September 17, 2006; Proper 19 B
People walked a lot in Jesus’ day.
Most people could not afford a horse or donkey to ride on.
If you had to visit someone 50 miles ahead – like Moorhead – you had to plan your trip carefully. Even if you were in great physical shape, it would take you two or three days.
Jesus is walking along with his disciples.
They are traveling some 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
This is no Sunday drive.
They have time for serious conversation as they walk the miles.
Along the way, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”
His friends have all sorts of answers:
John the Baptizer, who baptized people in the Jordan and preached a message of repentance.
Elijah the prophet of the Lord, who stood up against the evil King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel.
Another prophet, one in the long line of prophets in Israel.
Perhaps they debated these different possibilities as they walked along.
Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”
That’s a different question. Jesus was asking them not about what ‘people’ say, but about their own opinions.
Talking about something is different than sharing your own convictions.
Talking about something is different than taking a stand.
When you confess, “This is what I believe,” you are taking a stand, revealing something personal, sharing the contents of your heart and mind.
“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus.
Jesus asks us that question today.
Who is Jesus for you?
With all his usual energy, enthusiasm, and insight, Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus, you are the Anointed One of God, God’s chosen instrument of salvation for Israel and the world, the Son of God.
And Jesus says, “Shhhh!” It’s a secret – for now. Don’t tell!
Jesus doesn’t contradict Peter. Jesus is the Messiah. But at that point, he did not want to let the cat out of the bag. It was pretty dangerous to be labeled as the Messiah in Roman occupied Israel. Only the Emperor could be called ‘the son of God.’
Peter’s witness to Jesus must have made a big impact on the other disciples.
Some of them may have been confused or offended by this new possibility.
Others were inspired – this changes everything!
Jesus – the Messiah! Jesus the Holy One of God! Jesus my Lord!
A new realm of faith opened up for them.
A new way of seeing their friend, their Lord Jesus.
Peter’s faith opened up a world of faith for his friends.
How do our words – what we teach, confess, and share – open up others to meet Jesus the Messiah?
How does what we say reflect our Lord?
Are our friends welcomed into the grace of God?
Think of the difference it makes for children, when their parents and other caring adults share their faith with them.
I know that when my wife and I share our faith in simple words and daily practices with our children, it makes a difference for them – God becomes a part of our daily conversation and life. Just last week as I put my daughter to bed, she asked, “Are God and Jesus part of our family?” When I answered yes, she asked, “Are God and Jesus part of everybody’s family?” If Christ were not a part of our family’s everyday conversation (and we are by no means perfect in that regard), such questions would not come up.
It works for me, too. It is often as I share my faith in caring conversation that my faith is strengthened and clarified. It is often as I prepare a sermon like this that I am challenged to walk my talk. I imagine that Peter, too, was changed when he was moved to confess that Jesus is the Messiah.
And then, Jesus continues the conversation in a new direction.
He shares the truth of what it means to be the Messiah, and to follow the Messiah.
Following Jesus is no walk in the park!
You will face suffering.
You will face rejection.
You will face death.
Following the Messiah does not spare you from these cold hard facts – in fact, following Jesus exposes you to them.
Is this bad news? No. As Jesus tells his friend about his death, he also tells them about his resurrection, when God will raise him on the third day.
Following Jesus is not only suffering, rejection, and death.
It is also resurrection life, joy, salvation.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
We do not only confess Jesus Christ with our lips, we believe him in our hearts and follow him with our actions.
What do our actions as followers of Jesus reveal about our Lord? How does what we do reflect Who we follow?
Or do our words and actions obscure others’ vision of Christ?
Do we say with our lips, ‘Jesus is the Messiah,’ but then deny him by our actions?
If we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, then, if others are attracted or repulsed, then they may at least catch a vision of the Crucified One, our Lord Jesus.
That does not mean that we must endure unnecessary suffering.
Sometimes, we endure suffering in our lives and say, “This is the cross I must bear,” while all the while God wants us to lay down that particular cross.
If you are in an abusive relationship, that is not a cross God wants you to bear forever – get help and get out as soon as possible.
If a friend or neighbor is suffering, the Christian response is to try to lift the weight from their backs, or at least share their burden.
Imagine telling hungry children, “Hunger is the cross you must bear,” when God wants you to feed them!
The point is not to burden others by heaping crosses on their backs.
The point is to deny ourselves, and live lives centered on God and focused on serving others.
The point is to turn from a focus on our wants to focus on others’ needs.
The human tendency is to focus on ourselves, to think small, to look narrowly at life in terms of our own fulfillment.
When you set your mind on “divine things,” however, your vision expands, your focus widens to embrace others, the world, and God.
You realize the paradox that being self-centered is self-defeating.
When you are focused only on yourself, your self is small and pathetic – like Uncle Scrooge hoarding his wealth for no purpose, while his relationships wither and his friendships die.
When you focus on God, when you focus on speaking and doing God’s truth in the world, then whether you succeed or fail by worldly standards, you are a success from the standpoint of eternity, your circle grows, your life is enriched.
So be faithful.
Trust in God in the midst of suffering.
Don’t give up the struggle.
Bear one another’s crosses.
Know that denying yourself and bearing your cross is not a way to earn God’s favor and love.
God has already given you grace and forgiveness through the cross and resurrection of Christ.
Our task is merely to live in joyful response to that gift, to not worry about our own souls, but to share the good news by what we say and what we do, to live by grace as God’s faithful people. Amen.