September 13, 2015 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Like most people, I don’t really know what to say to someone in a moment of tragedy. How can any words address the magnitude of a devastating loss? But people far wiser than I am have told me that the most important thing I can do is to remind people in a crisis that they need to keep coming to church. That’s not because church is the place where we get the answers to those unanswerable questions, nor is this the place where anyone has words that can make our pain go away. We come to church because this is the one place in our lives where it’s ok to be wounded and to ask questions that don’t have answers. There is something about simply showing up here that fills a void that rational thoughts and platitudinous pats on the back cannot heal.
But tragedy isn’t the only reason people have unanswerable questions. How is anybody supposed to make sense of God in the twenty-first century? Science is increasingly able to answer our many wonderings about the origins of the universe and life on this planet. How do we reconcile those academic explanations with a faith that is built on primitive propositions? How can we be intelligent, educated, thoughtful human beings and still make sense of things like the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of eternal life—all things we affirm every Sunday in the Nicene Creed? Even more basic than that, how can we believe in an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God who stands by and lets children starve and refugees drown and violent, evil individuals kill thousands of innocent people every day? How in the name of God am I supposed to stand up here and tell you that you’re supposed to believe all of the things that the church holds to be true when the world around us seems so far from the kingdom God has promised us?
My answer is the same: just keep coming to church. Keep showing up—not because I have the answers for you. I don’t—far from it. But in your searching, in your skepticism, wherever you are, whatever questions you cannot find the answers to, I urge you to keep coming to church because being a Christian isn’t about understanding all the answers; it’s simply about following Jesus. And I believe that, as we follow him down the road ahead of us, wherever he might be leading, we learn to trust and believe even in those things that we do not understand.
Today’s gospel lesson is a real turning point in Mark’s gospel account. There are sixteen chapters in Mark, and this episode occurs right in the middle. The first eight chapters are stories of Jesus’ miracles and teachings—each providing further evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God—the Messiah, the savior, the one who can deliver God’s people from bondage and set them free in the new life of God’s kingdom. The last eight chapters are a steady climb toward Jerusalem and the culmination of Jesus’ earthly life that awaits him there—his death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. This moment in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am,” and the truth finally comes out is literally the pivot around which the whole book of Mark turns.
“Who do the people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others say one of the prophets.” Jesus was fishing for an answer. Mark wants us to see that the crowds were aware that Jesus was a truly remarkable religious figure. But then Jesus shifted the focus away from the crowds and bore down right on his disciples. “But who do you say that I am?” he asked them. And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” And, as simple as that, in a flash of epiphanic lightning, for the first time, a human being (rather than a demon) acknowledged who Jesus really was. For the first time, the Holy Spirit helped Peter put all of the evidence together so that Jesus could be identified as the one whom God had sent.
And then what did Jesus do? He sternly ordered his disciples not to tell anyone about it. How puzzling! This newfound truth must not be shared. It must be treasured quietly, privately, until Jesus’ messianic work was done. And what was that messianic work? “…[to] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now, whether we understand it or not, we know that part of the story. For us, the passion and death of Jesus is inseparable from his identity as God’s Son. But, for his disciples and for the rest of the Jewish world, the thought of the Messiah undergoing suffering, being rejected, and being killed was anathema. It was unthinkable. It did not make sense. It could not be understood.
These strange, incomprehensible words filled Peter with confusion and frustration and concern, so he stepped in and rebuked his master, saying that this terrible fate could not belong to God’s Messiah—a very reasonable conclusion indeed. But just because something didn’t make sense to Peter and the other disciples, doesn’t mean that it didn’t make sense to God. Jesus looked at his bumbling, earnest right-hand man and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.” The moment of realization had come and gone. Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. He had acknowledged the greatest truth in the history of humanity, but the reality of that truth still escaped him. For all his faith, Peter still could not see the implications of his confession. He could not believe what Jesus was asking him to believe. There was still much work to be done. There was still a long journey ahead before all the pieces would come together.
As they left this climactic encounter, Jesus pulled together his disciples with the crowd and said to all of them, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice that he did not say, “If you want to be my disciple, go off somewhere and study all that I have said and done until it makes sense to you.” He didn’t tell them, “You must understand me before you can follow.” Instead, he invited them to let go of themselves—to put down their own needs for certainty—and pick up the burden of walking behind him. Follow me. Walk with me. Journey with me. In time, the unbelievable truths of the gospel will make sense—not in your minds but in your hearts.
That is Jesus’ invitation to all of us. Come, follow me. Following Jesus is how we accept the things that we want to believe but cannot comprehend. It is how we give ourselves over to a truth that we cannot understand. Journeying with him is how we let go of our needs for rationality and explanation and logic and comprehension. This is not a journey of the mind. It is a journey first of the feet and then of the heart. Through his Son, our savior, Jesus Christ, God is inviting all of us to be faithful. That doesn’t mean that he’s asking us to understand precisely what it is that we confess or to comprehend the great, unfathomable mysteries of our faith. No one can. Instead, God is asking us to be faithful—to show up, to keep coming to church, to keep walking beside the Christian community as we journey together behind our Lord wherever he leads us. It is the journey itself that shapes us into a people of faith. It is putting one foot in front of the other—of showing up and saying our prayers—that makes it possible for us to give our hearts even to something our minds can never understand. So, whatever you do, don’t stop coming. Keep coming to church until your heart belongs to God.