February 17, 2002
JESUS ASKS OF US: PRIORITIES
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
Like some of you, I have enjoyed watching at least a few moments of the Olympics during the past week. In addition to the competition itself, I always appreciate hearing various stories about the participating athletes. Many of them were, perhaps not surprisingly, inspired earlier in life by watching previous Olympians competePeggy Fleming, Mark Spitz or Bruce Jennerathletes from another generation. Casey FitzRandolph, for example, was fired up watching his fellow Wisconsite Eric Heiden win five speed skating gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Though only four years old at the time, Casey strapped on his skates, marched onto the ice, and took his first stride toward winning the gold in the 500 Meters race just a few days ago.
Todd Eldridge is another inspiring case in point. At just ten years of age, this young boy left homewith his parentsı support and approvaland placed himself under the constant supervision of a master figure skater. Todd had decided that, regardless of the cost, he was going to compete in the Olympics one day. Although Todd never won a gold medalhe has won several national championshipsthe now thirty year-old brought his career to a fitting conclusion this week with a stunning performance in Salt Lake City.
Casey FitzRandolph and Todd Eldridge are both examples of Olympic athletes who, after finding inspiration in the dedication and performances of previous competitors, committed themselves to reaching for the gold. What initially began for each of them as a childıs dream soon became an adultıs passion. I canıt help but wonder, however, how many other people felt similarly inspired, only to lose the dream. Competing before the world in the Olympics looked great at first, but the increasing awareness of what it would actually take to get there soon put a damper on things. Getting up in the wee hours of the morning. Practicing eight, ten, and even twelve hours a day. For many people, Iım sure that the cost of the prize simply was and is too high to pay.
In many ways, the disciples and other members of the crowd here in Mark 8:27-9:1 find themselves facing a similar situation. This episode in which Jesus interacts with his disciples serves a central role in Markıs Gospel as a whole. Itıs as though the Gospel rests upon and revolves around this text. Up until this point, the focus has clearly been on Jesusı ministry in Galilee. From here on out, attention increasingly shifts to Jerusalem and what will transpire there. In the accounts leading up to our present text, Mark has concentrated his efforts on describing who Jesus is. He has recounted what Jesus did and all that he said. Here, he shifts and begins to explore what Jesus must now do. Prior to this encounter between Jesus and his followers, the disciples have largely watched and gone along for the ride. Now, they begin to discover the harsh reality of what is expected of them.
The scene is Caesarea Philippi, situated in northeastern Israel near the modern Lebanese border in the region known today as the Golan Heights. Because of its location in the foothills of Mt. Hermon, the highest peak in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, Caesarea Philippi provides a wonderful setting for both reflecting on the past and anticipating the future. From this vantage point you can gaze out over much of the land, and in so doing contemplate where you have been, what you have done, and where you are going. Jesus, nestled here with his disciples, confronts in a relatively short period of time three crucial questions: (1) Who do his disciples currently think he is?, (2) What will being the Messiah actually require of him?, and (3) What will following him require of others?
Jesus begins the conversation by asking a simple question: ³Who do people say that I am?² After all, he has been moving about among the crowds, teaching and healing. ³How have people responded?² he understandably wants to know. We pastors here at the Grantham Church ask similar questions among ourselves about all of you! ³Are people catching on?²
It doesnıt take long, however, for Jesus to pass over introductory comments and questions and get straight to the point. After hearing the disciplesı responses to his initial questionresponses that reveal some uncertainty among the crowdsJesus presses on. ³Who do you say that I am?² he asks the disciples. ³You have been with me the longest. Youıve spent more time with me than anyone else. Youıve witnessed the vast array of my deeds, and youıve heard all that I have taught. Who do you say that I am? Let me take your pulse, for just a moment.² And apparently without coming up for air, Peter suddenly blurts out, ³You are the Messiah.²
Jesusı response is instructive. He ³sternly ordered² them not to tell anyone. The way people were reacting to himsome said he was John the Baptist, while others concluded that he was either Elijah or one of the other prophetsmost likely led him to be cautious so as not to further confuse things at this point in time. But beyond that, Peterıs rather sudden pronouncement clearly required testing, as the upcoming discussions will verify. What did Peter mean? It is difficult to imagine the preceding events in Markıs Gospel leading anyone to conclude that Jesus was the Messiah given the expectations of the day. Remember, many Jews at that time were longing for God to send someone to literally free them from Roman oppression, someone to come and physically dispose of their enemies. While Jesusı magnificent entry into Jerusalem in chapter 11 might support such an identification, all of the skilled teaching and eye-opening healings of Mark 1-8, as captivating as they might be, probably would not. What did Peter mean? What do the other disciples think? Are they genuinely beginning to understand, or are they still laboring under their preconceived notions and ideas?
