September 16, 2018 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
In Alabama, where I’m from, you have to pick sides. Remaining neutral isn’t an option. If you’re from Alabama, you’ve long ago made your choice or, more likely, were born unto it, but, if you’re new to the state, practically everyone whom you meet wants to know whether you cheer for Alabama or Auburn. Football culture is so important there that people don’t know how to handle someone who says “Florida State” or “I like them both” or “I don’t follow college football.” It doesn’t matter. You can cheer for another team from another state, or you can ignore college football altogether, but you still have to make your choice.
In Alabama, when you meet someone for the first time, there’s a good chance that they will ask about your football preference before they ask about your children, and there are plenty of football fans in the state who don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. Here in Arkansas, people don’t seem to care what in-state team I cheer for. Primarily that’s because there’s only one major university in the state, but I’m learning that it’s also because the only major university in the state is Arkansas. But Arkansans who pay attention to what football means in a place like Alabama, when they hear where I am from, want to know which team I cheer for. And, when they ask, I’m always a little hesitant to answer. I’m the first to admit that Alabama fans can be…tedious. The T-shirts, the bumper stickers, the houndstooth everything, the mythical national championships, the obnoxious chants—and so often those things come from people who have never even been to Tuscaloosa much less graduated from the University. I don’t want people in my new home to lump me in with all of that just because my heart will always whisper, “Roll Tide!” And, given this morning’s gospel lesson, it seems that I am in good company.
Jesus, travelling with his disciples, asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” Using flattering terms that suggest how successful Jesus had been at winning over the crowds, they replied, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” In other words, the people already had begun to understand that Jesus was someone special—that he was a dramatic, God-sent leader for God’s people. But then Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Why? Why didn’t Jesus want anyone else to know? This was a good thing, and it was the truth. Why didn’t he encourage the disciples to tell the crowds what they had learned about their rabbi—that he was God’s anointed, the heir of David’s throne, the one who would not only teach and lead God’s people but save them, too? Why not let everyone know that Jesus was the Messiah? Why keep it a secret?
Perhaps Jesus didn’t want anyone to be confused about what team his followers were on. To a faithful Jewish listener, the label “Messiah” wasn’t just an exalted title reserved for special religious leaders. It was a unique theological identifier that carried unique expectations. Although it would place one in rarified company, it was possible for a great leader to be another John the Baptist or another Elijah, in the same way that we might say that someone is another Martin Luther King, Jr., or another John F. Kennedy, but one couldn’t be another Messiah. Different sects of Judaism had different understandings of what sort of figure the Messiah would be (or whether there would be one at all), but all who looked for the coming of Messiah understood that person to be the one who would unite God’s people and deliver them from their peril. And, in first-century Palestine, you didn’t have to pay close attention to politics in order to know what that peril was. Rome and the physical, spiritual, and economic oppression that it represented were all around. You couldn’t whisper the word “Messiah” without getting someone’s hopes up that Roman tyranny might someday be overthrown.
But this Messiah wasn’t interested in leading God’s people in a physical or political rebellion. The freedom that he envisioned came by following a very different path, as he tried to explain to his disciples: “…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” We are familiar with the passion predictions. Two thousand years after Jesus’ story unfolded, we know how it will play out. But to those who walked with Jesus, to those who hoped that he might be the one to set them free, the thought of this leader, who had the God-given power to overthrow Rome, being killed by his own people was anathema. It simply did not compute. You cannot say “Messiah” and then say “rejected and killed.” If Jesus’ disciples tried to explain to the crowds that their rabbi was the Messiah, there was no way that they would understand that his messiahship was one of vulnerability, suffering, and death.
Even the disciples couldn’t understand it. His head spinning in confusion over conflicting images, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him—a shocking thing for a disciple to do to his master but one that underscores how truly impossible it was for Peter and his companions to reconcile Jesus’ messianic identity with his painful prediction. And Jesus, turning and looking at his disciples, let Peter know that those who refused to accept this difficult truth were siding not with God but with the Enemy, with the powers of this world that stand in opposition to God reign.
It’s hard to celebrate defeat. It’s hard to get excited about giving up. No one looks forward to struggle and pain and loss, and I’m not sure that Jesus is asking us to look forward to them, but he is telling us that they are the place where God and God’s people are to be found. Jesus came not to free God’s people by raising up his mighty arm against the evil oppressors but to free them by undoing a system that prioritizes strength, that rewards wealth, and that uses power to achieve its goals. For all of human history, we have been plagued by a distortion of God’s truth, a self-seeking distortion that we call sin. Only the rejection, suffering, and death of God’s anointed one, Jesus of Nazareth, had the power to undo that plague through the victory of resurrection, through the inauguration of a new way of life. And those who would follow Jesus into the glory of that victory and into that new way of being can only get there by following him down the path that leads through self-denial, struggle, and even death.
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said to the crowd, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Any takers? That’s not exactly a pep talk. It sounds like a terrible strategy for building a church, but, as Michael Curry reminds us, Jesus didn’t come to start a church but to start a movement. He came to invite us to follow him into true life.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Well, what sort of answer will we give? Most of the people I encounter who brag about being a Christian don’t seem to know what it means to follow Jesus. Those who truly follow him embrace a life spent making the upside-down reality of God’s reign manifest in the world around them. Those who follow Jesus become vessels for God’s victory in weakness, God’s power in vulnerability, God’s glory in poverty. Those who follow Jesus lose their lives. They give up their claim on their own life for the sake of the gospel—for the sake of God’s transforming love that has the power to make God’s truth a reality in the world. People shouldn’t need to ask us whose side we are on—what team we are following. It should be a “secret” that we proclaim as boldly with our lives as we proclaim it with our lips. If that’s the kind of meaningful life you’re interested in, you’ve come to the right place.