The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19 B)
Sermon by The Reverend Jo-Ann R. Murphy, D.Min.
“The Honest Hour”
When strangers meet, there is a fairly standard ritual followed as they seek to get acquainted. It begins with names, of course, then follow the questions: Where do you live? Are you married and do you have a family? Where did you grow up? What is your job? Where did you go to school? What are your hobbies? A stranger turns into an acquaintance and we get a sense of who the other person is when we gain a context.
But if the relationship develops, there are other insights to be gained: the values that shape behavior and decisions; the vision of success that provides the sense of direction; the awareness of whether the other is trustworthy, whether the other has integrity, whether the other treats people with dignity and compassion. Thus an acquaintance turns into a friend. And with further experience, a friend may turn into a life companion.
But there are limits to how much we can know about another person. In everyone there are secrets of the heart that will not be revealed or that cannot be decerned. Even two people who have lived together in a wonderful marriage or partnership for half a century or more will find there are surprises in the other, and ever new insights to be gained. It is the wonder of life in human community that people are endlessly fascinating as they express in attitude and word and deed who they are.
My husband and I had been sitting in booths at restaurants for over thirty years when he (finally) told me that he preferred sitting at a table. “How come you’ve never told me that in all these years,” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered. “It isn’t a big deal.” But ….. a tiny example that, perhaps, poses the question, how much do we really know about each other. And, how much do we really know about ourselves?
In today’s scripture Mark pictures a scene that takes place some considerable time after Jesus and his disciples have begun their relationship with each other. Jesus begins this moment in their life together by asking the disciples what they have heard people say about him. People obviously have been talking about him because the disciples have some things to report. Then Jesus moves on to the critical question: But who do you say that I am? Peter answers. From what he has come to know of Jesus, from what he has seen Jesus do, from what he has heard Jesus say, he affirms “You are the Messiah.” Jesus seems to accept this title that Peter uses.
On the basis of our relationship with Jesus, on the basis of what we have come to know of him from the biblical witness, and in the life of the Christian community, we make our own assessment and judgment about who he is. There are many titles or descriptions that we can use. We can call him Christ or Messiah. We can call him Lord, Savior, Master, Friend, Teacher, Prophet, Son of God, Redeemer, Exemplar. All good titles; all acceptable answers, depending, of course, in how we define those words.
I think the more important question is “who does Jesus say that I am?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? If you’re anything like me you spend a lot of time wondering what other people, those in your life think of you, but very little time wondering what Jesus, my Lord, thinks of me?
But then we come here on Sunday morning and early in every service of Holy Eucharist at the start of our worship service we pray the collect for purity:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid …
“From you no secrets are hid.” This is the one hour in the week when I am known completely, the one time in my life when it doesn’t matter what others think of me or even what I think of myself. The important question is “what does Jesus think of me?” Who does Jesus think I am?
There are several acceptable answers to that question, too. Each of us wears many hats, plays many roles, but in so far as being a Christian, only one thing seems to matter to Jesus. Yes, we are, we are believers (or we try to be), we are worshippers, but in today’s Gospel lesson Mark tells us that only one thing matters to Jesus. If we wish to be his followers, we must be cross-bearers.
Peter’s answer to Jesus, “You are the Messiah” is the correct -seeming answer. For centuries Jews had been anticipating, longing for, hoping for, the successor to King David, the revered, glorified leader who would majestically overthrow the Roman occupiers of their country and once again restore the “glory” of their kingdom Israel. But, Jesus’ stern rebuking denial of Peter’s facile answer brings us up sharp. Jesus quickly tells Peter that the religious authorities of his day, the scribes, the pharisees, the priests, will have none of that kind of insurrection. That’s death-dealing, Jesus says.
Rather, Jesus tells Peter, tells his disciples, and tells us, who he needs us to be. He tells us the way to life, to abundant life, is through self-denial, through the cross.
One thing Jesus means is that we must embrace the pain of the world. Contrary to the world’s focus on individual success, Jesus asserts that those of us who value our personal fortunes and accumulations will find those things do not bring us happiness and satisfaction, while those of us who are willing to sacrifice those things for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the way of the cross, will ultimately gain all the riches of God’s kingdom.
Followers of Jesus must learn to say no to themselves and yes to him, yes to his way. Instincts, personal goals, success, and security must take second place to following the way of Jesus, the Christ.
The Greek word for life that Mark uses here (in verses 8:35-37) is not bios, which refers to physical existence, but psyche, which refers to the soul, to the activity of a person’s spirit. By clinging to life as they had experienced it, as it had been defined for them by others, the disciples would lose their true selves. Old ways would inevitably become dead and unsatisfying.
As followers of Jesus we are commanded to take up our crosses. Take up – take – an active verb. Each of us must take responsibility for him or herself. No one is going to give you your cross. You, yourself, me, myself I am responsible for my own action. Losing our fearful, conforming selves can lead to new and enriching priorities. Let’s look around. Let’s look around us, around our homes, our neighborhoods, around our town, our diocese, our nation, our world, to see who is in need, who is suffering? When we were each baptized we were marked with the sign of the cross on our foreheads. From that moment on it became our ministry to make that invisible cross we carry visible to the world. So, today, tomorrow, this week, how will you show the world that you are a Christian, that you carry a cross? Who will you forgive? Who will you serve? Will Jesus say that you are his follower? AMEN.