Sunday, February 28, 2021

"Follow Jesus"

Pastor Scott Landis

Mark 8: 31-39

Not long after Jesus’ time in the wilderness, he returned to his disciples in order to begin his public ministry. And, he began with a bang: healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding several thousand with just a basket of food, and walking on water. Not a bad start! He gained quite a reputation and those closest to him felt they had hitched their wagon to a star! This was, in fact, the Messiah, and they knew it. Jesus would be the one to bring down those in power and lift them to positions of prominence. The great reversal that his mother – Mary – had proclaimed in her famed “Magnificat” was becoming their reality. They could feel and smell success. Soon he would be King Jesus and all their problems – wrought from the powerful and obstinate Roman rule – would be over.

Peter was the loudest voice of enthusiasm. Peter, the consummate extrovert, couldn’t help himself. So excited about the possibilities, he was absolutely convinced he made the right decision to drop everything and follow Jesus. He was ready to get things going – NOW!

But it’s important to back up just a bit to get the context. In the verses that immediately precede our story today, Jesus queried his disciples by asking, “Who do people say that I am?”

Mind you, they were right in the heart of Roman rule – Caesarea Philippi was a city-state in gentile territory. Jews had to be very careful there about what they said and how they acted. They were being watched and were expected to be outwardly supportive of the powers that be. Keep quiet, pay your taxes, and don’t buck the system – that was the means to a happy life.

“Some say you are John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others a prophet,” they responded. You can hear the guardedness in their response. No commitment, just an offer of some answers they had “overheard” from others. -- Keep quiet, pay your taxes, and don’t buck the system. They had that down pat. But Jesus wanted more. He wanted THEIR response. What did they believe?

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

Once again, Peter couldn’t help himself. That’s the way it is with extroverts. Like it or not – you always know where they stand. “You are the Messiah!” he proudly proclaimed. An assertion even Jesus warned to keep pretty close to the vest.

He then began to teach them a hard lesson – the real story about where all this was going. He told them that his would not be a long life. Soon he would undergo suffering, be rejected, executed, and then rise from the dead.

That’s when Peter came unglued. He took Jesus aside. I would love to know what went down in that conversation. We can only imagine. What we do know is that Peter tried to silence Jesus which only infuriated him. “Get behind me, Satan. You have no idea what this is all about. You can only see what’s right in front of you. My sights are on something completely different. What you see is merely human. What I see is divine. [Pause]

It’s a pivotal moment in both Discipleship and Messiahship – clearly defining their roles and limited understanding to date. Peter (and the others) are brought up short. They NOW knew that they DON’T know a whole lot. While Jesus became very specific about the costs of following him, they became increasingly anxious.

“This is no walk in the park we’re talking about here. Any who want to be my followers will have to deny themselves, and take up THEIR cross, in order to follow me.”

The costs of discipleship, as described by Jesus, would be deep and demanding. It involved sacrifice – to be willing to give up everything in order to gain anything. If that gives you pause when you hear those words – you are not alone. It sure does me. I wonder whether I would have been up to the task. I wonder that, at times, even today.

What Jesus was calling for in his disciples was a radical commitment. By radical, I mean one that goes deep – deep down into our roots – our core. It demands the essence of who we are. Just like in the words of the old song, “Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” That’s the level of commitment Jesus expects if we are to follow him. [Pause]

Remember the context of this story. As I stated, Caesarea Philippi was a Roman city-state – the seat of Imperial Power. Jesus was inviting his followers to eschew that which folks not only accepted – but worshiped. The Emperor was god! But Jesus called for a new allegiance. To honor a new Truth – to proclaim Jesus as their Messiah – their king – not Caesar. They were called to decry the injustices levied against them and to demand that their voices be heard – by what they said, and more importantly, by how they lived.

All sounds strangely familiar – doesn’t it? [Pause]

For the past several weeks I have been taking an on-line evening course on Anti-racism sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy out of Burlingame, CA. About 50 of us gather (on Zoom) each week having done a fair amount of reading and watched several video clips in order to prepare for the evening session. The class is composed almost exclusively of White men and women and most are 60 and above. Some are first generation immigrants. Almost all grew up in all-White suburbs, have gone to college, had good jobs most of our lives, and many have retired in luxury (by the world’s standards).

What surprised almost all of us – as we began to absorb the advanced material – was the depth of our ignorance on issues of race before participating in the class. Our assumptions about the lives of others – especially those we believed to be different from us – clouded reality in a profound way. Either we didn’t know, or we didn’t WANT to know the massive amount of privilege we have been given simply due to the color of our skin. The facts are undeniable, and I won’t go into detail. That would take – well, an entire course and lots of discussions and, I am sure disagreement. There has been plenty of that in the class as we have dug deeper in our respective journeys. The topic is challenging and sensitive -- but NOT to be avoided.

What I HAVE learned, is that it is up to me to risk letting go or as Jesus would say “to deny myself” of some of the comforts that I have been given – but not necessarily earned – in order to begin to dissemble the systemic racism that has been built into our country from its inception. Moreover, as a follower of Jesus, it is incumbent upon me to speak a word of Truth and to do everything in my power to ensure our country is increasingly becoming a place of peace, love, and justice for ALL – not just for some. Finally, I have learned just how important it is to listen to black and brown voices as they share their stories – stories that have been all too convenient for me to ignore.

I’m pretty sure this is what Jesus had in mind when he called upon his disciples to deny themselves – or to risk giving up the certainty, the security they knew as long as they kept their mouths shut. “Keep quiet. Pay your taxes. Don’t buck the system.” Jesus demanded more. The “more” was to take up their cross – a practice that involves sacrifice and one that marked them as his followers– whose allegiance was to the only True God and NOT to a corrupt imperial regime. [Pause]

I imagine there are some viewing our service today who may not be in agreement with my mana`o. Each time I preach on a topic deemed to be “political” I receive a fair amount of response. That’s good! It keeps me on my toes! I receive and respect all your thoughts. But when I witnessed what happened in our nation’s capital on January 6 many of whom were wielding bibles, carrying crosses, and displaying other Christian symbols. I must speak. I was embarrassed to be affiliated with the religion that some White Supremacists chose to usurp in order to wield power for their own benefit. What we saw was not Christian in any way, and those of us seeking to follow Jesus must offer a word of civility and act I ways that are graceful and loving – not violent and destructive.

We can’t NOT be political when it comes to issues of justice. Our gospel demands it – as does our Savior. BUT – it demands that we do so with humility – willing to sacrifice – to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order to follow Jesus.

As we walk with Jesus during these 40 days – pay very close attention to his words, his actions, and his demands on our lives. It may cause you to wrestle with your willingness to follow. You may decide, this is too much – the costs are too dear. Or the call may excite you and you realize anew – “I’m in!”

I hope that old song will encourage you after all. “Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.” Amen!

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