16 September 2018 – Sermon on Mark 8: 27 – 38

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Rev’d Jay Smith

Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I am?” (v. 27).  The disciples answered, “John the Baptist–or Elijah–or one of the prophets.”

Those were good answers–complimentary to Jesus–but they didn’t go far enough. If Jesus were only John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets, he would be just one great man among many–hardly one of a kind–hardly the Son of God–hardly the one to split history in half.

But then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 29).  In the original Greek, “you” is emphasized–“But YOU–who do YOU say that I am?”  These disciples had been with Jesus for long enough to form an opinion–to understand that Jesus was more than just another great man.  “But YOU–who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Christ” (v. 29).  What did that mean?  It meant that Jesus was the Messiah–the one for whom Israel had waited for so long–the one who would return them to greatness.

Israel had been great once, under King David.  When David was king, nobody messed with Israel–at least not more than once.  Israel, under David, was a force to be contended with–a great nation–mighty in battle and prosperous in peace.  When David was king, there were no Roman soldiers wandering the streets with authority to require Israeli citizens to carry their bags.

But that was long ago, and Israel’s flower had faded.  Now Roman soldiers were everywhere–sent to protect Roman tax collectors and Roman governors.  The Israelites hated that–hated seeing their money siphoned off to Rome–hated answering to a Roman governor–hated Romans telling them what to do–hated not being great.

When Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he meant that Rome’s days were numbered.  The Christ would get Israel organised–raise an army–drive out the Romans–put God’s people back on top.

But Jesus surprised the disciples with his next words.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer–be killed–and then rise again (v. 31).

The disciples could hardly believe what they were hearing.  Peter, always the first to speak, took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  He must have thought that Jesus was just having a bad day–that he just needed some encouragement.  I can imagine Peter saying, “Jesus, come on man, get a grip!  You can’t go around talking like that!  It upsets the disciples!  We left everything to follow you!  You can’t let us down now!  This talk of the cross is–well–it’s foolishness, Jesus!  Foolishness!”

That’s correct, of course.  Exactly correct!  The talk of a cross is foolishness!  Paul said so in his letter to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:18).  How can anyone solve anything by dying–except, perhaps, by dying heroically?  No one can solve anything by dying shamefully–and there was no more shameful death than death on a cross.

But Jesus often turns things upside down.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says.  “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3-4).  Jesus’ talk of the cross was like that.  Death on a cross was, indeed, foolishness, but, in God’s hands, it became wisdom. As it say in 1 Cor 1:26-31

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[g] not many of you were wise by human standards,[h] not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one[i] might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in[j] the Lord.”

Jesus’ death transformed the cross into a symbol of God’s love.  The cross didn’t make sense, except in God’s new order, where it makes perfect sense.

And Christians, living in the shadow of Jesus’ cross, have been bearing their own crosses ever since.  In the first century, Romans lined the roadsides with crosses to kill Christians.  As time progressed, people found other ways to kill Christians–burning them at the stake–beheading them.  Given the persecutions that Christians have endured, you would think that there wouldn’t be a Christian left on the face of the earth.  The opposite is true, though.

o Christ is alive and well in the hearts of men and women throughout the world.
o Christ is alive in places where authorities have made every effort to crush the faith.
o Christ survived Hitler.
o Christ survived Stalin.
o Christ survived and survives communist regimes.
o Christ is alive in the middle east.
o Christ is alive in Nauru.
o Christ is alive among secular and postmodern worldviews

Christ is alive in those hostile places, because Christians have outlived their persecutors.  They haven’t outlived them in years, but in the quality of their lives.  People have seen tyrants hating and Christians loving, and have been drawn to the lovers rather than the haters.  Where Christians live according to Christ’s teachings, Christ never loses.  Nobody can refute a truly Christ-filled life.

