I recently had the opportunity to spend some time back in my hometown of Parma Heights, Ohio; a suburb of Cleveland, where my parents still have their home. Things change a little more and more each time that I visit. People grow older, places seem to become smaller. One thing that changes in particular at this point in my life is what seems like the exponential growth of children that belong to my family and friends each time I get back home. It seems that every time I gather for a family function or with my group of friends, there is a new little face running around.
One of my best friends whose name is Mike has a little girl named Sophia who is just about three years old now. She’s a great little girl, who I have had the privilege of watch growing up since she was born. It’s pretty amazing actually; every time I go back she just gets bigger and bigger, and acts more and more like a functioning human being! This time during my visit Sophia was much more friendly and communicative.
She loves to come to my parent’s house for some reason; I thought it was because of the several dogs that my parents have that love to play with her. I believe there is another reason though. Every time she comes over, she loves to see my dad, Frank. My dad is a product of the sixties, and could just as easily be confused as a roadie for the Grateful Dead, or a member of ZZ Top, instead of being the retired 30 year educator that he is. He is in his sixties, has a pleasant belly, and a long, white, flowing, beard. Sophia calls him, ‘Santa’. At first, my dad tried to correct her when she was beginning to speak. Now, however, he has seemed to embrace his new identity in the eyes of young Sophia…and other neighborhood children for that matter. My father is Santa.
We all have our identities; some self-proclaimed, others are bestowed on us. We all have our labels as they relate to others: mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, colleague. We are labeled by our profession, our faith, …even some not so nice labels and names from time to time based on the individual! Think about this for a moment: what are some names or labels associated with you?
‘Who do people say that I am?’ I think this is a question that is really intriguing to think about as it relates to Jesus in this story. Just think about it, people have all sorts of ideas of who Jesus is some 2000 years after his time on earth. How do we understand Jesus in 2015?
But there is another side to this scripture passage that I would like for us to engage with today as well: Who do people say that you are? As we think about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, the other side of the story has to do with how we understands ourselves as followers of the Messiah. How does the world view us as self-identified Christians in today’s world? How would our neighbors describe us? What do our friends and family say about us? Well, let’s get to the scripture and see what we can learn here.
We pick up here in the Gospel of Mark at chapter 8. Just previous to our scripture reading, Jesus has been a busy man performing miracles left and right! People keep on wanting to see more signs that he is as powerful as people say he is, and Jesus seems to be focused on keeping it all as good a secret as possible. However, no matter what he does, there seems to be a crowd with him, and of course his disciples who seem just as confused by everything taking place.
We pick up here in verse 27 where Jesus asks the disciples about who people say that he is. They tell him all that they have heard: John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets. But Jesus uses this as a moment to probe a little deeper as he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, Jesus’ right hand man, says that Jesus is the Messiah; the very ‘Son of Man’ as Mark writes. Here, we, the readers, have a chance to reflect in our own time on who Jesus is. Is he just another faithful figure from history, or is he something different; someone unique?
Verse 31 continues on as Jesus, now confident that the disciples understand who he really is, shares with them what will happen in the days to come, including his death and resurrection. Of course his disciples are upset! Just imagine; a few weeks, months, maybe years before Jesus just asked them to follow him. They left everything to follow him, and now he is saying that he is leaving?!
Peter tells him as much, and Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus then calls over the entire crowd in verse 34 and goes on to share some of the most famous teachings on what it means to follow him as a disciple: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He goes on to talk about how those who approach following him as a way to succeed in this world are missing the point. No, it’s when we understand loss in this world that we are then able to truly gain. It’s a paradox, and it’s one that shapes the very Gospel: one must first die in order to live. In order for one to truly gain identity in God, one must lose her identity with the world.
What does it mean to follow Christ in the year 2015? What does it mean to focus on the divine things versus the human things of this world? In many ways, Christ is telling us today that our way of following is just not cutting it. How many time in our conversations here at church are we focused more on the ‘human’ things such as finances, building projects, and membership numbers, than on spiritual things, such as discipleship, quality of life, and spiritual relationships? I know I am guilty of it at times, and I would suggest that most of our committees and meetings are guilty of it as well!
Jesus had a different following back then. Back then, followers risked their very lives to follow him. They risked losing their jobs, their careers, families, and friends. Let’s be honest with ourselves; today it is not as radical to say we follow Jesus. In a lot of ways, our society rewards those who identify as Christian. But following Christ is not about being rewarded, or secure, in our lives. Following Christ is so much more.
Here is some food for thought: what does it look like to follow Christ…in a Christian culture? Yes, in some ways it is easier to follow the teachings of Jesus. But in other ways, it can be quite challenging. Think about this for a moment: not everything that we do in today’s culture, or that is labeled as ‘Christian,’ may in actuality be the most faithful response to the Gospel. Throughout history people have spoken to powers that waved the Christian banner, all the while not necessarily being the most faithful way of living. How do we listen for God’s Word in today’s culture when so many others claim the same inspiration? And how do we take risks in our own lives to follow such a Gospel?
Who do people say that I am? It’s a question I hope we all wrestle with. For me, I hope that what people talk about is not my focus on the earthly things, but on the spiritual things. I hope they talk about my faith, my spirit, my hope. While all of those earthly things have their place and time, ultimately our lives will be determined by our spirits, despite how the history books read. I hope they say, ‘Jeff? Yeah, he was a great follower of Christ.’
Who do people say that you are today? Who do people say that this congregation is? Are our priorities focused on earthly things, or spiritual things? Is our faith about being comfortable and blending in, or is our faith about taking risks to follow Christ, and ultimately experiencing death in order to experience life?
The Good News today, friends, is that Christ knows our hearts. Despite the challenges that we face to follow him, no matter how many times we mess up as his disciples did as well, Christ knows our hearts to follow him. The very Good News is that in Christ Jesus we find our identity as followers of Christ. Because we know God, we also may know ourselves. When we may ask ourselves, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ we may happily say that we are Christ’s followers, and despite our flaws, we are God’s children.
Thanks be to God, who continues to challenge us, who makes us re-examine our very identities, and who offers us new life as children of God. Amen.