Proper 19 (24), Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
16 September 2018
It must have been so difficult for the disciples to follow Jesus. I mean, in many ways I envy them, but in other ways I do not. It must have been confusing because Jesus rarely fulfilled their expectations. And more than anything in any relationship you want to know what you’re at. In the disciples’ case it would have helped them understand why they were following him.
It seems that it was almost impossible for them to leave their expectations behind. Even after Jesus had died on the cross, and after God had raised him from the dead, at their first meeting in the Book of Acts, they say to him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They could not imagine anything else.
Jesus defied the law and yet fulfilled it, he was an observant Jew who worshiped at the synagogue and yet got into trouble with the authorities, he was the King of Israel, Son of David ,yet died a humiliating death on the cross.
It’s not just that the disciples were a bit obtuse, Jesus was hard to figure out, at least if your world view was informed by the theology of the day.
One of the best pieces I read in the whole and long discussion of the church and homosexuality was a piece by Jonathan Odell, published about eight years ago. In it he describes his own journey as a gay man raised in a fundamentalist church and he talks about speaking as a gay Christian to a fundamentalist audience. In many ways the piece is about his personal journey and how to make peace with the church but at the end of the piece he recalls a conversation with his conservative, fundamentalist father. It was the day I finally asked him if he thought I was going to hell. “Johnny,” he had said, “I believe every word in the Bible is God’s literal truth, and the way I read it, it says homosexuality is wrong.” But then he continued, “And I know my son. I know for a fact that he is not evil.” He nodded once, and then said decisively, “I guess both are going to have to be true.”
Odell then goes on, A sign of genius, someone said, is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. I told the students that my father had died the year before. “I’m not sure I ever lived up to his expectations,” I said. “I know I haven’t lived up to mine. But it has been a comfort to know that there could be a God who doesn’t hold that against me—who can say, ‘You have failed and you are perfect.’ I guess both will have to be true.”1
You may recognize Martin Luther’s dictum that we are both saints and sinners at the same time.
The disciples had a hard time figuring out Jesus, which may be why Jesus did not ask right away what they thought of him but rather what other people thought.
It was the kind, and pastoral approach. Yet the question that mattered was who do you think that I am?
And while Peter has the right answer, he does not understand what it means. Peter and Jesus silence each other and it is not until much later in his life that Peter understands.
What strikes me as remarkable about this is that, with one exception, the disciples continued to follow Jesus. They did not give up on Jesus or on themselves but they continued to walk with him and live with him.
Perhaps from time to time this is our experience. It is as simple as crying to God for healing and finding oneself still sick, or crying for God to bring peace only to find that I am not always peaceful.
And so perhaps one thing we can learn this week is that while making sense of things and making sure our theology does justice to God and all God’s children is of great importance, it does not mean that we always understand everything, but that Jesus does not cease to be Lord when he is nailed to the cross but that on the cross his glory is revealed. It may be a paradox, but it is the way that Jesus’ Lordship is true and it does not confine God to our theological concepts but allows Jesus to lead us to ever new horizons.
There is another piece that goes with that and that we find in our passage from the Gospel of Mark this morning. The question Jesus asks the disciples is a question that is never answered once and for all but that needs to be answered again and again because it is the very personal question of who is Jesus to you and me and to the church. The question calls forth a commitment to Jesus and the shape of the commitment depends on the answer we give to the question of who Jesus is.
Maybe we think that Jesus mostly wants us to keep ourselves pure and that the goal of the Christian is to navigate the temptations of the world without falling into or being entrapped by any, and eventually presenting oneself spotless and blameless before God. While this is a caricature, it’s hard to deny that this is something many people think. The problem with this view is that it’s all about what we do and it says nothing about what God does, which is why it says little or nothing about forgiveness or grace or the role of the church.
Or we think that the Christian calling is to facilitate a healthy society. This means being a good citizen, fighting the government’s wars, keeping the king’s rules, working hard to make an honest living and pay fair taxes, and claiming a decent share in the profits of industry, labour, prosperity, and peace.
These two views probably cover the majority of popular perceptions about the basics of what it may mean to follow Jesus, to be a Christian. Yet here too, there is no room for repentance and forgiveness and it has an almost naive view of the congruence of gospel and culture.
And so the answer the disciples gave is probably the right one. I do not simply mean what they said, but that they stayed with Jesus to let him show them the shape of the Kingdom. That they remained open to be surprised by God, and learned that the Kingdom of God had less to do with their expectations than with a Holy imagination.
One commentator suggests that the question Jesus asks of them has far reaching implications for it will determine the character of Christianity in the world, it will determine the shape of the church. Thus it is impossible for us to think about our mission without answering the question Jesus asked the disciples: Who do you think that I am?