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The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 9 we opened “Season II” of this exploration with the passage that many writers see as the hinge to the entire Gospel.  Our main reading was from Mark 8:27-33.  In addition, we heard from Hebrews 12:1-2.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

Do you know how it feels when you’ve become acquainted with a television show or a movie franchise and then at the beginning of a new season or installment there’s a pretty radical change?  You think you know where the story is heading, and then all of a sudden there’s a new character? Or maybe a show that seemed to be really funny last year now seems to be steeped with political or social commentary.  Perhaps there’s a plot twist as a beloved character dies, or is revealed to be a “bad guy”, or you find out that the last four episodes were really only a dream…  You’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the way things are laid out, and then BAM! You’re in a different place.

Last season, in the hit series Preaching Through the Gospel of Mark with Pastor Dave, we witnessed the birth of the Jesus movement from two distinct viewpoints. We, the readers, knew where the narrator was going all along. We knew that because it’s all there in chapter 1, verse 1: “This is the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” That’s the introduction that the audience is given.

However, the characters in the story do not know everything that we know. To many of them, the Jesus story is constantly unfolding.  The central character seems to be evolving.  Is he a miracle worker? A wonderful teacher? A revolutionary sent to overthrow Roman oppression?

Throughout season one, which covered the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ star seemed to be rising.  There are more crowds.  The miracles are spectacular.  His command of the room is just superb.  Almost all of last year, we noticed that Jesus was YUGE!

But near the end of last season, there were glimmers of a different narrative developing.  We saw conflict with the religious and political establishment; Jesus seemed to be intensifying his commitment to include foreigners, women, and others who had been marginalized in his culture; and perhaps most notably, we saw the narrative shifting from the center of Jewish life and moving further and further afield.  Much of the beginning of Mark takes place in the region of the Galilee – an area that was a hotbed of Jewish nationalism, even if it was considered “the boondocks” by the learned elite inside the beltway of Jerusalem.

But now, season two of the Gospel opens in, of all places, Caesarea Philippi.  This place was further away from the capital than Galilee!  In fact it’s almost on the border of Lebanon.  It had long been the site of pagan worship, and had only recently been rebuilt and dedicated to (and named after) the reigning Emperor of Rome! In this setting, the disciples would have been surrounded by symbols of human power, wealth, and accomplishment.  To say it’s an unlikely setting is an understatement.

And yet Jesus takes advantage of the remote location to ask the disciples if they’ve checked the polls lately. “How are we doing?”, he asks.  “Who do the people say that I am?”

The Charge to Peter (detail), James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

The response is divided.  Some are convinced that he is John the Baptist, the fearless prophet who’d been killed by Herod, come back to life. Others believe that he may have been a resurrected prophet, but not John: Elijah, the courageous spokesman who stood up to Jezebel and Ahab.  And there are a few who are willing to concede that he’s someone pretty special, but they’re not sure exactly who.  The good news, the disciples report, is that everyone thinks that Jesus is a pretty remarkable guy.  Yet in spite of this, it would appear as though, for the most part, people have given up on the idea that Jesus was a conquering, militant Messiah who had come to expel the Romans and restore to Israel its former glory.

At this point, we get to one of the most important verses in all of Mark, and a fantastic opener to season II: Jesus looks at his friends and says, “OK, great. Who do yousay that I am?”

And Peter, God bless him, doesn’t miss a beat when he pronounces boldly, “You are the Messiah.  You are the Christ of God.”

Now, you might not remember this, but for the entire first half of the Gospel, every time Jesus did something amazing, it led to questions. He drives out an evil spirit (1:27) and everybody stands around asking, “What kind of teaching is this?”  He calms the sea and the storm (4:41), and his best friends wonder, “Who isthis guy?”  He shows up and preaches a real barnburner in his home town (6:2) and people stare at each other and say, “Where does he come up with this stuff?”

Now, on the furthest edge of Jewish territory, surrounded by symbols of paganism and power, Peter pronounces matter-of-factly, that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter says, “Oh, yeah, we get it, Jesus. We gotyou!”  He exchanges a knowing glance with Jesus and there are, presumably, fist bumps and high-fives all around.  Peter returns to his seat and then Jesus launches into the next round of teaching.

