Rev Dr John McCulloch
St Andrews Jerusalem & Tiberias, Sunday 16th of September 2018
Isaiah 50: 4-9(a) & St Mark 8: 27-38
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Who do you say that I am?
This is the question Jesus asks his disciples as he walked with his disciples on the road towards the villages of Cesearea Philippi. It is probably a question that each and every one of us has asked ourselves before. Who am I? What is at the root of my identity?
We live in a world where our identities are so often rooted in what others think and say of us. We are bombarded by messages of conditional love all the time from society and the media. ‘We will love you if you are rich, successful, famous….’ and the list continues.
Father Henri Nouwen, who left the privileged academic position he occupied in the ivy league universities of Yale and Harvard, and went to amongst the profoundly disabled in the Daybreak community of the L’Arche; came to understand the true meaning of identity. He says that to live our lives in the opinion of others, is to live as those who are ‘victimised’ and ‘imprisoned’. He writes that ‘that dark world’ is a world of ‘successes and failures, of trophies and expulsions, or praise and blame, stars and underdogs. In this world we are easily hurt and we easily act out of this hurt […] As long as we live in the clutches of that world, we live in darkness, since we do not know our true self. We cling to our false self in the hope that maybe more success, more praise, more satisfaction will give us the experience of being loved, which we crave’.
Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do you say that I am?’ and Peter answers: ‘You are the Christ’, which means ‘you are the anointed one, the messiah, the one who had come to bring healing and freedom’.
Most Biblical scholars argue that the passage we have just read in Mark 8:27 is a watershed moment in the gospel. Up until now, Jesus has gone about performing great miracles: healing the blind and the lame, feeding the five thousand, walking on water. His fame had spread throughout the land; but from now on there is a change in tone. In verse 31 we read that ‘he began to teach the that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders ad the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again’. From this point, Jesus talks about the suffering he is to face. The title ‘Son of man’ reminds us that his life and mission is to associate with humanity, in the midst of all the suffering, confusion, injustice and violence, to face rejection, shame and death.
Jesus knows that his identity is not dependent on being revered and accepted by the powerful elite of the day, by the scribes and chief priests, by the military occupiers and the powerful. He knows that his identity is rooted in the God of love, who willingly enters our world of suffering and pain, to show us that we are loved not because of any merit of our own because we have none, for we are all sinners who have failed; but we are loved because of the everlasting love of God as his beloved sons and daughters.
It is significant that Jesus asks this question to his disciples as they travel on the road to Cesarea Phillipi, for it is there where the cave of the God Pan stood, and where the ‘cult of the emperor was practised’. The ‘cult of the Emperor’ was a central part of why the Roman empire survived for so long, for it equated the emperor with God. The emperor was to be revered and obeyed. He had military power, the power to crucify and crush anyone who stood in his way. And the god Pan was half human half goat, and would instil fear and panic wherever he went. In fact, it is from ‘Pan’ that we have the word panic.
Jesus journeys on the road to Cesarea embodying a very different message. He goes there embodying the message of the cross. The message that says ‘that whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it.’ Christ embodies a counter-cultural message to that of the ‘cut of the emperor’, for it is not the strong and those who preserve their live at the cost of others who are part of God’s kingdom, but those who endure suffering, rejection and shame. It is those who the world despises, those who take up their cross.
In our OT reading from Isaiah 50 we read of how the weary are ‘sustained by a word’.
Are you weary this morning? Weary because of the struggles life has placed in your way? Weary of a world where the powerful inflict suffering on those who are weak? Weary as you face another week, unsure about what others think of you?
Well God comes to us with a word to sustain us. And not just a word from the scriptures that we have read, but as the true Word incarnate. The word made flesh and who dwells amongst us. The one who came, and who keeps coming to us again and again, to raise our eyes and to follow in his footsteps, taking up our cross and not keeping our lives for ourselves, but pouring out our lives in the service of others. ‘For what can it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul’?
Henri Nouwen says that
in a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.
Christ comes to us afresh this morning, wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey. He comes to us and calls us to follow him. To take up our cross. To live for others, for it is only as we die to our own selfish desires and needs, that true resurrection life can come.
May it be in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, in now, and ever shall be. Amen.