Sunday, September 13, 2015
Last week, I was listening to the news about the two Syrian little boys who drowned with their mother in trying to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey. A reporter from All Things Considered on National Public Radio was interviewing the boys’ uncle. He started to break down and cry at the end of the short interview, when I realized – it wasn’t just the uncle who was crying – the reporter was also crying with him. If you know anything about journalism, you know that reporters are supposed to remain outside the story – objective and unemotional in their reporting. But as we continue to hear about the hundreds of desperate people crossing borders and making very risky decisions because they are experiencing so much hardship and evil in their home countries, I felt like that reaction from the reporter was justified – some things are worth crying about. Her emotional reaction shocked ME out of my daily routine commute to really listen to the story, to think about the atrocities these refugees are experiencing and how I might respond.
Peter does not react like a faithful disciple in this gospel passage from Mark, either. And Jesus’ harsh reaction to Peter shocks us out of our routine thinking about what it means to follow him. First of all, they are in Caesarea Philippi, a community dedicated to the worship of the Greek god Pan. Standing in the midst of these idols, Peter is brave enough to say OUT LOUD, “You are the Messiah.” Peter takes a risk in saying that Jesus, not Pan, is worthy of true worship. This is probably why Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him. But then as they continue on their journey to Jerusalem, Jesus reveals to them why they are going to Jerusalem – not for him to be crowned as king, God’s anointed one, the long-awaited for promised Messiah, but for him to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed, and in three days rise again. This is not what a Messiah is supposed to do, and Peter, who has just had the guts to publically call Jesus the Messiah reacts vehemently against this news. He can’t accept Jesus’ difficult words at first. Perhaps like I felt, like that reporter felt, he is even despairing about Jesus words: “Suffering, rejection, and death? That’s not what a Messiah is supposed to go through. You’re supposed to DO something about these things – bring peace, happiness, and life. If the Messiah can’t overcome these things, then who will?” But Jesus is clear: the road to life in following him will first mean death. It is a HUGE risk to trust that in spite of this suffering, rejection, and crucifixion, Jesus will rise again. And the disciples, Peter included, are just not sure they want to take that risk.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” Jesus says to us today. These are difficult words – difficult in particular because we are so comfortable and safe most of the time in our daily lives here in the United States. We have the immense privilege and blessing to not have to make the hard choice, if you can even call it a choice, to risk death from starvation in a refugee camp, death at the hands of corrupt rulers in our home country, or death by drowning in an attempt to find a place of safety, security, and freedom. We have the privilege of being able to turn off the news, tune out from the plight of those for whom Jesus Christ has also died. In our comfort and privilege, we have deceived ourselves that being a Christian means being nice, making other people happy, and escaping facing the suffering of this world to dream about the pearly gates and gilded mansions of heaven. The truth is, Jesus never says that is what it means to follow him. We have a lot to learn from Christians around the world who know exactly what it means to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel.
This is not the scripture I would choose for such an exciting day as our fall festival – with Sunday school and choir beginning again! But as we enter into another school year of learning and growing in faith, I cannot water down, sugar-coat or ignore Jesus’ explanation of what it means to follow him: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me– that is what Jesus asks of us. I am convicted personally by these words to allow Jesus to shape my life differently for the sake of Christ and his gospel, and I hope you are, too. The truth is, if we were in Peter’s shoes, would we react any differently? We might chicken out and deny Jesus again later, like Peter does when Jesus is arrested. But in the end, Peter kept on walking with Jesus to Jerusalem and beyond, and we can, too.
We are learning as a congregation that it is difficult to live into the mission we have discerned God has for us: to serve God and share our faith with all. It is difficult in the midst of friends and loved ones that no longer go to church or identify as Christian to say, “You, Jesus, are the Messiah.” It isn’t easy as parents and grandparents to insist on bringing your children to Sunday School and worship when sports practices, games and other activities are scheduled on Sunday mornings. It is risky in social conversation to take heed from those words in James and speak up on behalf of immigrants around the world to assert that they too also created in the image of God, they too are people for whom Christ has died. The beginning of this school year is an opportunity for us to encourage one another that yes, serving God and sharing our faith with all is not always easy or comfortable. BUT our faith does rest on the promise that on the other side of suffering and death is life eternal with Jesus – a life filled with purpose to make a difference in Jesus’ name here on Earth as well as the promise of life with him beyond suffering, death and the grave. This is why we are able to take those risks. This is why we are able in faith to move from anger and despair to action, to a deeper commitment to following Jesus no matter the risks., because we know Jesus dares to meet the world’s suffering head on and conquer death by his own suffering and death for us. After three days he will rise again, Mark reminds us. Like Peter, may we have the courage to continue on the road of following the risen Jesus. Amen.