And look at how that begins: “He then began to teach them…”  Jesus beginsto teach them.  They have said, correctly, that he is the Messiah.  Now he’s got to teach them what a Messiah is.  Season 1 is over.  We came out to Caesarea Philippi for something new, so listen up, team…

What does he teach them?  That “the Son of Man” must suffer many things…  In the Gospel of Mark, the only title that Jesus chooses for himself is “the Son of Man.”  In fact, you could argue that not only is it the only title that he chooses, but that he’s the only one to say it in the second Gospel. In choosing to refer to himself as “the Son of Man” so quickly after Peter acclaims him the Messiah or Christ, Jesus is reserving the right of self-definition.  That is to say that he is unwilling to act into anyone else’s view of what it means to be the Messiah.  Just after Peter gives the right answer, Jesus sits the folks down and says, “All righty, now let me tell you how this savior thing is going to work.  I need to stress that it’s not pretty.  It’s going to be rough.  The path to Messiah-ship is through suffering and death…”

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

Well, quick as a wink Peter jumps up with an “over my dead body” kind of speech. “No, no, no Jesus – you’ve got it all wrong…”  The word that Mark uses is that Peter “rebukes” Jesus.

Uh-oh.

“Rebuke” is Jesus’ word.  It’s what Jesus does to evil spirits and angry winds.

Disciples do not “rebuke” the Son of Man.  In fact, as Jesus shows us one verse later, it’s the other way around. He insists that the path to faithful living is one of sacrifice and obedience to God.

Here in the relative isolation of Caesarea Philippi, the Son of Man lays out the ground rules for season II: disciples are not to “handle” the Son of Man; they are not to “protect”, “advise”, or “interpret” Jesus. Disciples are to follow.  Jesus goes so far as to call his friend and beloved disciple “Satan” because of his refusal to allow Jesus to be the Son of Man. “You get behindme, Peter”, says Jesus.  In the next verse, which we didn’t read, he uses the exact same words when he says that all are invited to “come after” him – to “get behind” him. We follow.  That’s what disciples do.

We don’t watch a lot of live television in our home, but we enjoy using using a DVR to skip the commercials.  Whenever we finish an episode and the announcer says, “Stay tuned for a preview of next week’s program…”, my wife insists that we watch the recording until the end.  She doesn’t want to miss the teaser about what’s coming next.

So here’s your preview: most of season II of the Gospel of Mark involves following Jesus on a journey to Jerusalem and exploring, in that context, what he means when he calls himself “the Son of Man.”

But before we leave today’s scripture, we’ve got to wrestle with the same critical question that he put before Peter.

Who do you say that Jesus is? And what does that mean to you?

I would suspect that there are some in the room who hold Jesus in the highest respect and admiration.  Jesus is a really, really good guy.  He’s someone to whom we can point our children at various times and hope that they’ll choose to follow his example – in this way, we think, he’s not unlike Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mr. Rogers.

And there are those who rely on Jesus to be their go-to backup when it comes to political arguments.  I mean, you can go ahead and post your partisan stuff all you want, but when I trot out my Jesuswhen we talk about immigration or abortion or refugees or sexuality… well, that’s just a cosmic mic drop right there.  I may flounder when I try to debate the issues, but if God said it, then, BOOM. And isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how frequently God agrees with my political opinions? I guess you could say that Jesus has my back.  Which could mean that Jesus is behind me… which could mean I have something backwards…

Of course there are some of us who rely on Jesus as a wonder-working hero who is on call when it’s time for me to find a parking place in a hurry, or get a new car, or fix what’s broken in my marriage.  Like a good wingman, he’s always around, ready to jump in whenever I need a bit of a hand.

But this passage indicates that Jesus, apparently, is not interested in offering advice, or providing muscle, or even saving my bacon.

Instead, he seems to be concerned with whether or not I am willing to follow him where he leads.  Jesus invites us to walk behind him into an uncertain future.

He will not tolerate being manipulated, advised, or controlled.  He expects to be followed.

