Say It Ain't So

Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 16, 2012
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 15 Year B
Mark 8: 27-38

Watch sermon here

Do any of you here have a person or a condition or a situation in your life that is just plain annoying? You bear up under it as best you can, but man, it’s hard.

Maybe it’s a relative who is always mooching or a small ailment that just won’t go away. Maybe it’s your job or lack thereof, your boss, your mother-in-law, or that lady who some how got herself elected head of the PTA or PGO or PGA -whatever they’re calling it these days - who just has one small favor to ask of you that will only take a minute if by “minute” you mean all Saturday afternoon.

I don’t know who or what it is. Honestly, I don’t. That was not me reading your minds. But you do, and I want you to focus on it for just a minute – focus on that one thing, that one part of your life that really drives you crazy - because there is something important I need to tell you, something I feel the need to clarify, and it is this: these people, these conditions, these situations you find yourselves in - as annoying, irritating, and demoralizing as they might be – please know, they are not your cross to bear.

Which is not to say that we can just chuck them, dismiss them, or get rid of them because you deserve better. No what I mean is that when Jesus talked about taking up our cross and following him, he was speaking literally, not figuratively. He was not talking to us about bearing up under a bad case of eczema, putting up with a co-worker’s whining, the discomfort of bunions, or having patience with that neighbor who never returns your power tools.

The cross may represent many things to many people, but when Jesus talks about it he is not talking about dealing with the everyday indignities of life. He is referring to the actual cross, as it was, back then, in all its cold, hard, diabolical simplicity: not as a symbol of discomfort or death, but as a means of actual torture and execution. Two boards, fixed together, upon which a body could be tied or nailed till such time as that body died of shock, hunger, infection, or thirst.

Crucifixion was a brutal way to kill someone, no doubt about it, but also frighteningly efficient as the Romans often left the actual work of carrying the cross to the condemned themselves. All the soldiers had to do was affix the body on top, lift it up, and wait for nature to take its course. Unless, that is, they got bored with all the waiting, because it did take a long time.  Then they would go ahead and shatter the legs of the crucified to hasten the inevitable. And that is what they did - over and over - lining roadways, dotting villages, creating vast tableaus of human misery where ever they went, in an effort to discourage rebellion, deter crime, and keep a little something they liked to refer to as “the Pax Romana” the Roman Peace: a peace achieved through violence, a peace kept by fear, and a peace enforced by sheer brute force whenever necessary.

Crucifixion was a horrible, but sadly not unusual way to go.  The Romans thought it too humiliating a form of execution for their own people, but they didn’t hesitate to use it on others, which is why everyone is so tense in our reading this morning. In case the name of the place where they are today didn’t tip you off, (Caesarea – Caesar) know that Jesus and his disciples are about as far from home as they have ever been, deep in occupied territory; walking around in a place that was probably crawling not just with Roman soldiers, but with Roman sympathizers from amongst their own people; people who would have been keeping a close eye on a stranger like Jesus lest he do or say anything out of line.

So when Jesus started asking his disciples what people thought of him, it was probably not a subject they felt comfortable talking about in public. In fact, you get the sense from their answers that they don’t really want to talk about it at all.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked.

And they answered him, “ (Oh, you know) John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  You know Jesus, people talk. They say the darndest things.

I think they are all being cagey, and they are being cagey for good reason.

But Jesus, apparently, is not in a cagey mood. He stops, turns to them, and up the ante. “Well then,” he says, “who do you say that I am?”

And leave it to Peter - the group’s designated hothead - to come right out and say, for everyone - from the butcher to the baker to the candlestick maker - to hear: “You are the Messiah.”

Now that might not shock you.  After all, we are used to thinking of Jesus in those terms. But please understand that when Peter uses the word “Messiah” he is saying something incredibly subversive, not just religiously, but politically.

The word “messiah: means anointed one, anointed with oil, literally “the one dripped on by the God’s.” And do you all know who it was in society who was anointed? It was Kings. When Peter calls Jesus the messiah, he is proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar, is the rightful king and as such, Peter is no doubt hoping that Jesus will act on that right and liberate his people from their occupation under the Roman Empire.

It was an incredibly brave, extremely dangerous, and  -all things considered - probably a stupid thing to say, but Peter says it anyway. “You are the Messiah,” he proclaims, for all to hear, in the middle of Caesarea Philippi. At which point John probably fainted, Andrew most likely clapped a hand over his brother’s mouth, and even Jesus told Peter to be quiet… but not for the reasons you might think.

No, the disciples may have been terrified, but Jesus wasn’t scared. In fact Mark tells us that he too spoke “quite openly;” so openly that before he was done he had called upon a crowd to bear witness to what it was he had to say. Unlike the others, Jesus doesn’t want Peter to be quiet because he is scared. Jesus tells Peter to be quiet simply because what Peter means by the term “messiah” is not an accurate description of who Jesus is or who he plans to be. 

Rather than unite their people, Jesus tells Peter that he must be rejected by their people, undergo great suffering, and die. Jesus also mentions a little something about the resurrection, but Peter can’t hear him by that point because if there is one thing Peter is crystal clear on it is that the messiah cannot be rejected, suffer, and die. The messiah needs to unite his people, crush their enemies, and win. Peter has high hopes for Jesus and he’s not about to let those hopes go. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him because Peter… Peter is in this to win.

