Together On The Way
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
‘Those who are ashamed of me, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed’ (Mark 8:38). Have you ever been embarrassed to be a Christian? I know have. Sometimes, when people ask about our church I explain we’re ELCA Lutherans. Or, if that doesn’t work I say, you know, we’re the gay-friendly Lutherans, or the progressive Lutherans, or the cool Lutherans.
I’m proud of our church and I wish people didn’t seem to always have the wrong idea. I want to say, those are not my Christians. The bible is life-giving. The word of God is alive, healing, prophetic and still-speaking. I don’t believe the bible is a set of proof-texts to put others down. Our religion is not based on fear. The way of the cross is not a weapon but inspires a love of our enemies. Even more, I want them to know they’re invited. They belong. That God loves them just as they are and, at the same time, calls them to become more than they ever thought possible.
But I don’t usually get that far before the conversation moves on to other things. So, I just say those Christians are not my Christians. And once again, the world gets a little bit smaller, sliced again into groups of trusted insiders and embarrassing outsiders.
Yes. Sometimes I am ashamed to be called a Christian. But I don’t think it’s the same shame about which Jesus warned the disciples. I strive to be a follower. I try to be a disciple. I want people to know about it, but like, Peter, I struggle to see the big picture. How can people who are so different, so polarized, so adamant in their opinions ever be fit back together?
Here’s where we get to the heart of today’s gospel. I get that you’re not that kind of Christian, Jesus says. Then what type are you? Jesus’ exchange with the disciples makes clear, it’s not enough to answer in the negative, or talk about what others say. You’ve got to answer the question for yourself. “Who is Jesus?” Could our hesitancy to answer be due to the fact that then we’ll have to do something about it? Or perhaps we’re reluctant because we know our answers like Peter’s, at best, will only be half-right?
We’ve reached a turning point in Mark’s gospel at the end of chapter eight. It’s decision time. Suddenly, we’re moving from wilderness scenes, stories in boats, and encounters beside the Sea of Galilee. We begin a journey with Jesus from the margins of Palestine to its center; from the extreme north of Caesarea Philippi southward to Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples are “on the way.” This is Mark’s beautiful and repeated metaphor for discipleship which will be repeated in our gospel readings in coming weeks. Jesus is on the way to the cross. The disciples, however, don’t yet know where this road leads. They’re on the move when Jesus asks them (and each of us) “Who do you say that I am?”
They’re in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. It was an area known for its dedication to the Roman nature-god, Pan; near a city with a name honoring the human Caesar who was often regarded as divine. Notice, Jesus didn’t ask the disciples what they believed in a synagogue, but in public. That’s one of our value statements too. (Public, the arena for living our faith is the world.)
As they walked among a crowd of people with differing viewpoints, and in the middle of all the other forces that competed for their allegiance, and beside people who don’t seem as if they could ever be united together, Jesus asked them, what’s the word on the street? What have you heard? What do the opinion polls reveal? The disciples parroted back what they had heard others say. “They answered him, John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28).
This is where all explorations of faith begin, in naming what we’ve heard, examining what we’ve inherited, and parroting back the certainties others have handed to us. These answers are easy, they cost us little or nothing, so they’re safe and benign. But of course, they don’t offer us much in return, either. They hearken back to history and tradition, or to anthropology and sociology. But there’s nothing personal in them. No intimacy. No fire.
Jesus goes deeper. Next, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” looking at each disciple in turn. Meaning: forget about other people’s theologies and interpretations. Put aside tradition and creed, valuable as they are, and consider the life we have lived together thus far. The bread we’ve broken, the miles we’ve walked, the burdens we’ve carried, the tears we’ve shed, the laughter we’ve shared. Who am I to you? (“Living the Question,” Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 9/9/18.)
Peter, bold, reckless, earnest, and impetuous answers when the silence becomes unbearable. He throws himself forward as confidently as he can: “You are the Messiah.” It seems like a miracle because he’s right! But in the very next moment, he’s wrong again. At best, he’s only half-right. Peter is like the rest of us who confess Jesus as Christ and know who he is yet can’t bring ourselves to come to terms with what Jesus calls us to do or to be. Come, follow Jesus on the way. Let him show you where it leads.
Who do you say that Jesus is? It’s a question to ponder for a lifetime. It’s a question that must be shared, a question best answered in community, but an answer that must finally be our own. It’s a question that has so many others folded into it: What stories of Jesus have you inherited? What “truths” about him do you need to say goodbye to? How might you be blessed by his loving rebuke? Is he merely the Messiah? Or is he yours? (Debie Thomas)
To be a disciple is to join him on the way. Conversion without immersion in the way of Christ’s cross becomes a perversion of the gospel. It becomes a means for violence rather than of blessing; more hurtful than healing; a means to prop up those in control rather than a source of radical, creative transformation and healing of mind, body, spirit, and community.
We join Jesus on the way to understanding, on ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. By faith we are filled with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that the Spirit is leading us, and the love of God is supporting us, and Christ is walking beside us. This personal commitment to follow, by some miracle, leads to re-discovery of our shared humanity. In the particularity of our personal commitment to following Jesus on the way, we find communion with the universal story we all share as children of God.