September 12, 2021
Rev. Scott Landis
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
How do those words strike you? What does it mean to deny yourself and to take up your cross in order to follow Jesus – in OUR day? I invite you to keep those questions in the back of your mind as we explore this powerful story from the gospel of Mark.
As we continue the journey in Mark’s gospel we quickly realize, to follow Jesus is no easy task. Even just trying to keep up with him physically would have been a challenge. In the past few weeks, he has traveled through the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon – regions where he was despised as a Jew yet revered as a healer. He then moved to the area of the Decapolis where he continued preaching and teaching and, he healed a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. This week he moves to the area known as Caesarea Philippi, coming closer to what HE would refer to as home.
In our story today, Jesus’ travels bring him not only geographically closer to home – but also to the people with whom he had a much closer relationship – specifically his disciples. After all that had taken place – the healings, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and brilliant preaching – Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Similar to the way politicians check their “approval ratings,” Jesus seemed to be asking “How am I doing? What are they saying about me? When you’re out and about – what are you hearing?”
Their responses completely missed his point. They said, “Well, some say you are Elijah, other’s say John the Baptist, and still others one of the prophets. But’s that’s really not what Jesus wanted to know. What he wanted was their personal response – and it’s a question each one of us must answer for ourselves – “Who do YOU say that I am?”
Peter gave what most of us would think a perfectly good answer, but Jesus rebuked him, sternly warning that he was not to tell anyone about him. Now, to you and me, this might be a lousy way to increase your “approval ratings,” but Jesus had yet another goal in mind entirely.
His mission was not popularity. He was not seeking their approval. Rather, what HE wanted was both to demonstrate AND to call his followers to a much deeper level of commitment. Remember his words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” He continued, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Notice the difference. I spoke about it in Keiki Time – Politicians, and Rock Stars, and Actors and Athletes – they are looking for — and depend upon fans for their survival. So, “likes” on Facebook, and “Friends” on Instagram are solicited and carefully counted in order to maintain their status. Jesus was inviting something different. He didn’t want fans — no, Jesus wanted followers. He wasn’t looking for friends to click a button on a smart phone – giving a thumbs-up or a heart. No, his mission was to challenge disciples to follow him on a path that would not be easy. This path did not depend on his reputation. But it was a path that demanded one’s entire life.
His question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” – implied THAT kind of invitation, THAT level of commitment. I think, it’s a question that is just as important and relevant for us today. [Pause]
One of the nagging concerns that keeps me awake at night these days – and enters into my prayer continually is Jesus’ question being asked of me – and of our church. Who do I (who do we) say that Jesus is? How would you answer that question? Your response – individually and our response collectively may make all the difference in whether we maintain the strength and hope to survive the challenging moment in which we live. [Pause]
Think back to just over a year and a half ago. Remember what Sunday morning was like then? For most of us present virtually today, it was a time of anticipation. We were excited to come to church. Who would we see? We might wonder what Kahu would talk about? How many visitors would be present? What music would be presented? What snacks might be on the table during aloha hour? And whether a gang of friends might go to Fred’s Mexican after the service.
In other words, Sunday was fun. It was a time to be together – to enjoy one another’s company – to talk-story about well, just about anything, to hug, to sing, and to pray. All good. All important. And all vital to what we knew as church. But that is NOT our present reality – and our reality begs us to consider Jesus’ question yet again – Who do you say that I am? Are you willing to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow?
But, perhaps, instead of asking whether we are willing to lose our life, I wonder if what we need to ponder is whether we are willing to lose what we knew as our life and as our church in order to embrace what is emerging as Christ’s renewed church and our transformed lives?
Now, I know I am on very thin ice on this one. No preacher in his/her right mind would ever critique too severely the church he/she is serving. That is not my intent. Instead, I want us all to look – with eyes wide open – at what is happening in our lifetime – what is right in front of us – right now?
If we believe for a moment that as soon as everyone is vaccinated and this nasty disease known as the Coronavirus is in our rearview mirrors that life in the church will return to what it was in pre-pandemic days, I think we are fooling ourselves. Things have changed - and there’s no going back. If nothing else, we will all be 2-3 years older than we were before it began. Things have shifted. The world has changed. And so have we. Beyond that – and this is the exciting part, I happen to believe God is calling for a new level of commitment – a new means of discipleship – and perhaps a new identity as the church of Jesus Christ. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but it will be different than what we knew – and, more importantly, God’s presence will be just as real there as it was before.
Just consider the possibilities for a moment. We can certainly try to go back to the way things were, and we may need to try that initially before we experience some disappointing fits and starts in our sincere attempts, but eventually, I think, we will realize something very different is needed – something that is even more relevant for our day. The world will still be in need of the aloha that comes from the followers of Jesus. Our kuleana will be to open ourselves to the new possibilities on how that love might be offered, but I’m convinced it will be different than what we took for granted in the past. [Pause]
Fr. Richard Rohr often talks about this emergence as an evolutionary process. Beginning with order – after which we experience a crisis of sorts that results in disorder – which eventually resolves into the new or reorder.
We are currently in the “crisis” or “disorder” phase of our lives. In case you haven’t noticed – this is not the fun part. Instead, it’s a time of uncertainty. It’s the “in-between” when things are not clear, and much is yet unknown.
What is so unusual about this crisis is that it is worldwide – the likes of which none of us have ever experienced before. It’s changing everything and demanding we change along with it. The church is not exempt. The pandemic has affected the way we meet, the way we worship, the way we participate in the rites and sacraments of the church, and the way we fellowship. No one and no institution has been unaffected.
But what’s exciting about in-between times is that that is where germination occurs. It’s there that something new is beginning to grow that will not be constrained by old models. It’s the new wine that cannot be held in old wine skins. It’s the Holy Spirit opening our hearts and minds to a whole new way of being church. And to dig in our heals and resist what God is calling forth is a waste of time and energy.
This is a challenging time for all churches. But this is not the time to recoil in despair. Rather it is a time to prepare for a re-ordering of sorts. To learn anew what it means to be disciples in a new day. I am convinced, God will be with us each step of the way to provide the resources we need to understand and to participate in the newly emerging church that is being born.
However, just like in the first century – this participation will be costly. It demands our entire lives.
Remember Jesus’ words once more, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” It’s a decision we must all wrestle with. It’s a reality we must all hold in our prayer. Jesus is asking that question of each one of us today. How we respond will make all the difference in our lives and in our beloved church.