Something unusual happened to me last Sunday. By the time I stepped into the pulpit, I had come to the realization that the sermon I had prepared to preach was not the sermon that I wanted to preach. I had been struggling all week to gather my thoughts together in order to preach what I felt led to preach. Even as I had finished typing on Saturday night, I knew that I hadn’t quite got it all right. It wasn’t until Sunday morning that the pieces finally fell into place, but by that time, I decided that it was too late to do a re-write. And, I am not really one for preaching off the cuff. I decided that I was just going to have to put those thoughts on the shelf for another time. It wasn’t as if I could preach from the same passage two weeks in a row. So, I decided to move on, until I read the lectionary passage for this week and discovered that it was related, quite wonderfully, to what we read last week. So, I thought, maybe I don’t have to put my un-preached thoughts from last week on a shelf. Maybe this week could be part two. With that in mind, I will be reading from the eighth chapter of Mark, beginning at the 31st verse. Listen now for the Word of God...
After spending quite some time together doing ministry, Jesus asks his disciples an interesting question. “Who do people say that I am?” It is an identity question. Jesus wants to know how the people are identifying him. So, the disciples respond, “Some say, ‘John the Baptist.’ Others think that you are Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” Jesus listens and then he asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Again, it’s an identity question. These disciples know Jesus the best. So, Jesus wants to know how they identify him. Peter speaks for the group when he says, “You are the Messiah.” That is who you are; that is your identity.
It is at this point that Jesus tells the disciples something that they did not know. Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to be betrayed and led off to die. Peter, again, speaking for the group, rebukes Jesus. Now, Mark does not give us the details of Peter’s words, but Matthew does. In Matthew we read that Peter says to Jesus, “Never, Lord. This shall never happen to you.” Keep in mind that Peter just got finished declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter has very specific ideas about what that means. So, when he hears what is going to happen to Jesus, Peter cannot accept that. He basically says to Jesus, “That’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.” Does that sound familiar? In the temptation story last week, the devil tried to convince Jesus to turn stone into bread. This week, Peter is trying to convince Jesus to give up on the idea of the cross. Peter is trying to do what the devil was trying to do, to define what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. No wonder Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”
Last week, as we looked at the story of Jesus’ temptation, we came to understand that in the story, the devil was not really questioning Jesus’ identity. Instead, the devil was attempting to define how that identity should be lived out. The devil had his own ideas about what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God. Jesus didn’t listen. Instead, Jesus turned to God, followed God’s ways, and was able to defeat the devil’s temptations. We ended last week by asking the question, “Who defines our identity?” We are children of God, but who decides what that means? Is it God, or someone else? In light of our story this morning, we can ask those same questions.
So, why are these questions important? Why return to these questions of identity and how to live it out. I believe that the church in our day and age is going through an identity crisis. Not in the sense that we are unsure of who we are. We know that we are the church. We know that Jesus is our Lord, that we are his followers. No, I believe the identity crisis comes as we struggle with, not only what it means to be the church, but with the question of who gets to decide what it means to be the church in the 21st century. In other words, we are struggling to figure out how to live out this identity of ours, not just on a corporate level but on an individual level as well. I find myself listening a great deal to the numerous debates and arguments that continue to plague our church. We expend great amounts of energy fighting about what it means to be the church in the 21st century. What I find interesting is that the rhetoric on both sides of the issues is almost identical. One person will say, “If we were truly following Jesus, we would do such and such…” To which everyone is supposed to think, “Well, I definitely want to follow Jesus, so I guess that means I have to do that.” Or, another person will say, “If you accept that idea, then you really don’t accept the Bible.” To which everyone is supposed to respond, “Well, we certainly want to accept the Bible so I guess we need to reject that idea.” The rhetoric I hear from people on both sides of the issues is the same in that they attempt to define our identity, not just on an individual basis, but for everybody. We have many Peters in the church, trying to make their understanding of the church mandatory for everyone in the church. And, because we accept that this is how it should be, we rally around these various Peters and begin to divide ourselves up into our little groups, conservative and liberal, pro this or anti that. We lob insults at each other and question each other’s understanding of Christian identity and faithfulness. And all the while, we haven’t done the hard work of turning to God ourselves, to try and understand what it means to live out our Christian identity. Because you see, here’s the thing. At the end of the day, there is only one to whom we have to give answer as to how we lived out our Christian identity.
Each one of us is a child of God. Each one of us is called to follow Jesus. No one can do it for us. We have to do the hard work of figuring out how to faithfully follow Jesus. It reminds of the hymn that we will sing in a few minutes. The hymn that says, “You must walk that lonesome valley. No one can do it for you.”
Over the last few weeks we have been having some wonderful discussions in Bible Study. We came to a very profound understand a few weeks ago. We came to realize that not one of us, sitting around that table is called to be Mother Teresa. Do you want to know why? Because, none of us can be Mother Teresa. Only Mother Teresa could be Mother Teresa. I have to be Jim Evans. That is my identity and I have to do the hard work of figuring out what it means to live into that identity. No one can do it for me, and I can’t do it by either trying to be somebody else or trying to be somebody else’s idea of Jim Evans. I am who God has made me to be with my own unique personality and gifts given by the Spirit of God. I have to do the hard work of turning to God and figuring out what it means to live into my unique self.
Now, I want to be very clear here. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding. What I am saying doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from each other. Of course we can and we should. What I am saying doesn’t mean we can’t teach one another. Of course we can and we should. We can challenge each other; we can hold each other accountable. As a matter of fact, we should challenge each other and hold each other accountable. But, when it comes to living out our faith, we are only answerable to one person and that is our Lord Jesus.
We read last week the story of the man and woman in the garden. Do you remember what they did when they had to give answer to God? The man said, “Um, it was the woman’s fault.” The woman said, “Um, it was the serpents fault.” We don’t get to point the finger of blame at someone else and say, “Well that’s what they told me it meant to be a Christian.” If we say to God, “I was just trying to be that person.” God is going to say, “But, why weren’t you trying to be yourself.” Do you want to take this to the next level? Think about this, “We are not even supposed to be Jesus.” Only Jesus can be Jesus. Notice again what Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple then you need to take up your cross, not my cross, your cross.
Getting back to Bible Study, there is something interesting that happens from time to time. We will read a passage together and then someone will turn to me and ask, “What does it mean?” More often than not, I will respond by saying, “What do you think it means?” Sure, I could give my answer, and at some point in the discussion, I do share my thoughts, but in the end, each person has to make that decision about what to believe. I cannot live someone else’s faith, and they cannot live mine.
So, what is the point of all of this? When we do the hard work of turning to God in order to try and figure out what it means to live into our identity as a child of God, then something wonderful begins to happen. We discover that the lives we live will be genuine, honest, humble, very humble. On top of that we will be living the lives, not only that we have been created for, but the lives for which we have been called. It won’t be easy. It will mean taking ownership of who we are, what we believe, and how we will live. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” To this Paul gave a wonderful promise, “God, who is already at work in you, is going to help you figure it out in accordance with his good purposes.” I know this sounds hard, but that is alright. It means that we are on the right track. After all, Jesus told us that if we want to follow him, we must take up our cross. If we don’t know how to do that, then let us turn to the only one who can, not only give us an answer, but is the only one to whom we have to give an answer.