Mark 8: 27-38 (Proper 19B)
Good morning, and what a great day always. Round Up and Renaissance, Church School and Choir and a fun picnic (we’ll call it that even if it’s indoors!) and today as well sharing with our wider community in the “Britsburgh” festival, with the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge singing at a special Evensong here at 4:30.
But first in our worship this morning, we would recall last week in the gospel reading from Mark Chapter 7 Jesus and his disciples had travelled away from their home territory of the Galilee, perhaps to escape the rising currents of controversy and opposition that had come to a head when religious leaders from Jerusalem had come down to confront and suppress Jesus and his ministry and teaching. So as Mark routes the itinerary they travel first to Lebanon, then back around through what I guess would more or less be modern day Syria, the Decapolis or the region of the Ten Cities, and here for the first time in the gospel we see the ministry of Jesus expanding out beyond the borders and boundaries of Israel and the Jewish people. The exorcism of the demon from the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, the healing of the deaf and dumb man. Something new is happening, somewhere new. The frame expanding.
On their way back home as told in our reading this morning in Mark 8 they come to the outskirts and suburbs of the mostly gentile city of Caesarea Philippi, and this exchange. Jesus begins by asking the disciples about what they see and hear from the people they’ve been talking with. “What are they saying about me? Who do they say that I am?” And the answer seems to be: they think you’re like John the Baptist, back from the dead; they think you’re like a new Elijah, one of the ancient prophets come to life again. These two figures, one contemporary, one of the distant past, both known for their deep and unswerving commitment to the Covenant between Israel and God and for their radical stance over against institutional leaders of Temple and Court, priests and kings who compromise with the surrounding culture and lead the people to a way of life out of contact with God’s Word and in ways of conforming to the false gods of the surrounding nations. We are familiar with the associations of course of Jesus with John the Baptist. Members of the same clan, cousins. Jesus baptized by John. The first disciples of Jesus having been first disciples of John the Baptist and part of his movement of resistance against the Jerusalem establishment and ruling aristocracy descended from Herod the Great. So that’s how people see you, Jesus. That’s the buzz.
And then Jesus turns to them of course in this famous and critical moment, to ask them. You. You who know me the best. You who have been walking with me and listening to me and watching day by day to see what God is doing in me and through me. All these miracles and healings. You. Personally. After all this. What do you say? Who do you say that I am? Clearly a turning point. Before we get back to the Galilee I need to know where you stand.
And what is famously called the Confession of St. Peter. “You are the Christ. The Messiah.” So interesting always to remember that this is Peter, the one who in his tragic and heartbreaking moment of weakness in just a short time is going to turn his back on Jesus in the Courtyard of the High Priest and deny that he even knows him, this Peter is the one who puts what they’re thinking into words and says it clearly for the first time. Bold, perhaps impulsive. Certainly a leap of faith: You are the Christ. Which is to say as well: we’re all in. No Plan B.
Just a couple of weeks ago in our Sunday morning readings when we were in John 6 we heard the same Confession in somewhat different words. After the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the discourses that center on Jesus in his deep self-disclosure: I am the Bread of Life. The crowd is astonished. Even some of his more devoted followers decide this is a time to head for the exit. Jesus turns to the twelve. Jesus says, “are you going to go away, as so many of those who were at first interested in me have done?” And Peter says, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
And in both Mark’s account and in John this Confession of faith leads immediately to the foreshadowing of Holy Week and the Cross. Not for Jesus alone, but for those who put their trust in him. “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Knowing who Jesus is turns out to change everything. All the things in life that were meaningful before are now as nothing. And what was most feared is to be embraced. Recalling the words of the Isaac Watts hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross. “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.” So that in union with Christ even the horrors of death and the grave are transformed, to be the gate of life, the doorway to the fullness of glory in the Father and the holy angels.
Perhaps just the right place for us to be on this Sunday which is in so many ways a kind of New Year’s Day, a new beginning, continuing to use the term we used last Fall as we opened our renovated Parish House: Renaissance. Rebirth. A fresh start.
God gives us his living Word, his perfect expression in his Son Jesus. We remember the reading of the first Chapter of St. John at midnight on Christmas Eve. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And he gives us his Word written, as Holy Spirit inspires the prophets and authors of the Holy Scripture to guide us in our understanding and our faith and our daily lives.
There is something so powerful about the word spoken out loud. The elderly African immigrant raises his right hand to take the oath that will make him a citizen. The young man takes her hand in his and says, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death.
St. Paul says in Romans 10: “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Something so powerful about the word spoken out loud. Peter’s word rings out over the St. Andrew’s Round Up and Renaissance Sunday. For all the world to hear. Sunday School picnic and Choir and all the new energy of the season. Say it or sing it, so long as its true and that we mean it. Robert Lowry’s hymn, back from the middle of the 19th century: “What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Saviour liveth; What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth. No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” The confession of the heart. And here at Caesarea Phillipi and on a September Sunday in Highland Park he asks for a word from us. Answering with our lips and in our lives. A moment of person decision. Who do you say that I am?