The first time I went to a meeting in the Hardwick memorial building, I wondered who the building memorialized. On the way of the building that day, I stepped into a room near the entrance to the building that told the story. The walls of the room were covered with the names of Hardwick area soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War as well as the Civil War. The heading over the names of those who fought in the American Civil War indicated that they had fought in the “War of Rebellion.”
Growing up in the south, I have heard the Civil War called by various names, The War Between the States, The War for Southern Independence, The War of Northern Aggression, but the War of Rebellion not so much. East Tennessee was an embattled region during that war. Only six of the 26 counties in the region favored succession. 70% of East Tennesseans favored remaining in the Union. A Convention was held in an effort to form a new state that would remain in the Union, much like West Virginia. That effort failed and East Tennessee was soon occupied by confederate soldiers. Those were tumultuous and dangerous times. Bushwhackers and vigilantes ruled the night. Loyalties shifted with the ebb and flow of the war. Neighbor turned against neighbor and brother against brother. Feeding a family and staying alive was not easy when there was a war going on in your backyard.
The community that Mark is writing to is living in and through a civil war, a time of rebellion. The zealots have risen up to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. In the middle of all the confusion, hardship and carnage that war brings, there is this young religious movement, followers of the way of Jesus trying to determine where to stand and what to believe. What do they hold onto and what do they let go of? What do they do and how should they act?
The choices they make, the beliefs they adopt and the ethics they pursue will have lasting consequences for successive generations of believers. Yet, there is no quiet sanctuary in which to reflect and pray about these matters. They are without the benefit of a divinity school lecture hall in which to hear well thought out presentations on the choices before them. The demands of life and disruption of war are all around. How will they make sense of their faith and the its implications for their lives?
Mark seeks to offer clarity for their confusion with a single question, who is Jesus? In 8:27, He has Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Then, in verse 29, Jesus puts the question directly to his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answer for them all, “You are the Messiah”
In our text this morning, Jesus exposes the implications of what that means in plain language. There is no beating around the bush and no sugarcoating, “I am going to be killed” Peter hears this, but will not stand for it. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Again, without hesitation and sugarcoating, Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan.” In the span of just a few verses, Peter has gone from being the groups theological spokesperson to being Satan. Jesus on the other hand, still knows who he is, beloved Son of God. He denies himself, takes up his cross and continues God’s mission in the world.
He gathers the crowd around to make it clear to all. Here is what it looks like to follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. He is not speaking here of some metaphorical cross, some circumstance that cannot be resolved. He is talking about an instrument of death. Take up your hangman’s noose, your electric chair, your lethal injection, your gas chamber and follow me. Hold on to your life and you will lose it, turn it lose and you will be saved. You can gain the whole world and lose your soul, heart, the essence of living.
There is not a lot to theorize about there. More wiggle room might be appreciated. Who do you say that I am? Messiah? Here is what it looks like to be in league with the Messiah? Of course, it is never sufficient just mouth words in response to Jesus. Christianity is nothing if not an incarnational faith. The answers that tell the whole truth about who we say Jesus is are given with our bodies. Where and with whom do we stand? What do we deny ourselves? What do we carry? What are willing lose?
Mark is trying to help his audience understand that every moment of every day they are answering the question, “Who is Jesus for us today?” With the choices they make, the fights they pick and the ones they walk away from, the kindness they extend and the mercy they offer, the compassion that colors their view of the world they answering the question.
God in Jesus Christ is always waiting on the periphery of our living, waiting with a new way of being human. Waiting for the creation God always intended and the intimate loving relationship with it that Jesus came to restore. Waiting with a simple invitation: there is a God and that God loves you, everyone of you.
Yet, we miss it. We abuse it. We resist it. We twist it. We fashion it into something that better suits our purposes. Rather than losing our lives for the sake of the gospel, we lose the Gospel for the sake of our lives.
As Peter’s rebuke of Jesus tells us, from the beginning, followers of Jesus have been willing to make Jesus and his teachings about the Kingdom of God into something more palatable to their taste. Sometimes those adjustments have grotesque and heinous.
1933 and Adolf Hitler had just come to power. Magdeburg Cathedral swastikas ringed the altar. The dean explained from the pulpit: “In short, it has come to be the symbol of German hope. Whoever reviles this symbol of ours is reviling our Germany. The swastika flags around the altar radiate hope — hope that the day is at last about to dawn.” Paul Althaus, a notable German theologian, hailed the rise: “Our Protestant churches have greeted the German turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God.”
A significant segment of the church in Germany supported Hitler and his National Socialist ideology. They made no distinction between his authority over the government and the church. On Sunday mornings, pews were filled with Nazi officers, concentration camp guards and others who were full support of Hitler’s direction for Germany.
Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others gathered as a confessing church to say No, this is not who Jesus is. There number was too small and Hitler’s momentum to great. Bonhoeffer gave his life resisting what was being portrayed as Christianity in the churches of Nazi Germany.
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Clarence Jordan tells the story of a Tombstone in Mississippi. It reads, “Here lies J.H.S. In his lifetime, he killed 99 Indians, and lived in the blessed hope of making it 100, until he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus.” The tombstone was obviously carved before “Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight” was written. Jordan’s point was that Christians in that time and place and developed an understanding of God’s love that included everyone that was white and excluded pretty much everyone who was not. Who is Jesus? Kill has as many Indians as you can. Die wishing it could have been on more and you can go to sleep in the arms of Jesus. That is who they thought Jesus was.
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
In 1965, Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student in Cambridge, Massachusetts made his way to Alabama to March from Selma to Montgomery. When the march was over, he decide to stay and continue working in the Civil Rights Movement.
On August 20, 1965, Daniels was with a group of protesters who had just been released from jail. Four of them headed for a store across the street to get something to drink. Waiting on the porch was Thomas Coleman with shotgun in hand and a pistol in his belt. Daniels took the blast from the shotgun as he pushed one of the teenagers, Ruby Sales, out of the way. Daniels was killed instantly. Reverend Richard Morrisroe, a catholic priest, was critically injured.
Coleman, a part-time Lowndes County deputy sheriff, walked to the courthouse and called the Alabama State Police. ‘I just shot two preachers. You better get down here.”
At the trial, it took less than two hours for an all-white jury to declare Coleman not guilty.
Now where do you think those 12 jurors attended church? In Alabama, in 1965, they were members of somebody’s church. Those churches were defined primarily by the social mores of the region rather than by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. They thought Jesus was someone who would be OK with acquitting the killer of an outside agitator like Jonathan Daniels.
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
The work of Lent is to ask this question, “But who do you say that I am?”
. . .In the meeting rooms of religious groups, who still do not know which way to go when it is past time to include all God’s LGBTQ children.
. . .In schools, torn to shreds by high velocity rifles.
. . .In a nation of immigrants, that all of sudden decides it is no longer who and what it has always been.
. . .In communities, where there is more month than paycheck and too many jobs that pay less than a living wage.
. . .In a nation, that has been at war so long that we have forgotten how long.
. . .In courtrooms and boardrooms, where women who say #MeToo are still not heard and still not believed.
These and a thousand other circumstances beg the question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
No where is it more important for us to ask this question than in our own hearts. What reason do we have to think that we are any further along than the Apostle Peter? We are just as capable of trying to talk Jesus out of being Jesus as anyone else. So then, even as he asked them, he now asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”