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Who is Jesus to Us?

This is the sermon I preached Sun. 9/13 at St.Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church. The gospel was Mark 8:27-38.

Before marrying my husband, Ray, I had a part time job at a call center in Rochester, conducting opinion polls over the phone. Sometimes they were political, oftentimes they were about various products and services.

In the first few verses of this gospel reading, doesn't it seem that Jesus is conducting an opinion poll of his own? His question was simply regarding who people thought he was.

This brings us to a turning point in Mark's gospel. Just who is Jesus? Who do people say he is? Jesus wasn't taking a survey to see what people thought of him. The answers others gave were all high evaluations of Jesus, but they did not confess Jesus as the definitive revelation of God, The important question is not the identity of Jesus, but the identity of God: Is God the one who is definitively acting in the Christ event or not?

The discussion of the answers that other people have given is not the same as personal responses of faith. It is easier to believe in a messiah that will come instead of one that has come. Having a future messiah keeps a certain image in place and makes no demands on anyone. A Messiah of the present calls for an altered image and demands a commitment of faith.

Now Jesus comes to the crux of the matter. Who do you disciples say I am? The you is plural. Jesus was asking all the disciples this question. Peter replied, "You are the Messiah" (v. 29). There were lots of ideas about who Jesus was. There had been many prophets, priests and kings in Israel's history.

Peter's answer was huge! By confessing Jesus as Messiah, means that Jesus is the definitive spokesperson for God, that he is the One designated by God to represent God's rule in the kingdom of God and the One who reconciles humanity to God and mediates forgiveness of sins.  Peter had said the right words, but he would not really be able to understand them until after Jesus' death and resurrection.

God is not just a feeling of power, bliss or harmony, but God became present to and with humanity in Jesus, the Son of God. As the exalted Son of Man, the One manifested in Jesus is the norm by which we are to judge or evaluate all things.

Jesus is the Messiah, the one the people of Israel had been waiting for throughout so many years and so many struggles. But now comes the hard part about being Messiah.

For the first time, Jesus explains that being the Messiah means suffering, death and resurrection. The idea that the Messiah should suffer was a scandalous new concept. It's not supposed to happen that way. The Messiah was believed to be the one who would deliver Israel from its enemies, which at this time was the Romans!

Jesus openly spoke that he must undergo suffering, rejection and be killed (v. 31). The Greek for the word must indicates divine necessity. Plotting and scheming to get rid of Jesus, followed by his death was not happening outside God's will for the Messiah. The cross was not an obstacle to overcome. It was part of the divine plan leading to resurrection. Jesus knows the Father's will for the kind of Messiah he is to be,

Peter's rebuking of Jesus was not merely because of Peter's affection for his teacher. Peter's words were a theological response to Jesus' outrageous declaration that flew in the face of all previous expectations of what the Messiah would do and be.

Peter's rebuke of Jesus showed just how resistant the disciples were to such an impossible thing. Rebuking is no small matter. It is the same language that is used when Jesus cast out demons. Like Jesus' family, Peter thinks Jesus is crazy and needs correcting. Peter was not behaving like a disciple, but instead assumed a superior position to the master.

There are only two sides to this issue and Peter is on the wrong one. Jesus' rebuke of Peter places this exchange in a setting of cosmic conflict. Peter tries to rebuke Jesus, but Jesus does rebuke Peter. The problem was Peter's mind was set on human things, not on the things of God.

Jesus' rebuke was not just between Peter and Jesus, but it was a matter of discipleship, which is why Jesus included the disciples when he responded to Peter. One's understanding of Christ always relates to one's understanding of discipleship and vice versa.

Jesus was true God and true human. Jesus' suffering and death shows his humanity. That Jesus predicts his death and resurrection ahead of time and that he actually does rise from the dead demonstrates Jesus' divinity.

Jesus spells out the cost of discipleship for everyone as he addresses the crowd. His call to follow him as his disciple is not solely for the those of Jesus' time. The call is for all of us to follow.

The first step in becoming followers of Jesus is self-denial. The denial that is to happen is denial of the primacy of self. How do we do that? By taking up the cross, which is to set self on the same trajectory as Jesus.

Denying oneself does not mean one is to be stoic in the face of abuse or that one should become a doormat. It does not mean giving up certain pleasures or desires. It does mean abandoning all claims to self-definition and accepting and asserting God's claim upon one's life.

The news that Jesus would suffer and die was upsetting enough. In fact it was scandalous! There's more however--the shocking revelation that disciples too must share Jesus' cross. By the time Mark's gospel was written, Christians, including Peter, had been crucified in Nero's gardens in Rome. The Roman armies too, had crucified many dissidents in their reconquest of Galilee and Judea. Mark's readers had no doubt what Jesus meant by "taking up your cross." It was a reality that was frequently played out before their very eyes.

Notice that Jesus doesn't speak of "bearing the cross." We often hear people speak of pain or a disease or another problem as the "cross they have to bear." Taking up the cross is a voluntary action. The decision to take it up will likely bring opposition. It is not referring to unpredictable tragedies that happen to people no matter what their commitment is to Christ. To take up the cross is a call to public ministry that confronts whatever powers prevent the saving work of God.

Words of suffering and death are not easy to hear in our numbing pain killer culture. It is hard to have a balanced understanding of suffering. The real challenge Jesus issues us today is to think as God does, not as human beings usually do. God does not delight in the suffering of his people. Jesus' healing miracles and compassion for the hungry crowds at his feeding miracles demonstrate this.

Many devout Christians believe in the Jesus of miracles, but have ignored the cross. Prayer is an important part of healing, but it is an opening up of ourselves to what God wills, not trying to convince God to do our will. Of course, to know God's will means we have to spend time with God and listen to God.

Where does our real confession of Christ take place? We confess our faith as we gather as the church. But doesn't it take our confession to a whole new level when it is proclaimed in the midst of all the other forces seeking our devotion? Can we pray "help my unbelief" as we are surrounded by other beliefs and symbols of other gods, which may be cleverly disguised as advertising?

If we confess Jesus Christ as Lord, Messiah and Son of God, we must be faithful followers. We cannot expect the gospel to match the desires and demand of society in general. The gospel is not formulated for the convenience of those who would share it with others.

What Jesus said about taking up the cross and losing one's life qualify the kind of commitment Jesus' followers are called to. This is a radical, challenging description of the Christian life. Today's gospel is a narrative of three brief episodes, each focusing on who Jesus is. Following Jesus is not just a good choice to make among competing choices. It is the only choice that brings life.

Who is Jesus to us?
Our response determines our identity.


Resources consulted:

Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices

Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B

M. Eugene Boring & Fred. B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary

Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B 

Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew & Mark

Brian Stoffregen, 




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