Without denying or refuting Peterıs claim³You are the Messiah²Jesus moves on to his second question³What will being the Messiah actually require of him?² Being the Messiahbeing Godıs chosen one to save the worldrequires more than the glamour of feeding the multitudes and healing the sick, he suggests. Being the Messiah involves more than overthrowing earthly governments and setting myself up as a military king. Being the Messiah, Jesus announces to unsuspecting ears, will require that I undergo considerable persecution at the hands of Jerusalemıs religious authorities and will, in fact, cost me my life in just a short time!
Peterıs somewhat parental and even patronizing response to Jesus immediately verifies that Jesusı suspicions were correctPeter does not genuinely understand either Jesus or his mission. In actuality, Peter and Jesus have drastically different perceptions of what it means to be the Messiah. Jesusı view does not fit into Peterıs categories, nor into the categories of the other disciples, for that matter. As a result, Peter ³rebukes² the Lord. He takes him aside and corrects him, as one would a confused child. In so doing, Peter demonstrates a rather common behavior. Peter announces that Jesus is the Messiah, but he reserves for himself the right to define what that means! He is like a student who marches into class and proclaims to the teacher, ³You are the professor, but I will decide what work will be assigned.² It sounds absurd, doesnıt it? Yet Peter and countless others throughout history affirm that ³Jesus is Lord!,² but they do so only as long as they can determine what his being Lord involves. To allow Jesus to define what it means for him to be the Messiah is threatening, disquieting, and alarming.
Jesus, however, will have nothing to do with Peterıs misconceptions. On the contrary, he finds in Peterıs response yet another attempt on Satanıs part to divert him from the way of the cross. Satan tried earlier on his own to sidetrack Jesus when he offered an alternative to the cross back in the wilderness³All these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.²
Now he tries again through the mouth of this loveable but unpredictable disciple. As earlier in the wilderness, however, Jesus sees through it and refuses to yield. Nothing, not even the doubts and criticism of his closest associates, will prevent him from taking the final steps of his earthly journey.
Having solicited the disciplesı response concerning his identity, and having clearly and unashamedly expressed what his being the Messiah will involve in the coming days, Jesus gets unusually personal when he considers the third question³What will following Jesus require of others?² The great teacher that he is, Jesus expects those who wish to follow him to do as he does. He is talking, of course, to potential ³followers.² There are always those who remain content standing on the sidelines. There are curious bystanders in great number. Jesus is not concerned at this point with appeasing people who have such low expectations. He is looking for committed followers. He poses a simple questiondo you want to follow me?
The question might be simple, but the only acceptable response is not: ³Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.² I can only begin to imagine the reactions of the disciples and others in the crowd. The disciples had, after all, chosen earlier to follow Jesus, hadnıt they? They had been traveling with him through the wide range of events and experiences recorded earlier. But up until now, the journey has been relatively exciting and exhilarating. Apart from occasional embarrassing moments like the time in the boat when they realized that they had forgotten to pack their lunches, the disciples have participated in a series of rather thrilling eventsthe lame walking, the blind seeing, demons fleeing, and food multiplying.
For years my father sang in a Gospel Quartet. I remember as a child traveling with dad and the others to some of the concerts. It was always exciting to ride in the bus and drive into the parking lot. Iıd help unload the equipment, and I felt one hundred feet tall as I walked into the building beside my father. After the concert, Iıd stand by the record table and just soak up the evening. I was the son of a Harmenaire, as the quartet was known, and traveling with them from time to time was adventurous and exciting.
