Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – Mark 8:27-38 - Pentecost 16

Do You Know Jesus?
Do you know Jesus? Has anyone ever asked you that question? Usually the asker really just wants to know if you are “saved.”  And to that question we Lutherans can answer a resounding “yes.”  For we have been saved by grace, through our Lord Jesus Christ.  But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?  Do you know Jesus?  Well, do you?
Martin Luther believed he knew Jesus.  He had grown up in the context of a church that taught that Jesus was a stern judge who was ready to condemn sinners to the agonies of the fires of hell for all unconfessed sins. For the young Martin Luther, Jesus was terrifying.  He knew he was a sinner and he knew he could not possibly confess all of his many sins for he could not remember them all.  He also knew that despite his best intentions he continued to sin; he continued to put himself first.  He was convinced that he would be condemned and he expected Jesus would do the condemning.  And then something happened.  Luther began to study the New Testament, in particular the letters of Paul and he discovered something he hadn’t known before.  Jesus is not the harsh judge, but rather Jesus reaches out with grace and love to all of God’s children and offers forgiveness and life free and without condition.  It turns out Luther didn’t know Jesus at all.  He thought he did, but discovered there was much, much, much more about Jesus than he ever dreamed.
Peter and the other disciples had been with Jesus for a while.  They were certain they knew him.  Jesus was different than other popular preachers and healers, but being with him was exhilarating.  They were certain that they had hitched their wagon (so to speak) to the right horse – the one that would lead to glory and power! So they were not too surprised when Jesus asked them what the people were saying about him – “who do people say that I am?”  That’s easy, they think you are a prophet or Elijah or John the Baptist come back from the dead. Then Jesus surprises them with the next question – “but who do you say that I am?”  Now, they could all answer this question.  They had probably been whispering about it for months.  They knew Jesus was the Messiah, but they were afraid to say, so from the text we get the sense that there was an uncomfortable silence.  Finally Peter, the (sort of) leader of the group speaks up and says what everyone else had in their minds:  “You are the Messiah!” And Jesus tells everyone to keep quiet.
This command to silence is actually a common response for Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel. Scholars and theologians call this Mark’s “Messianic Secret.”  Why does Jesus want everyone to keep quiet about their belief that he is the Messiah?  Well the next few verses give us the answer.  The people of Judea, along with the disciples had been anxiously expecting the Messiah for some time.  And they knew who he was and what to expect.  The Messiah would be a powerful King, like King David.  He would unify the people, drive out the foreign tyrants – the Romans – and establish the Kingdom of Israel, forever.  He would do this with his power and might and he would do this with violence and the result would be his glorious ascension to the throne of his ancestor King David.  Everyone knew this.  That is who the disciples believed Jesus to be.  That is what Peter is saying when he tells Jesus – “You are the Messiah!”  Jesus tells them to keep quiet because while he might have the title right, he had the definition wrong.
In the verses that follow Jesus then tries to define for the disciples what a Messiah really is.  What does it mean that he is the Messiah?  Jesus tells them that it means suffering, rejection, execution and resurrection.  Peter and the others seemed to have missed the “resurrection” part because Peter then tried to correct Jesus.  THAT is not what a Messiah is, says Peter.  Stop talking like that!  Jesus not only rebukes Peter (rebuke seems like such a gentle word for such a harsh put down), but he then goes on to tell the disciples and others that if they want to be his followers not only do they need to come to grips with this new way of defining a Messiah, but they can expect the same treatment.  Being a disciple of Jesus means 1. Denying oneself and 2. Things are turned upside down – trying to save your life will mean you will loose it and loosing it up will mean you will save it.  It should not be too surprising to note that at the crucifixion all of these disciples abandoned and denied that they even knew Jesus.  And they were telling the truth: they didn’t know him, really.  They thought they did, but they had gotten it wrong.  They had been simply projecting their own ideas upon Jesus.
So, do you know Jesus?  Who is Jesus to you?  Is Jesus the judge that you have to please?  Is Jesus the angry avenger who takes out human sinfulness on innocent people, sometimes centuries later?  Is Jesus the promiser of success and prosperity?  If you do everything that (some interpreter tells you) Jesus wants you to do, do you expect that everything will go your way and that you will be wealthy and influential? Is Jesus only interested in your personal piety?  Is the Jesus you know completely unconcerned with broader issues of justice and hunger but is completely uncompromising when it comes to personal morality? Many in our society believe in these and many other illusions about Jesus.  Maybe for some of us this is who Jesus is.  Our Gospel for today reminds us that we do not have the whole picture. In fact, we only have a little bit of the picture, or maybe we don’t have the right picture at all.  Who is Jesus?  Look at the cross.  Only when you see Jesus on the cross can you understand who Jesus is? Only when you see Jesus on the cross can you understand the resurrection.  Jesus is the one who loves us so desperately that he endures crucifixion so that we might live.  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the one who is calling us to follow him to the cross; to deny ourselves and give of ourselves to others; to love unconditionally as he loved us.  Who is Jesus?  The one calling us to give up our lives to him!

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