I ran across a story about Martin Niemoeller as I was preparing this sermon, and it struck me as a good example of a Christ-filled man standing against the forces of evil.  Niemoeller was a Protestant pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler from Hitler’s earliest years.  When the Nazis began their campaign against Jews, one of their first measures was to require Jews to wear a yellow Star of David pinned to their clothing.  It seemed like a small thing, but it was the first step in a journey that would result in six million murders.  When Niemoeller heard of the edict requiring Jews to wear the Star of David, he announced to his congregation that “before one can say the Apostle’s Creed, he must first wear the Star of David.”

Upon reading that story, I wanted to know more, so I did some checking.  I learned that Niemoeller had served as a submarine captain in the First World War.  After the war, he became a Lutheran pastor.  When Hitler required pastors to read a pro-government proclamation from the pulpit, Niemoeller refused.  When Hitler targeted Christian pastors of Jewish ancestry–there were only a few in Germany–Niemoeller opposed him.  The Nazis bombed Niemoeller’s house.  Hitler put him in prison–for a few months at first–and then again–and again–and again.  Friends offered to smuggle him out of the country, but he refused.

Then, in 1937, Hitler imprisoned Niemoeller in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp–and then at Dachau.  At one point, a man whom Niemoeller had known in the navy saw him and said, “Pastor Niemoeller, why are you in prison?”  Niemoeller responded, “Why are you not?”

In April 1945, Niemoeller was scheduled for execution.  That’s the month that the Nazis executed the better known Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  But American soldiers liberated Niemoeller before the execution could be carried out.  He was skin and bones–dying of starvation.  After his release, Niemoeller was reunited with his wife, who had suffered during his eight-year imprisonment.  Both Niemoeller and his family suffered greatly because of his courageous stand against Hitler.

Sometime later, a student asked Niemoeller how things had gotten so badly out of hand, and Niemoeller responded:

“First they came for the Communists,
but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews,
but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out for me.”

You might ask, “What did Niemoeller accomplish?  His family suffered terribly because of his opposition to Hitler, and he nearly died in prison.  Wouldn’t he have been better off to keep his mouth shut–to work quietly–to spend those eight years in the pulpit instead of in a prison cell.”

A Catholic priest, Fr. John McKenzie, was asked a question like that.  He asked:

“There were some people under Hitler’s domination
who simply refused to cooperate with what they recognized as evil,
and they were executed for it.

That’s a positive, valid way of living the Gospel,

Fr. McKenzie answered:

“The thing about following Jesus
is that you don’t do the right thing because it works;

Jesus put it this way:

“Whoever wants to come after me,
let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it;
and whoever will lose his life for my sake
and the sake of the Good News
will save it” (8:34-35).

I hope that you will never find yourself face to face with the kind of monstrous evil that Niemoeller faced, but it could happen.  Christians are suffering persecution in many nations around the world right now.  Tens of thousands of Christians will die this year because of their faith. I think that it is likely that we will find out what it feels like to suffer for our faith.

We can expect to face tough choices because of our faith.  Employers will expect us to shade the truth to improve the quarterly report.  Friends will expect us to do things that we know are wrong, and will ridicule us when we refuse.  We will be tempted to cheat on our taxes, because “everyone does it.”  We will face a thousand temptations, each cloaked in the deceit that our decisions don’t really matter.  When faced with such temptations, remember the words of the priest who said:

“The thing about following Jesus
is that you don’t do the right thing because it works;

And remember the words of Jesus:

“Whoever wants to come after me,
let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it;
and whoever will lose his life for my sake
and the sake of the Good News
will save it.”

That’s the purpose–to save lives–ours and others.  The self-denial and cross-bearing do not have suffering as their purpose, but life.

And this is the Good News: When we’re willing to pay the costs of discipleship – when we’re willing to give up our identity, to sacrifice our personal freedom, to let go of our prejudices, our hold on material wealth, our allegiance to others – when we’re willing to die to self, in other words – then we shall experience new life in Christ and share in the promise of his resurrection from the dead. Charles Everest understood this perfectly when he wrote in his hymn:

“‘Take up your cross,’ the Saviour said,
‘if you  would my disciple be;
deny yourself, the world forsake,
and humbly follow after me.’
Take up your cross and follow Christ;
nor think til death to lay it down;
for only he who bears the cross
may hope to wear the glorious crown.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.