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Sermon on Mark 8:27-33 (Rom. 6:3-5, Mark 1:9-11)
2nd Sunday in Lent: Service of Reaffirmation of Baptism
I once had a ballet teacher who would sometimes say to a student, “It’s right, but it’s not right.” He meant that the dancer had executed the steps correctly, but she hadn’t understood the meaning behind the steps. She had demonstrated technique but not art. As a result, a critical dimension was missing from her performance.
There is something of this “right, but not right” in Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. Alone of all the disciples, the bright, eager student in a class full of dunces, Peter has identified Jesus correctly, but he hasn’t figured out what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. “Messiah” is a glorious title – it refers to a savior in the royal line of David – and Jesus was talking about rejection, suffering and death. It didn’t fit, Peter thought, and said so. For that, Jesus rebuked him, telling him that his understanding of the role of the Messiah was not just a little skewed, it was demonic. And now Peter, like almost everyone else in Mark’s Gospel, is more confused than enlightened.
The mystery of Jesus’s identity is the subject of Mark’s entire Gospel. When Jesus is baptized, God identifies him as God’s Beloved Son, but no one else but Jesus hears God’s voice. Throughout the Gospel, the people closest to Jesus are the most clueless about who he is: his family thinks he is crazy, the people in his hometown are skeptical of him, the scribes think he is possessed, and his closest associates – his disciples – are in a constant state of perplexity about him. They don’t understand his parables, they don’t get the point of his miracles. In fact, until Peter’s confession, no human being comes close to correctly identifying Jesus – it is the demons who recognize him as the Son of God.
Right before Peter’s confession, Mark tells a symbolic story about Jesus healing a blind man. It takes two passes before the man can truly see – after the first pass, he says he can see people, but “they look like trees, walking” – then Jesus lays his hands on the man’s eyes again, and the healing is complete, the man sees everything clearly. In the same way, halfway through the Gospel, Peter is half right – he partially sees who Jesus is, but he doesn’t see the whole picture. Up till now, Jesus has made a name for himself through his miracles and his teaching; so Peter sees him as a wonder-worker, someone with the power to heal and provide, not someone on a collision course with death. From now on, though, as Jesus moves toward Jerusalem, he is moving toward conflict, suffering, and apparent defeat.
Coming to terms with the identity of Jesus is not just about calling him by the right name. One reason Peter is so horrified by what Jesus says about himself is that Peter has an inkling that suffering and even death may be the fate of disciples of Jesus as well.
Costly discipleship is a dominant theme of the Gospel of Mark. Identifying Jesus correctly is only part of the story; calling him Messiah, or Christ, means at some level identifying with him, sharing in his suffering. As Paul puts it in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul is talking about how Christians die to the old life of sin and self-indulgence to participate in new life with Christ. When we, in our baptism, take on the name “Christ,” we consent to let his cross take shape in our lives. The Christian life is supposed to be a “cross-bearing” life. No wonder Peter was appalled.
What does living a “cross-shaped” life mean, though? For starters, it doesn’t mean “become a victim.” It doesn’t mean that abused and oppressed people – battered wives, exploited workers, targets of racial discrimination – should just put up with their suffering while their abusers are not held to account for what they do. Nor does it mean that we should seek out suffering for the sake of suffering. “Jesus doesn’t suffer and die because suffering is good.”[i] His suffering is the inevitable outcome of the way he lives, taking risk after risk for the sake of the truth, risk after risk for the sake of others.
Letting the cross take shape in our lives does mean not going out of our way to avoid suffering at all costs. It does mean being willing to undertake something risky and costly for the sake of someone else. Luther said that if our vocation is to care for the neighbor, we will not need to seek out suffering – it will come as part of the package. This is something most parents instinctively know.
Riskiness and costliness: I think of the woman who puts her career on hold, passes up a promotion that would take her to a different city, in order to care for her elderly parents. I think of the couple who takes in foster children, rescuing them from dangerous, unhealthy environments – while their friends design their vacation homes, they make do with shabby furniture and out-of-style clothing to provide for the children. I think of the man who puts his job on the line by refusing to cover up the underhanded business practices of his boss and colleagues. This week I can’t help thinking of schoolteachers who throw themselves in the path of a deranged shooter to protect their students.
Ordinary people, many who are not Christians, make tremendous personal sacrifices for the sake of others all the time. When we who bear the name of Christ make such sacrifices, though, we can have the strange joy that Paul talked about in sharing in the sufferings of Christ: “sharing in a death like his and a resurrection like his.” Living a cross-shaped life can also mean taking a situation that has been handed to you – a debilitating illness, a public defeat or humiliation – and bearing it with grace and humor, so that others may see what a Christian life looks like, and what baptism really means.
In our baptism, Christ identifies us: we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is not just a moment, it’s the beginning of the journey of a lifetime. Our baptism calls us into lives of service, love and faithfulness patterned on the life and death of Jesus. We don’t come out of the baptismal waters unscathed – baptism is the sign that God has a claim on us, who bear the name of Christ.
Let us claim that identity joyfully and courageously as we reaffirm the promises of our baptism.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
February 25, 2018
[i] Micah D. Kiel, at www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2621.