Lectionary blog for Sunday, Sept. 16
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Cary Grant was walking down the street in New York one afternoon. He was spotted by someone who excitedly did the whole stop, stare, double-take, stare, stammer thing.
“You’re, you’re, you’re … Rock Hudson. No, that’s not right. You’re, you’re, you’re uh, uh, Gary Cooper. No, that’s not it, you’re, you’re Burt Lancaster, no, uh … ‘
Seeking to help, Grant helpfully suggested, “Cary Grant?”
Man shook his head and muttered, “No, that’s not it.”
Today’s Gospel lesson turns on a question of identity — exactly who is Jesus? Well, it’s pretty clear that the author of Mark wants us to know that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed Son of God, the Savior, the Christ.
And he wants us to know that Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Messiah, has implications for Jesus that the disciples did not want to hear. “Suffer?! Die?! No! That can’t be right.” Peter took Jesus aside to tell him, “Now, listen here Jesus, that’s not who you are.”
It’s like the movie fan and Cary Grant. Peter presumes to know better than Jesus who Jesus is.
And Jesus’ response to Peter carries us deeper into the mysteries of identity, of suffering and death, denial and the cross. This question of identity isn’t just about Jesus; it’s also about us.
If Jesus is the Christ, what does that mean for us? What does it mean for us to say week after week in the creed that Jesus is the Christ?
Well, for some this text is an invitation to believe the right things about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” is seen by many as the essential question of the faith, as if our eternal salvation will be determined by what we “thought” about Jesus, that our relationship with God depends upon our thinking and believing the right things.
And the next part of the text, the part about Jesus predicting his own suffering and Peter’s unwillingness to accept it, and Jesus crying out, “Get behind me Satan,” are reminders of Jesus’ own suffering for us on the cross.
In the midst of all this, many still see this text as being about what Jesus did for us and almost never about what we are called to do with Jesus for the world.
Often times “deny self” is interpreted as something like: “Quit your meanness and get back to church.”
“To take up one’s cross,” is “Put up with whatever less than ideal conditions you find yourself in, it may be bad but it’s not as bad as what Jesus went through to save your sorry self from hell, so quit complaining.”
And “following Jesus” apparently consists of being in church a lot and giving enough so that the church can meet its bills.
When I was in college I went to a weeklong missionary conference of evangelical college students. (I went with the purest of motives, there was this girl …)
There was this big rally and the Rev. Dr. Somebody Famous preached on this text and said that the focus of this story needed to be moved from salvation to service. This text was a challenge to us to consider what God was calling us to do with our lives.
And, apparently, the answer to “deny self, take up a cross and follow Jesus” was to give ourselves to something called “full-time Christian service,” and, while I pondered as to how there could be anything else but “full-time” Christian service, (I mean being a part-time Christian just doesn’t seem to make much logical sense; either you are or you aren’t) it was further explained that the preferred full-time Christian service was outside the United States among people who would never hear the gospel if we assembled here in this hall don’t carry it to them.
And again, is that really what “deny self, take up a cross, follow Jesus” means?
I recently read something by Fred Craddock that makes the most sense to me. (Craddock taught preaching at Vanderbilt and Emory universities.)
Craddock said that most of us think that this call to denial will come in a startling moment of moral and existential clarity, that we will have a Damascus Road experience that causes us to shed our old life in order to totally and completely embrace another life for the sake of the gospel.
And the truth is, for most of us, most of the time, it doesn’t happen that way. Craddock’s analogy is that we think we have a million dollars and we have to spend it all at once on something big.
The reality is that we give away the million dollars a quarter at a time, all day long, every day of our lives. We give it away in little acts of sacrifice and kindness to others and devotion to God.
We listen to the neighbor kid’s problems; we go to a boring but necessary committee meeting; we spend a night at the homeless shelter; we provide a meal at the battered women’s shelter; we give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home; we call the pastor and tell her that her sermon helped us this week; we treat the teen-ager at the drive-through with respect, whether they deserve it or not. The list goes on.
Usually, giving our lives to Christ is neither glorious nor spectacular. It’s done in little acts of love, 25 cents at a time — living the Christian life little by little, day after day, over the long haul. (Fred Craddock — “Cherry Log Sermons”)
I think of it this way: We go through life shedding little pieces of our old self, tiny bits at a time. And we pick up little splinters and pieces of our cross along the way as we attempt to follow a Christ who is just out of sight over the horizon, until, near the end of our journey, we look back and realize we are no longer who we once were and the change in us is all because we followed him.
Amen and amen.
- How do you give your life to Christ?
- Can you think of an example of a “25-cent” act of love?
Delmer Chilton is an assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, with responsibility for eastern and central Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia. Ordained in 1977, he has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.