Don’t claim Jesus as Messiah if you’re not willing to follow the Messiah path – a path of vulnerable, self-giving love that leads to abundant life for the creation.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24 B
Text: Mark 8:27-38
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
When has that ever worked as an exhortation by a parent? It’s a cliché because it’s all too often our truth. We say things are important to us, valued by us, we say there are behaviors we expect in others. But when we don’t live like any of this, our words are hollow, our actions empty.
“Don’t tell anyone that I’m the Messiah,” Jesus “sternly” orders today. The crowds might think Jesus is Elijah or one of the prophets, or even John the Baptist, come back to life. But Peter and the disciples know the truth. Jesus is God’s Anointed One.
But Jesus doesn’t want them to tell anyone this until they understand what it means to follow the kind of Messiah Jesus is. If they don’t know what it means for their lives as well, he doesn’t want them proclaiming him Messiah and implying they are faithful followers.
Would that the Church had heeded this command more frequently over the millennia.
Far too often the Church has loudly proclaimed Jesus as the Christ while living in opposition to that very title.
The Church began as a movement from the underside of society. Jesus’ proclamation of God’s love for all, inclusivity of all peoples and genders, love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking, drew all sorts of people who didn’t have power or social status. Jesus’ Gospel was a liberating word of Good News for all, from those who were poor to those who were wealthy, from those who were outcast to those who were insider.
Once the Church became the dominant political force in the Roman Empire, the life of Christ, the path of self-giving love, the way of God Jesus came to teach and invite us to follow, went by the wayside. Jesus’ teachings were used to protect power and support social structures and order. Christians went from people who wouldn’t participate in war to an established Church using armies to advance its power. The cross, the sign of divine sacrificial love, became a military talisman painted on shields.
And so the Church did the Crusades, the Inquisition, countless heresy trials and executions and wars and massacres. It grew more powerful than emperors, with more armies and castles and wealth than kings dreamed of.
Don’t tell anyone I’m the Messiah, Jesus sternly ordered his disciples. Because this is what he feared would happen. Peter’s opposition to a Messiah who would willingly face death would flourish into a Church responsible for more death and destruction than almost any other institution.
“Who do you say that I am?” is more than an information question.
Jesus says that your answer to his question determines your path. If you say he is Messiah, you admit that God’s Christ went to Jerusalem, was arrested, and was brutally executed on a cross. And you claim that path for yourself.
“Don’t say who I am,” Jesus says today. “Do who I am. Live who I am.” That’s the frightening thing about today’s Gospel. If you say that Jesus is God’s Messiah, you have only one option for following, to live and love as he lives and loves. Following Jesus is denying yourself. Following Jesus is losing your life. Following Jesus is taking up a cross.
How did we ever think this was optional? There are no other paths. So, Jesus says, if you don’t want to follow me, please, please don’t tell people I’m the Messiah, lest they think you’re my followers.
Jesus’ dying on the cross isn’t an accident that Easter erases. It’s God’s path for the healing of the world.
On Friday, Holy Cross Day, we heard Paul’s claim that the cross is foolishness to the world but it is God’s deepest wisdom. God’s wisdom that this universe is created and sustained by self giving love, beginning with God’s own self-giving love in creating all things. But the cross is God’s deepest self-revelation.
The love the Triune God poured out for the world on the cross is the only love that can and will heal all things. Only self-giving, vulnerable love, given from one creature to another, brings life. Jesus’ path today isn’t a theory, it’s Jesus’ absolutely clear proclamation of how God will heal all things. Beginning with Jesus and continuing with us.
This path of losing goes against everything we think we want.
To lose our life for Jesus’ sake, as his followers, means losing things we’d rather keep close to us, protect.
Losing your life means letting go of respectability, of being well thought of, for the sake of bringing love wherever it is needed. The vulnerability of not worrying what we look like.
Losing your life means letting go of being right, of having all the answers, for the sake of being love with God’s other children. That kind of vulnerability is really hard when you’re used to winning arguments and proving others wrong.
Losing your life means letting go of being perfect, when forgiveness and grace is the only way to healing relationships. That kind of vulnerability – to admit you fail, to be willing to forgive others who fail you, no strings attached – is really frightening.
But this losing, Jesus says, is for the sake of the Good News. It leads to life.
That’s what we forget. In God’s creation, life is only found in love that gives itself away completely. The only path for a follower of Jesus is a path that is shaped like a cross. But it’s also the only path to life.
And we know because we’ve seen it. Alongside the record of the Church’s grasping for power and doing great wickedness we also have centuries, millennia of stories of followers of Christ who proclaimed the Messiah by their cross-shaped lives, their sacrificial love for others. We can’t deny the sins of the Church, but we also mustn’t forget the grace and healing that people who took the losing path for the sake of the Good News brought into the world.
They also witnessed to us the peace of mind, the gentleness of spirit, the joy of life that is only found on such a path. Think of those who have modeled this path of sacrificial love for you, who had a serenity and hope and trust that the other paths in the world can’t even dream of. These saints in our lives, and the saints the whole Church recognizes, are bright stars on this Christ path, singing to us of the abundant life we will find when we follow.
“Do as I say, not as I do” just doesn’t work for Christ people.
Jesus would tell you that it would be better not to claim who he is at all, if you don’t want to follow his path.
But if you do see that he is God’s Anointed, if you have come to know the undying love of God through Jesus’ words and grace and sacrifice, if you’ve found hope in his teaching, wisdom in his dying, and joy in his living, then take a leap, like Peter, and say, “You are the Messiah.”
And then follow on the only path where this Messiah is found. It will look a lot like losing. It will mean the death of things you may not be ready to let go of. It will feel terrifyingly vulnerable.
But trust Jesus. He’s the Messiah, after all. And this path, this cross-shaped Christ path, will bring you and all people to abundant life, and the restoring of the whole creation.
In the name of Jesus. Amen