When I think about the question, “Who do you say that I am”, I have to say, “You are my lord.  You are the one who sets the agenda and establishes the priorities. I am a follower. I am a disciple.  I am a servant.”

And here’s the thing – and we’ll get into this more next week, I’m sure: when we follow, where are our eyes? On the leader, right? We do not choose the other pilgrims.  We can only decide how we will treat them as they come alongside of us in service to the one we follow.

So if you came to church looking for a motivational speaker, or some theological fireworks, or a chance to have all your problems solved… I’m sorry.  I don’t have much to offer you.

But if you came looking to invest yourself in a lifetime of service and adventure and learning and wonder and growth – a journey that will cost everything you have and more – then I can only say that I hope you’ll come along and join me as I follow to the best of my ability.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Practicing Hallelujah

 

 The saints at the Crafton Heights Church celebrated Easter on April 16 as we concluded our Lenten study of the Bible passages used to frame Handel’s Messiah.  Our readings for the morning came from John 20:19-23 and Revelation 19:4-8.  An audio link to the sermon is immediately below this text.

I was raised in a home that, while wonderful in many, many respects, did not have a great deal of disposable income. There were times when our family struggled financially. That might explain why I have such vivid memories of the “gifts” that my dad would sometimes bring home from work. He’d show up with a paperboard drum from the plant and say that now we had a brand new container for our baseball bats. I remember how happy I was to get a pile of stickers from his work – sure, they all said things like “fragile” or “load this end” or “packing list enclosed” – but you know what? They were stickers, and they were mine, and it was awesome.

But there was one thing he brought that gave me, the middle child, a queasy feeling. It was a motivational poster that warned, “If you a not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!” I know his intentions were good, but why would you give that sort of thing to a nine year old?

My nine-year-old self read that and was terrified. I mean, money was tight, which led to parents arguing, which led to fear and uncertainty that only a middle child who desperately wants everything to work out and nothing to be his fault can understand. I didn’t want problems. And I most certainly did not want to BE a problem. No sir. Not me.

There is, believe it or not, a theological application to this. Hear me out.

In certain circles of American Christianity, there is a school of thought that might be summed up by saying, “You! You are a sinner. You are dirty, evil, and destined for ruin. On your own, you are nothing and nobody. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. But, thanks be to God, Jesus is a problem-fixer. He can clean you up, and make you acceptable, and is even willing to save your soul so that you can make it to heaven when you die.” To be honest, some of our best-loved hymns carry this line of thought.

Look, I don’t want to deny the reality of sin and brokenness. And yes, there are some really terrible things that you’ve done (me too.). But a theology that has as its deepest affirmation something along the lines of, “Wow, I was horrible and then Jesus said, ‘Hey, man, relax. I’ve got this’, so now I’m just chilling over here waiting for heaven…” is a horrible, insufficient theology. For one thing, it’s a gospel of shame; and for another thing, you can’t simply say that Jesus’ main goal was to keep your sorry butt out of Hell.

And when I put it like that, you, being the kind, sophisticated and genteel people that you are, would say, “Oh, heavens, no! Of course, Dave! That’s not the kind of theology we’re interested in.”

Um, well, not so much.

A kinder, gentler version of this line of thinking is that you are not necessarily the problem, but let’s be honest, you do have a problem. A big, ugly problem. I’m fundamentally a good person, but I just need a little help taking care of this one thing over here… there is some sin in my life – an addiction, or greed, or lust, or whatever – but when Jesus comes and stands next to me it’s all good. Everybody knows that nobody really wants to be a jerk, but sometimes it happens. We accept the forgiveness that we have in Christ and it’s all good.

The difficulty I have with those variations of theology is that neither one of them is really adequately supported in scripture.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

I mean, let’s take a look at how Jesus behaved in what John said was the first face to face meeting that took place between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. You heard that in the Gospel lesson a few moments ago. The disciples are all hiding out, afraid that they’re going to get what Jesus got from the religious leaders and the Romans. They’re sure that they’ve let Jesus down, they’re not sure what they can do, and are pretty much paralyzed. And then, into that room walks their resurrected Rabbi.

