Mark 8: 27-37
Jesus and the disciples have a critical conversation. After months, or years, of wandering and teaching and healing, the disciples should by now have a pretty good sense of who Jesus is. But, as Mark tells the story, they often don’t get it. The demons know who Jesus is. Some of the women know who Jesus is. But, the disciples seem clueless about Jesus’ identity.
This conversation takes place, not in Jerusalem, not in Capernaum – where many of the disciples live – but in Caesarea Philippi, the seat of Roman political power in the Golan Heights. The temples to Caesar, Pan, and the nature gods are gone, but the place remains. It is Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan River, holy throughout Jewish history. Jesus is hoping the disciples will make the connection with the people’s history.
Here, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am? What rumors have you heard?” They respond, “John the Baptist (who was recently murdered by Herod), Elijah (who was carried off in a chariot instead of dying), or another prophet.”
Then Jesus asks, “You have been with me all this time and have seen what I do and have heard what I say. Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response is quick, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus goes on to say that he will suffer, die, and be raised. “No,” Peter cries, “That won’t happen to you! That CAN’T happen to you.” Jesus’ response is just as quick. “Get behind me; follow me; do not try to lead me where I will not go.”
Jesus then turns to the crowd and raises his voice so they can hear him. Here’s a Pastor Lynn paraphrase. “Listen to me, all of you. If you wish to follow me, you must give your whole life to me. If you wish to keep your life to yourself, you will not be able to follow me. But, by giving your whole life to me, you will find a deeper relationship with God.”
Indeed, Jesus died on the cross. The disciples all died because of their faith in Jesus. Many more believers passed their faith on to others by telling them what Jesus had done, and that he was raised from death.
During the age of persecutions in the first three centuries, many believers died for their faith. Many believers helped other believers who suffered because of the persecutions. They helped the poor all the time, serving them in Jesus’ name.
Once Christianity became legal, believers found other ways to demonstrate their faith. They formed and joined monasteries; they worshiped openly and built churches; they told their neighbors about Jesus; and they continued to serve the poor in Jesus’ name.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has an average worship attendance of 85. In recent years they have developed programs to help the homeless in many ways. They have had a weekday meal program for several years. Last year they initiated three programs: a court to aid the homeless and near-homeless with free legal help for warrants and fines; a program to educate volunteers on how best to help the needy; and the establishment of a fund to provide prescription co-pays, bus tickets, and so forth. Pastor Jay Schrimpf says, “We are called not just to do charity better, but also to change systems so charity is less necessary.” Members of Bethlehem give their lives to make life better for the people of their community.
Fourteen years ago, first responders rushed into buildings that were under attack by terrorists. As thousands of people rushed to leave the buildings, to escape the fire, fire fighters ran into the buildings. It’s important to remember that while most of the first responders were Christian, some were Jewish and Muslim. They literally gave their lives so others could live. On Flight 93, a few men tried to overpower the terrorists on board, also giving their lives in an attempt to save the lives of all on board.
Last year, Deb Karch volunteered to travel to Sierra Leone to work to stop the Ebola epidemic. She is an epidemiologist, a scientist who studies diseases, to put it simply. She wanted to help change the world, or at least a corner of the world.
But she despaired at the horrors the disease caused. Mothers unable to hold their dying children, due to the danger of contracting it themselves. Deb chose to risk her own life to save the lives of those who were suffering from a horrible disease. Fortunately, she returned home healthy, but forever changed.
In northern New Jersey, there is a high population of Korean and Korean American people. Many of them speak no English. Most of the time, that’s not a problem, but when the children go to school, or they need to see a doctor or talk with police, it can be a challenge.
In response, Zion Lutheran Church started an (ESL) English as a second language class. Following the class, they also have an ESL Bible study, where the participants teach each other about how the stories and people in the Bible impact them.
Welcoming the stranger is a key mission for Zion. Teacher and participant listen and learn from each other. The people of Zion give their lives in service to the people of their community, in Jesus’ name.
So, who do you say that Jesus is? Is he simply the way to heaven? Or is he the one who leads you to serve others in his name? Today, in some parts of the world, it is dangerous to be Christian. The cross is very real in those places. But, for most of us, the only risk is that someone will say they are not interested in what we have to say.
This statement has been attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” When we make quilts, fill shoeboxes, give food and personal care items, we are preaching the gospel without any words at all. Yet, we are giving a part of ourselves to serving those in need, in Jesus’ name.
This week, think about who you say Jesus is. Is following him a ticket to the next world, to heaven where God lives?
Or is following Jesus a ticket to a deeper relationship with God here on earth, where God also lives, through service to those in need?
Please pray with me. God of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, lead us where you would have us go. Teach us that service in your name enriches our lives as well as those with whom we minister. Empower us to give our lives away as we follow you. Amen