So it must have been for Peter and the other disciplesriding the bus with Jesus, assisting with the crowds, selling CDıs and shirts with Jesusı picture on them, and keeping the autograph-seekers orderly. What excitement for ordinary fishermen from Galileewho wouldnıt want to follow Jesus and see the world! Now, suddenly, Jesus seemingly changes the rules. Following me involves more than skating in front of countless millions of observers on international television. Following me involves more than signing autographs, accepting huge contracts for endorsing various products, and being honored in a hometown parade. Following me requires unfathomable sacrificegetting up in the morning even before the sun awakens, laboring for hour upon hour until you get it right, and forfeiting other ambitions and interests. Following me, Jesus says quite forcefully, is not all fun and games. It requires that you deny yourself, take up your cross, and walk behind me.
Note carefully what Jesus says. He does not ask would-be followers to deny themselves something, as helpful as that might be. He isnıt asking, for example, that his followers simply give up smoking, computer games, or sweets. Again, doing so might very well be a good idea, and I would encourage all of you to consider acts of self-denial during this Lenten season as a means of further identifying with our Lordıs suffering. Such acts of self-denial, however, are not in and of themselves what Jesus has in mind. He does not ask potential followers to deny things, but to deny self. If you want to be my disciples, Jesus makes clear, then you must do nothing less than surrender your very livesyour dreams, your passions, your hopes, your struggles, your fears, your all. ³When Jesus calls a man,² writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ³he bids him come and die.²
When my family was living in Kenya ten years ago, Deb and I confronted firsthand a very difficult decision. The AIDS virus, as many of you know, had had devastating effects on countless people in Africa, and the missionary presence actually declined by as much as 50% in certain countries in the early 1990's. Deb, a nurse, wanted very much to volunteer at Mother Theresaıs orphanage in Nairobi, and she particularly wanted to help serve the many AIDS babies. ³What if I get infected?² I remember her asking one evening. ³Do you think I should do this?² After considerable prayer and soul-searching, we decided that serving among those babies was exactly what she should do. There were more important things, it seemed to us at the time, than safe-guarding our own lives.
³If any of you want to become my followers,² Jesus announces, ³then give me your life. Donıt hold anything back.² But here is the strange thing, the thing we so often canıt seem to wrap our minds around. If we give our lives to Jesus, we actually rediscover them. If we lose our lives for Jesus, we find them for the first time. Itıs a funny thing. Forgive me for bringing up my dog, Sniffles, again. Itıs not that I consider him to be a religious authority, nor do I consider him to be one of my spiritual mentors or anything. He did teach me something again the other day, however. I had just finished making some ham and bean soup, and I took the ham bone out of the pot. When the bone had cooled, I called Sniffles and he came running, his wagging tail announcing his uncontrollable enthusiasm. He barked when I asked him to speak, and his 13 _ pound body vibrated on the floor.
But do you know what he did after I gave him the bone? He ran away with it and tried to hide in a corner under the desk. When I walked in his direction, he grew tense and even growled when I got too close. ³Sniffles,² I tried to reason with him, ³I gave you the bone in the first place. You donıt have to worry about hiding it from me. And anyway, more bones will undoubtedly followIıve always taken care of you.² I could not help but sense the foolishness of this dog growling at me, the very person who had just given the bone to him.
Then it struck me. Donıt we often do the very same thing with God? He has given us our very lives. He causes our hearts to beat and our lungs to expand and contract. He has repeatedly demonstrated his care and compassion, and yet, when he steps too close to us, we hide and growl. We protect our lives and cling to our own hopes and dreams, fearing that the very same one who has given us everything will now take it all away and leave us empty-handed. ³Oh,² the Lord must sigh, ³I have so much more for you than a silly old ham bone. Trust me with your life. If you lose your life for my sake, you will find it and so much more. Come, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.²
Years ago, Casey FitzRandolph and Todd Eldridge watched eagerly as Olympic athletes performed in front of their very eyes. They began to imagine what they themselves might become, and they refused to allow the heavy price to stand in their way. They got out of bed when others were still asleep, and they practiced endless hours to reach their goals. Do you think, for even one moment, that Todd regretted his decision as he skated beautifully in front of the crowds in Salt Lake City this past week? Do you think that Casey, tears in his eyes as he stood on the top step and received his gold medal, thought to himself that he had made a terrible mistake? Let me ask you this. Can you imagine the people of God, gathered around the throne in the book of Revelation and singing his praises, thinking for even a split second that they had made the wrong decision when they chose to follow Jesus?