Mark 8:27-38 / Lent 2B / 4 March 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Jesus and His band of disciples enter the region of Caesaria Philippi, a Roman city sitting on the southwestern base if Mt. Hermon on what today is known as the Golan Heights. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The region was known to the Greeks as “Panion,” named after the Greek god Pan. The city was dedicated to Caesar Augustus and had a large temple dedicated to him where Caesar was acclaimed “Kaiser Kyrios” – Lord Caesar.
And so it’s fitting that Jesus should spring two big questions on His disciples. The first question is the question of popular opinion – Who do men say that I am? What’s the buzz on the street? What are people saying about me? Jesus asks them this not because He wants to know, but because He wants them to see and say the difference between the world’s perspective on Jesus and the disciples’ perspective. It’s the difference between faith and unbelief, between confessing Jesus and denying Him. It is ultimately the difference between life and death.
Who do men say that I am? They answer Him, “Some say you are John the Baptizer come back to life again. The people loved John and respected him. Some thought he was the messiah and were ready to follow him. But he wound up in Herod’s prison and had his head cut off for the crime of criticizing King Herod’s shack-up arrangement with his sister-in-law. Others said that Jesus was Elijah come back again. The prophet Malachi said that Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, and so many people figured that’s who Jesus was. Elijah come to signal the end. Still others thought that Jesus was a prophet in line with the great prophets of old.
What does the world say of Jesus today? Who do people say that He is? Opinions vary. Some say that Jesus was a great teacher, a great philosopher, an example of true godliness and humility. Even Islam calls Jesus a great prophet, second only to Mohammed. Some Jews even say that Jesus was a true, obedient Jew who did the works of God. Others today think that Jesus is more or less a figment of our religious imagination, that perhaps there was a “Jesus of history” who walked around two thousand years ago but the “Christ of faith” that is promoted in the Gospels and the church bears little resemblance to that Jesus of history. There are some who consider Jesus to be nothing more than a myth or legend, a kind of pious religious fairy tale figure.
You can understand that. Jesus does stand out as a unique figure in human history. No one else quite like Him. Born of a virgin. Power to cast out demons, heal diseases, multiply bread and fish, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, calm storms. He teaches like no other rabbi ever taught. He shines on the mountain as nothing else in this world shines with blinding glory. Can you blame people if they are a bit skeptical about all this? If they have a hard time believing it? If they think what we are reading in Mark’s gospel is something made up?
No matter what men say about Jesus, it always falls short. He may be a great teacher, philosopher, moral example, religious leader, prophet, and whatever other title you try, but until you get to Savior and Redeemer and Lord, you really haven’t scratched the surface of Jesus’ question. And no matter what nice things people try to say about Jesus, it all falls flat as an overcooked soufflé if you don’t acknowledge His death and resurrection from the dead. It’s Jesus’ death and resurrection that stand out most of all, and if that didn’t happen, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then He is either a world-class liar or a stark raving lunatic.
Then comes the second question to the disciples from Jesus: Who do you say that I am? And Peter delivers the answer: You are the Christ. As usual, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, lest everyone get the wrong idea, because when you said “Christ” it meant revolutionary, and the last thing Jesus needed was a bunch of armed jihadists looking for a revolution.
Jesus’ holy war was a different sort of holy war. He began to teach them something that previously He had only hinted at – that He must suffer many things, that He must be rejected by the religious authorities, that He would be killed and after three days rise again. Remember now, that if Jesus is a great prophet and teacher and these things didn’t happen, then He is anything but a great prophet and teacher.
Now this doesn’t fit Peter’s profile of what the Christ should be. I suspect that Peter, like so many of his day, is operating with that revolutionary model, and so this talk of dying and rising doesn’t fit the mold. Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him. “Are you kidding? What are you saying here? We didn’t leave the fishing business to watch you die! This is not what we signed up for, Jesus. That’s the last thing that should happen to die. May it never be! Why, we’ll draw swords to defend you, and whack the ears off of anyone who so much as tries to lay a hand on you. Don’ you worry, Jesus. We’ve got you covered!
