Today's Scripture: Mark 8:27-38
Today's sermon/reflection at Woodland Hills Community Church...
This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Mark is one of those that make many progressive Christians uncomfortable.
“Why is that?” you might ask.
It’s because of the way some of our sisters and brothers from the Religious Right have used it. You see many of them would have us believe that the central question in the passage – the famous “Who do you say I am?” – exists for one, and only one reason: to establish a litmus test to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Who’s a Christian, and who’s not.
I would have to respectfully disagree with those who would take such an approach. For you see I don’t believe for a minute that was the primary purpose of Jesus’ question.
“If that’s not the primary purpose, then what is?” you might wonder.
Let me take a few moments and suggest one possibility.
You see as Jesus spoke those words to the disciples, he had a pretty clear idea of what lay ahead – not only for himself, but for those who professed to follow him. Things like suffering, trial, and death.
None of those things would come easy.
Jesus knew his followers would never be up for those challenges unless they made a shift in the way they approached their faith.
They would have to move from a faith predicated on what others – their parents, what their Sunday school teachers, their pastors - told them to believe, into a faith that was all their own.
Jesus also knew his early followers would have to drag their perceptions of him out of the past – out of frameworks built around historical figures like John and Elijah and structures predicated on things like baptizers and prophets – and bring those perceptions into the present.
In other words, by asking that pointed question, Jesus was trying to ensure that Peter and the others were up for what lie ahead. That’s what I believe motivated Jesus’ question.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if such pointed encounters between Jesus’ and his followers existed only in the past?
But I don’t believe they do. I believe the presence of the living Christ still finds ways of confronting those of us who would call ourselves followers of Jesus today.
Closely, if you will…
See if you can hear that question echo through the sanctuary this morning?
“And you – Lyn, George, Susan, Joe – who do YOU say I am?”
I know the thought of answering that question might terrify you. For perhaps there’s still that piece of you who might hear that question and revert back to the way you heard it when you were that eight year old child in the Sunday school room. The child who so desperately wanted to please the teacher before you. The child terrified you might get the answer wrong!
If that’s where you are this morning, I want you to take a deep breath and relax. For I want to highlight an element of the passage that often gets overlooked. That element has to do with how Jesus responded to Peter’s profession of whom he knew Jesus to be.
Think about it for a moment. How DID Jesus respond?
Did he say, “Good job, Peter. You got it right. Step to the head of the line!” Did he say, “Phew! I was worried about you there for a second, Peter. I thought I was going to have to toss you out on your ear!”
No. Jesus said neither of those things.
If you listened really closely you noticed that the text told us Jesus gave no direct response to Peter’s answer. Instead, he simply instructed Peter to remain silent. Knowing that Peter had found the answer for himself was enough. For now Peter was ready to face whatever challenges lie ahead.
As we celebrate this first Sunday of my pastorate, I want to use this week’s text as a backdrop to warn you about something. In the time I spend with you as your spiritual leader here at Woodland Hills, I’m going to take Jesus’ example in the passage seriously and try to follow it.
That means I’m not going to let you off the hook by forging spiritual community predicated on you reciting platitudes you might have learned when you were young. Nor am I interested in exploring a faith that rooted exclusively in the past.
In keeping with Jesus’ example, I’m going to push you and ask you those uncomfortable questions that might make you squirm. And more than that, once I’ve asked you those questions, I’ll pause and wait for an answer.
I’ll wait not for a list of possible answers. Nor will I wait for a list of other people’s answers. Instead, I’ll wait for yours. Know that I am aware that the answer you give me will change and expand over the years as your experience of God changes and expands. But I will wait for your answer, nevertheless. For I believe it is in that space where uncomfortable questions are first asked and then answered where the most growth occurs.
Now before I scare you off, I want to close by offering you these pastoral words of assurance. While the work Jesus calls us to do in answering the question may not be easy, know that it is that very work that will help you lay a rock-solid foundation for your spiritual life that will see you through – make that, see US through – whatever challenges may lie before us.