Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
In the far distant reaches of human history there was a time when the earliest humans began to look up at the stars and across great vistas of oceans and mountains and plains. They were filled with awe and they started to ponder. They began to reflect on what they saw and felt, and they began to think beyond themselves and beyond the present moment.
It was a most profound moment when people started to ask themselves some new and deeply reflective questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Who are we as a people? How did we get here?
Throughout recorded history, people continued ask these essential questions concerning human existence. Today, we still yearn to understand why we are here, how we can know God, how we can be in relationship with God, and how we can understand where God is calling us.
The Gospels were written with the purpose of addressing these questions by revealing who Jesus was and is. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus himself ask the key question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This question underlies all of the Gospel stories, and eventually unfolds as the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
But here, at this point in the narrative, Jesus’ ministry and identity are still unfolding. Here, Jesus explicitly asks the disciples for an answer. He knows that he causes quite a stir wherever he goes, and in his full humanity he may be asking this question quite honestly: “What do you hear people saying about me?”
The answer is that people really don’t know what to think or what to say about him. Jesus doesn’t quite fit any known pattern. The closest they can come is to describe him as a prophet, such as Elijah, or perhaps even as John the Baptist.
Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” We can hear a confident, divine Jesus posing this question to the disciples so that they can learn to know him as the Messiah. I wonder, also, if the fully human Jesus is asking for some reassurance and even for their support. We may be able to hear just a hint of gentle wistfulness in the question: “After all is said and done, who am I to you, my closest companions?”
Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. He gets it just right, and at first he says to Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” So far so good. But then Peter immediately sails off course. He is shocked to hear Jesus describe a very different messiah than he can possibly understand: a suffering servant messiah, who willingly gives himself up to a shameful death and who will “after three days rise again”. Peter’s one moment of deep wisdom, that Jesus is the Messiah, is lost in a heartbeat in his befuddlement and incomprehension of what that will mean for his friend and teacher.
Wisdom is perhaps the most profound form of knowledge, beyond our direct experience and beyond any concrete understanding. Wisdom is the deepest knowledge of God’s will, God’s presence, God’s sanctity and God’s “divine goodness”. Most of us may hold such deep insight for only a fleeting instant, and then lose it in the next moment, as Peter does.
We do well, when we can discern and follow the path of divine Wisdom, which God intends to “pour out” and “make known” to us. Wouldn’t it be nice to have clear sky-writing that tells us exactly what is God’s will for us? Unfortunately, we don’t always understand what God wants to make clear. We may well, as James says, “make mistakes” in judgment and discernment. In our life choices, James describes a “very small rudder” which can change our life directions in major ways. Robert Frost wrote in one of his poems about two paths that diverged in the woods, and how he decided to take the less traveled path, which made “all the difference”. Frost adds, wistfully, that after making his choice, he knows that he will “never come back”.
Whatever our ages, we’ve all made choices and mistakes. I’ve made some real whoppers along the way. All these choices and, yes, even mistakes, become part of who we are and who we are becoming. As I grow older, I’m more and more convinced that mistakes, and side paths, and journeys off-course are never wasted, but they all become part of our stories, part of our spiritual growth, part of our search for God. Who are we? We are the total of all of our stories and our mistakes, our journeys off-course, as well as our successes. We are our happiness and our sorrows, our good as well as less fortunate choices. And we are not isolated, self-sufficient individuals, as we waver on and off-course, but rather we are our relationships with each other and with God.
We do get some sky-writing in this Gospel reading after all. Jesus is very clear in describing who God is calling us to become: a people who can “deny” ourselves, take up our cross every day, and follow him. “Denying” ourselves is not usually meant to be self-destructive, but rather a free choice, without resentment or obligation. It may mean as little as a kind word to a friend; it may very rarely mean as much as a major sacrifice or giving up our lives to save another.
Taking up our cross isn’t about suffering, as in “I guess this illness is my cross to bear”, nor is it about taking up someone else’s cross! Taking up our cross is also a free choice, and a firm, honest, complete dedication to generosity of spirit and to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus in our words and in our lives. It’s not about easy, convenient, half-hearted commitment. It’s not about church-lite. It’s a major life choice and whole-hearted dedication to Christ.
Who am I? Who are we? We are human, created in the image of a loving and merciful God. We are created to wonder and question; to make both wise and foolish choices. We are not alone, or solitary, or isolated. We are who we are in relationship to other people and to God. We are most closely defined by who we say that Jesus is.As we learn to answer that question, we will also begin know who we are as human beings, as a community of faith, and as Christians who attempt in all things to follow Christ.