Jesus sees His disciples out of the corner of His eye. And He knows they’re thinking the very same thing. And He rebukes Peter, the same Peter who had made that glorious confession moments before. “Get behind me, Satan!” Satan? That’s right. Satan. Peter the great confessor had in short order and a moment of unbelief become the spokesman for Satan. See how easy it is! And don’t think for a moment that you aren’t prone to the very same thing. As the apostle Paul said in Romans, “When I do good, evil lies close at hand.” Peter the confessor and Peter the denier go hand in hand, just as we are both sinner and saint in one and the same person. Peter can make the great confession in one breath and the great denial in the next. And isn’t that how it goes with you, with all of us? We are capable of great faith and great unbelief, of great confession and of great denial, of speaking on the side of God and then speaking against God, sometimes even in the same sentence.
Jesus calls the crowds to draw in closer. What He has to say is not only to His inner group of disciples but to all. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is much more than a little Lenten denial of a small guilty pleasure like chocolate or a glass of wine. This is denial of self, denial of everything that we are and have, denial of our whole life as we hold it. If you try to save your life and hang on to it, you will lose it. And if you lose your life for Jesus’ sake and for the Gospel’s sake, you will save it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean martyrdom, but it might. Don’t kid yourself. The winds of persecution are variable and unpredictable. Don’t think they can’t blow across this country. But more than that what this means is that the only way to live is to die in Jesus. The only way to live is to take up your cross, that is, your death, and follow Jesus to His cross and His death. Your cross won’t save you; His cross will. Your death won’t save you; His death will.
What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can man give in return for his life? We struggle, we strain, we toil to make a profit, to acquire wealth, to gain whatever it is we seek to gain. We look to leave a legacy, make a mark, leave a significant footprint somewhere. But what is it all worth if your lose the one thing that makes it all possible – your life? And Jesus isn’t talking here about dying. Dying is a given. Dying is inevitable. He’s doing to His death too. He’s going to lay down His life to literally gain the whole world. He’s going to give His life in return for your life.
Jesus is talking about eternal life, our connection with God. He’s talking about our eternal destiny, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And so think in terms of “temporal” and “eternal.” Nothing in this temporal life lasts forever. It either corrodes, decays, dies. But life with God and life from God is eternal, it never ends, it never dies. You go on, and what use is there for all the gain in this temporal life if in the process you forfeit eternal life?
Jesus speaks of being ashamed of Him. “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Jesus wasn’t simply speaking of His own generation when He called it “adulterous” and “sinful.” Ours is no better and probably worse. I’m not going to use the usual preacher’s device to list all the adulteries and sins of our generation. You know them well enough, and we all participate in them more than enough.
But the sadness and grief is that we’re not ashamed. Our generation least of all, has a sense of shame. What once shamed us to the point where we didn’t talk about it and hid it and blushed when it was mentioned, now we brag and boast and justify ourselves. And what are we ashamed of? What do we keep hidden and personal? Not our sins but our Savior. Not our sins but the cross of Jesus. Not our sins but the One who takes away our sins, who justifies us, who washes our Sin away with His blood.
You can see why Jesus said this. He was going the way to His death. Peter wanted nothing to do with it. Peter, who made the bold confession to Jesus’ face would deny even knowing Jesus to a humble servant girl. He was ashamed of Jesus. Embarrassed for being seen in His company. Ashamed of the One who lost His life to save the world, who endured the cross, scorning its shame, all for the joy of saving you.
I remember a hymn from my childhood. It always made me stop and think. You’ll find it in the old hymnal; it’s not in Lutheran Service Book. I hope we weren’t ashamed of it. It’s called Jesus! And Shall It Ever Be by Joseph Grigg. Many churches use it.
Jesus! and shall it ever be,
A mortal man ashamed of Thee?
Ashamed of Thee, whom angels praise,
Whose glories shine through endless days?
Ashamed of Jesus? Sooner far
Let evening blush to own a star.
He sheds the beams of light divine
O’er this benighted soul of mind.
Ashamed of Jesus? Just as soon
Let midnight be ashamed of noon.
‘Tis midnight with my soul till He,
Bright Morning Star, bids darkness flee.
Ashamed of Jesus, that dear Friend
On whom my hopes of heav’n depend?
No; when I blush, be this my shame,
That I no more revere His name.
Ashamed of Jesus? Yes, I may
When I’ve no guilt to wash away,
No tear to wipe, no good to crave,
No fear to quell, no soul to save.
Till then – nor is my boasting vain –
Till then I boast a Savior slain;
And oh, may this my glory be,
That Christ is not ashamed of me!
In the name of Jesus,