If the most important message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was that you are a horrible person who needs to be filled with shame about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and the only way to make anything better would be for you to come groveling back and then go over there and stand in that line of people waiting to get into heaven, well, this would be the ideal time for Jesus to lay that one on them.

Clearly, the disciples had disappointed Jesus. The past few days had been filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial, and cowardice.

But what does Jesus say to this group of losers?

“Peace. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

What? No dressing down? No 37 Choruses of “O! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know: nothing but the blood of Jesus”?

Nope. Not here. He settles them down (because they think they’ve seen a ghost) and then he tells them that he’s sending them out.

And how is he sending them out? In the power of the Holy Spirit, as he himself was sent. As practitioners of forgiveness. In this, the first concrete example of what life in the kingdom of the resurrected Son of God will look like, we discover that the hallmark of the early Christian community is forgiveness – forgiveness that is modeled and shared and lived.

Jesus looks at the disciples – and, by implication, at you and me – and says, “You – you are not the problem. And, while you may have problems, it’s not really all about you and your problems. The reality is that the entire cosmos has a problem. It’s why I came. And it’s why I’m sending you out in the way that I was sent, so that you can continue the work of resurrection in the places you go.”

The first thing that the resurrected Jesus told his followers was that they were agents of and ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is my point: that the resurrection is not a little agreement between you and God wherein the Lord looked at you and said, “Wow! That’s ugly! That’s a problem. Look, here’s a way out of that mess.”

No, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the next step in the expression of God’s intentions to reconcile not just those disciples, or you, or me to himself, but rather to reconcile all of creation to itself and its Creator.

And there in that dimly lit upper room, the disciples are given the task of modeling, sharing, and living forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Of course, there is a profound brokenness in my life and in yours. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s bigger than us!

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation cries out for restoration. John writes in Revelation that he can see a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. In the commission of Christ to his disciples, we participate in that restoration as we take seriously our call to be stewards of the planet. The Church of Jesus Christ does not need “Earth Day” to motivate us. We proclaim reconciliation and we live resurrection whenever we act as though we care about the devastation of strip mining, or overfishing, or toxins leaching into our water table. God created humanity to live as caretakers of the garden, and that task is still ours! The way we treat the earth is a statement about what we think God is like and expects from us.

The Golden Rule (Norman Rockwell, 1961)

The early Christians embarked on a pattern of behavior and relationships that meant that the church was never intended to be a haven for one particular kind of people. Instead, the book of Acts describes how wall after wall of exclusion and intimidation was destroyed leading to a vision of a church that was truly reflective of the vast diversity of humanity. John writes in Revelation of people from every tribe and language singing around the throne… that’s what the restored Kingdom looks like.

We participate in that reality as we are willing to risk leaving the safety of our own desires or cultures or homes in order to learn how to be fully present to someone else. We find a way to greet them in a language that makes sense to them; we open our homes to those who are unlike us, and we work to ease the suffering of refugees or victims of war and famine. Why? Because conflict and hunger are not a part of God’s intentions. We have been sent to announce that reconciliation is the goal – and to do what we can to effect that.

The resurrection can and should have great meaning for you and for me personally – but not simply because it means that we’ve got a great fire insurance policy that kicks in when we die.

The resurrection gives us our marching orders as we prepare for and practice living in such a way that the great Hallelujah of which John writes in Revelation makes sense. We are called to walk in, to live in, and to share freely the reconciling work of God in Christ to the end that all creation will echo with the joy for which God intends.

Listen: in a few moments, a dozen or so of us are going to come up here and do our level best to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. We’ve been practicing it for a month. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and I don’t want to disrespect my fellow singers, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be the best version of this piece that you’ve ever heard.

On the other hand, I’m almost certain that it will be the best version that any of you have ever heard in this room. I bet that you’ll be singing along and tapping your toes. Great.

But here’s the deal: when we finish that song, it’s up to you to go out and be the best version of the Hallelujah Chorus that the folks in your house, on your bus, in your home room, and at your office have heard on that day. We are called to go out and practice Hallelujah so that the world might know that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.

Well, we did sing the Hallelujah Chorus, but unfortunately we didn’t video it.  You’ll have to be satisfied with this version from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and trust that the 14 singers from Crafton Heights sounded about like this…