Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38
Who do we say Jesus is? I suspect it is a more complicated question than we might first imagine it to be. I also suspect it is more related than we might first imagine to the question of what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples, “If you want to become my followers…” deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow.
So I wonder if we might play a little with these two questions today. Explore them a bit together: Who do we say Jesus is and then, what does it and what doesn’t it look like to follow, to be his disciple, to take up our cross?
Religion is a strange thing, and not always the same as faith. Many of you are here even as you carry with you banners of protest and uncertainty. You’ve seen the worst that religion and its institutions can offer, you’ve been burned by what was created to bless, you’ve been disoriented by rapid change and deep unsettledness in the church, and yet there is something that still compels you. Others of you have been here forever, perhaps shielding yourselves from questions that you would benefit from engaging, perhaps sensing the need to open yourselves a bit to the questions that nag, to the doubts that you protect.
The history of all this is important, and we have talked about it in the past. I think a particularly insightful and accessible account is given by Phyllis Tickle in her 2012 book Emergence Christianity.[i] A new form of Christianity was beginning to emerge in the wake of all sorts of turmoil in religious and secular society at the beginning of the 20th century. Questions of authority were swirling as the Enlightenment had displaced the church as the source of all truth with science and progress and the notion of manifest destiny. The question of slavery and the Civil War in our own country was just one sign of deep divides in knowing that were splitting the church apart and creating deep social unrest.
Reactions were varied—a rise in secularism on one hand, the birth of all sorts of new religions on another. It is no accident, for example, that Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Unitarian Universalism, Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, and the Christian Church and Pentecostalism were all born in the religious unrest and discontent of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the Catholic Church Vatican I was convened in 1868 under Pope Pius IX. It’s only real action was to assert the church’s authority in the face of this chaotic environment with the establishment of papal infallibility. Likewise in the last quarter of the 1900s, the Niagara Bible Conference birthed fundamentalism by naming the five nonnegotiable principles of biblical faith—inerrancy, the historicity of the virgin birth, the doctrine of vicarious substitutionary atonement that understands Christ’s death as a necessary sacrifice to appease an angry God, the physical and attestable reality of the bodily resurrection, and the historicity of the recorded miracles of Jesus.[ii]
In both Catholicism and Protestantism, there was a reactive move toward religion as a form of certainty, as a function of certain historic, even scientific declarations to which one says yes or no, as opposed to a Way—a way of belonging in the world, a search for faithful response to the complexity of life lived in the midst of good and evil, holy and unholy, knowing and unknowing, data and mystery.
Tickle points out that the Niagara Bible Conference, in naming those five fundamentals, put its fingers precisely on those places where traditional or institutional Christianity would be most challenged. And this is what we’ve experienced in this day and age in which the country is about equally divided between forms of fundamentalism and progressivism, equally divided over Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who, for her religious beliefs, went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.[iii] I have no doubt she believed this was her cross to bear.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
I love that Peter can be so right and so wrong all at once. “You are the Messiah,” he proclaims. And yet his notion of what this Messiah is about is so wrong that we find him speaking for Satan in almost the next breath. I suppose it gives me hope, and it inclines me toward a brand of religious faith that accompanies us in the search from unknowing to knowing, from self-interest to mercy, that engages us in that creative space between what we can sense of our world and the apprehension all that lies beyond, and lashes us to all of humanity and to the well-being of this blue satellite flying pell-mell around a star that is flying through a vast multi-verse that we simply cannot get our minds around.
Mark Twain said, “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.”[iv]
Many of you are here, then, not to be told the right and wrong answers, as if we have them in our back pockets. You are here because somewhere deep within, you understand that we are saved by what troubles us. Suffering leads us to empathy and compassion and mercy. It transforms us. It creates in us courage.
Sure we have all forms of data and information. We are in the midst of another renaissance of discovery that has me, along with Elon Musk, bullish on our future and our ability to solve some pretty significant problems that we’ve created for ourselves. But technical and scientific knowledge and religious faith are two very different things.
Kim Davis went to jail rather than have her name appear on a marriage license for two people of the same gender based on religious conviction. I suspect it was a better move than to continue to use her power as a public servant to impose her religious beliefs on others, but I’m also sure there is room for debate about her interpretation of the scriptures. Others of religious faith have gone to jail to support the right to marry of those of the same gender. Still others marched and filled the jails because their resistance was the only power they had in the struggle for equal rights that is at the heart of all religions.
Jesus says, Take up your cross and follow me.
Let’s say it this way: You don’t have to go looking for your cross. It will find you. The task is how to take it up, the question is how to respond to what troubles us, because that is what will ultimately free us, that is the heart of religion.
When he was at Daybreak, a home for severely handicapped people, the priest and writer Henri Nouwen was invited to the White House to provide counsel during difficult times in the Clinton years. It was an honor many would jump at, and Nouwen sympathized with the Clintons’ sorrows. But he sent his apologies and did not go.
“I am here with Adam, my disabled friend,” he said. There are others who can go to the White House. Adam needs me.”[v]
Reflecting on this story, Wayne Muller says, “Jesus was kind, loving, a peacemaker, humble, wise, a giving healer. The world saw this, took notice, and killed him for it. One of the things that died with Jesus was the illusion that the world will always reward good deeds…”
Muller gets us then to that distinction we draw between faith as a set of assertions, and faith as a way of being and believing, as the taking up of our cross in order to be saved:
True freedom comes when we become… nobody special. We do our work not for glory and honor, but simply because we must, because we believe in the value of right action and good labor. In the end, we may or may not receive our reward from the world. More often, we receive our reward in secret. During a quiet walk, when we suddenly feel lighter; when we receive a kind word, and the heart is made warm and full; during a moment’s reflection, when we feel a clarity of purpose, in these and a thousand other unexpected ways, we secretly receive our reward…[vi]
It is here, in other words, that we meet the Messiah who paved the way of salvation through a cross, through a way of love and mercy that was not the end, but a beginning.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012).
[ii] Ibid., pp. 36ff.
[iii] See, for example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/kim-davis-poll_55f04a65e4b002d5c0776f39.
[iv] Not sure of original source, but see http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/55725-most-people-are-bothered-by-those-passages-of-scripture-they.
[v] This story is told in Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 2000), 174ff.