on the cross, extending forgiveness to his tormentors. They denied themselves the desire for revenge and took up their cross and have followed Jesus.
I think we come here week after week seeking the answers to life’s questions. About how to live and love, how to follow Jesus even if we’re not sure we can answer Jesus’ question as forcefully as Peter did. And so today we will renew our baptismal vows, as Justin and Marija Elkins bring Zoey to the font, and as a reminder to the rest of us that the walk with Jesus is a life-long journey, deepening and growing as we go.
The Baptismal Covenant is not just about us. Indeed, it is primarily about God and the relationship God establishes with us in baptism. It begins with the Apostles’ Creed, and the questions get more difficult as we proceed through them. The Creed tells us who God is and what God has done for us. It tells us that God loves us and calls us into relationship. Our response is to live as Jesus lived, to participate in God’s self-giving love for the world.
The next questions deal with our relationships with our fellow humans. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?
We are promising to attend church regularly, to support the life and ministry of the church physically and financially. To read the Bible, to pray for ourselves and others, to teach our children the prayers and traditions of our faith.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Note the words persevere and whenever. Baptism does not prevent anyone from sinning. Rather it offers us the loving response: repent and return. To be willing to admit shortcomings, sins. To teach our children to accept responsibility for their actions and to apologize when they’ve hurt another.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? The Gospel, the Good News that Jesus loves us no matter what. We share this news by what we do and say, how we say it and to whom we say it. We need to remind all persons, children especially, that they are beloved of God.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons and love your neighbor as yourself? Seek and serve are the operative words. The Christian’s life is about seeking out those who need love and offering our gifts to them. It is about expecting to see Christ in others. We are promising to look for opportunities to use our gifts to serve others.
Will you strive for peace and justice among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? Remember that all persons, deserve to be treated with dignity. This calls us to be aware of instances of injustice around us, not the least of which are racism, sexism, xenophobia and speaking out or taking action against them. It calls us to recognize our power and privilege. It calls us to be courteous in our political discourse. It includes showing kindness to everyone, from supermarket workers to children.
Will you cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation? This is a commitment to safeguard the splendor of God’s creation by our actions and sustain and renew the life of the earth. And it includes our responsibility to reduce, recycle, reuse.
To each of these questions, we respond as best we can, “I will, with God’s help.” Which is the only way we can presume to walk the way of discipleship, and understand who Jesus is.
And let us not forget that Zoey is looking to us to help her in her Christian walk.