Sunday, September 16, 2018
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
She looked at me with something approaching disdain: “What, exactly, is a UCC?” the skeptical, dour woman at the Garden Party asked me some years ago. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked me that question and it won’t be the last. Has anyone ever asked you? Have you ever seen a blank expression on someone’s face when you told them where you go to church? Do you skip the UCC part altogether and rely on the New England standard: Congregational? I can certainly understand why. UCC sounds more like a community college or a medical diagnosis than a proud and historic denomination.
We have an identity problem in the UCC that naturally leads people to make jokes about what those letters stand for. There is the standard quip: UCC stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” I’ve never liked that one very much! But there are others. On a website entitled “God Is Still Laughing,” I discovered these: UCC stands for “Utterly Confused Christians.” UCC stands for “Upper Crust Congregationalists.” UCC stands for “Uniformly Cultured Centrists” or “Underrepresented Christian Church” or my personal favorite: “Upset Christian Cynics.”
Part of why people make these kinds of jokes is because they are based on the false assumption that those of us in the United Church of Christ don’t really believe in much of anything. They mistake our emphasis on freedom of conscience for freedom from theology. They don’t understand that how YOU follow Jesus and how I follow Jesus may look very different – but that we are all still following Jesus.
This kind of religion is not an easy sale in our culture, so sure, as it is, of everything. Americans, by nature, are a confident people. And so we tend to like confident religion. Lots of folks are drawn to churches in which the “right” way to believe is laid out very clearly, and all one has to do is sign on the dotted line and you get to go to heaven.
And I know, from experience, how comforting that can be. I was raised with a great deal of religious certainty, and while it made me very comfortable for a while, it didn’t teach me very much about what it means to really follow Jesus into the deep and sometimes troubling questions of life.
Life is so full of questions. But surprisingly, so are the Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus is reported to have asked others 307 questions. Other people asked Jesus a total of 183 questions. And of those 183 questions, guess how many Jesus actually answered: exactly three. Instead of a straight answer, Jesus would often answer a question with another question. And this is completely consistent with Jesus’s Jewish faith – a faith in which the questions as avenues of faith.
One day, Jesus and his disciples were walking around Caesarea Philippi, an unusually beautiful place that is alive with a great diversity of religious history. Long before Jesus, it had been central in the worship of the Canaanite god Baal. Later, in Greco-Roman times, it was said to be the birthplace of the god Pan, the flute-playing half-man/half goat. In addition to its rich religious significance, it was a city of the Empire, a Roman outpost in the hinterland, meant to remind regular folks that Rome was always watching. And so it was in this place, so full of the gods and of political power, that Jesus asked: “Who do people say that I am?”
Now there was a good deal of debate about that and so the disciples reported to Jesus what they had heard: “Well, some people think you’re John the Baptist, raised from the dead. And others think you’re Elijah, reincarnated. And still others think you’re like a prophet of old.” Jesus listened, and then turned the question on them: “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?’” We don’t know how long it took for anyone to speak, but eventually Peter answered: “You are the Messiah.”
Well, old Peter got that answer right! And you would think that Jesus would want Peter to spread the word. But notice that Mark reports that Jesus sternlyordered Peter and the others not to tell a soul. And isn’t that strange? If it is the truth that Jesus is the long-awaited One, then why not shout if from the housetops?
That’s a good question. And I think there are a couple of answers that have something profound to say about how we follow Jesus in this early part of the 21stcentury.
First of all, consider this: you can search the Gospels high and low and you will never find Jesus teaching a catechism or laying out a list of rules or delineating a systematic theology. Instead, what you will find over and over again is Jesus telling stories with open-ended interpretations. You will find Jesus touching and befriending and feeding and healing. And you will find Jesus asking others to follow him and do what he did. But somehow it has all gotten boiled down to believing all the right things. Christianity has been reduced to mental assent. And if Peter told others what the answer was – that Jesus was the Messiah – then maybe they wouldn’t discover it on their own. And maybe they would think that thinkingthe right things was the same as doingthe right things.
Second, maybe Jesus told them to keep his identity under wraps because they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of who this Messiah was.
In the time of Jesus, it was commonly believed that the Messiah would be a military leader. That’s who the people were waiting for – a Messiah who would kick the Romans to the curb and restore the glorious Kingdom of Israel. So when Peter said to Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” that’s probably exactly what he meant. But that’s not what Jesus meant or what Jesus means. Remember that Jesus once famously said that his kingdom is not of this world. But those who followed him didn’t really want to hear that. And mostly, we don’t either. The church is still looking for power and influence and dominance. Like the disciples, we’re not that interested in a life of sacrifice and service. So when Jesus talked about his suffering and death, it was so offensive to the disciples that Peter pulled Jesus aside and let him have it: “Lighten up, Jesus. You’re scaring everybody and we will never build a viable political movement that way.” To which Jesus replied: “You devil! Get your mind on God’s business in the world.”
And then, just so that there would be no mistake about what Jesus was saying, he turned to the crowd who had been following them that day and spilled the less-than-appetizing beans of what it means to be a Christian: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” To which we might say, “Lighten up, Jesus. You’re scaring everybody. And we will never build a stronger congregation that way.”
In this age of waning participation in the religious life; in this age when churches are shrinking and closing, it’s so tempting to shy away from the strange ways of Jesus. It’s a lot harder to sell a question than an answer. It’s a lot harder to sell a lifestyle of sacrifice than an easy-to-memorize creed. So, who wants to buy what we’re selling?
Well, maybe folks who know that life is more often lived in-between; maybe folks who long for meaning more than information; maybe folks who want to be part of saving the world! Those are the kinds of people who have always been attracted to this strange Rabbi, who questions our assumptions, and call us to find true life by giving ours away.