He’s been following Jesus for long enough to see what this guy can do.  He has seen him heal, he has heard him speak, he has watched him feed multitudes, walk on water, even raise the dead. This man, in Peter’s eyes, can do no wrong. He has got the goods. If anyone can save Israel from her enemies, liberate her from her oppressors, put her back on top where she belongs, it is Jesus. If anyone could ever rule the world with justice, equity, and compassion, it is Jesus. Who better to be the King of Kings? Who better to be the Lord of Lords?

Peter is playing to win and he is fully convinced he’s put his money down on the right horse. The trouble for Peter, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians is that Jesus…Jesus is playing to lose.

Jesus is playing to lose and not only that, he wants us on his side when he does, playing the game the way he does. He lets it be known that he is planning on living in such a way that he’s going to get himself crucified and if any would be his followers, then they are going to have to have the courage to take up their cross, follow him, and most likely get crucified as well.

That, ladies and gentleman, is Jesus’ plan for saving the world.

That is what being the messiah looks like to him.

Not really a message calculated to win you a strong following is it? Not then. Not now. It makes perfect sense why Peter would get so upset and why Jesus’ words are so unsettling to good Christian people like you and me. But here is the crazy, awful, wonderful thing.

Jesus is right.

He’s absolutely right.

He is trying to tell us something here that is so hard and yet so vital for us to understand, so we need to try. What Jesus is attempting to communicate to any and all of us who would be his disciples – in a nutshell - is that the ways of the world cannot save the world. Doing more of the same will not bring about different results. Fighting fire with fire ain’t gonna stop the fire. Jesus has not come to win the game, folks, he has come to change it.

You see, we live in a world where it is all too often might that makes right, a world where the powerful have the means to decide and determine the fates of others, a world where peace and order and stability, more often than not, are secured by violence.

That’s how it worked back in Jesus’ day and I’m afraid that’s still how it works in ours. Which is why we all strive for power, wherever we fall in the hierarchy, and why we throw our weight behind those with even more power than we have if we believe that they will support our interests, uphold our freedoms, and keep us safe. Back in Jesus’ day they called it politics. In our day and age we call it…well, still politics.

And this idea, this idea that power is the only realistic path to prosperity and security is a truly compelling framing story. It makes sense. We live it out, everyday, as citizens of what is still, (at least for the time being,) the richest, most powerful nation in the world.

The trouble is that it can never last because it is a story whose happy ending inevitably leaves someone else out. It may work well for some, but the dark side of this fairy tale is that in order for some to rise others must fall, in order for some to prosper others must fail. And given that nobody wants to stay down forever, kingdoms built by force are inherently unstable. No matter how good life is for the few at the top, those at the bottom will not stay there forever.

Well, Jesus wasn’t interested in a story that was only good news for some, even if those “some” were his own people.  No, Jesus came with good news for all...even his enemies if they wanted to receive it.  He didn’t just come to save some of the world, he came to save the whole damned thing, and he knew the only way to do that was to tell a new story, a different story, and show us, with his own body if need be, how to triumph in a completely new and different way.

Sure Jesus could have defeated Rome the old fashioned way. Calling upon the heavenly hosts, raising the former armies of Israel from the dead, healing his own even as they were wounded in battle, Jesus could have assembled an unstoppable army, torn down Caesar and his minions, and crowned himself King of the world. And as King, Peter was right, he would have been the best, the best ruler the world had ever known. You might remember that back in the wilderness, at the very start of his ministry, Jesus was tempted by Satan to do exactly that, but he refused. When Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and tells him to get in line, I think we can hear him refuse the offer once again.

Jesus refused, even knowing the cost to his person, because Jesus knew that however fabulous his new earthly kingdom might be, it would still be just one more kingdom bought by violence and held by force: good news for too few at the cost of too many.

And so he came instead to establish a new kind of kingdom, one built by love not force, a kingdom upheld by love rather fear. His kingdom was not, is not, and will never be something that can be established or imposed from the top down. It will always and ever remain something that bubbles up from below as those who follow in his way strive to do the next right thing and the next and the next, however counterintuitive it might seem. Loving our enemies, liberating the oppressed, speaking truth to power, loving the unlovable, and welcoming the unmentionable: Jesus was calling then is calling even still for a truly holy revolution that will gain ground bit by bit as his followers do the next good thing, and the next, and the next, no matter what the cost (Although not a direct quote, much of the inspiration for what I am trying to say comes from Brain Mclaren’s wonderful book, “Everything Must Change” pgs 119- 146”).

Jesus stood by this vision, his vision of a new kind of kingdom, knowing full well precisely what that cost would be. He knew how threatening his story would be to those already in power, how lethally they would respond, and he was right. But as his followers, Lord have mercy, he bids us follow him any way.

For God knows that in the end it truly isn’t a question of whether you win or lose, it really is about how you play the game. Will you simply strive to live the good life? Or will you strive to find all the good you can do with this life? Will you use your power to love or simply fall in love with power? Will you buy into the age old story of might making right no matter the cost to others, or will you listen to my story, asks Jesus, and be ready to lose life as you were always told it ought to be lived, in order to find a life that is truly worth living… a life that truly is good news for all?

Let us pray.

O Lord, come among us and awaken us. Rouse us from our preoccupations with what is mundane and does not last.  Fill us with a desire for you and all you have to offer. Help us to respond to your teaching.  Give us the courage to offer our lives up to you that we might be reshaped and born anew, not just for our sake, but for the sake of this great big beautiful world that you love so much. Amen