SERMON FOR SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2018 (17th Sunday after Pentecost) “Who do you say?”
TEXTS: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Mark 8:27-38
Naming; the identification of a person is an extremely important act and it has been throughout the ages. It is my fervent wish that all parents consider very carefully the names that they give to their children, for names can shape a person’s life. That why the act of naming is a vital part of the sacrament of baptism. That is why the Boninas will name their daughter this morning; name her before me and you and before God Almighty.
(I realize that I have to ask this question in two parts.) How many of you have been around long enough to remember who Johnny Cash is? OK. How many of you remember the old Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue”? If you don’t know the piece, it’s worth your time to pull it up on YouTube or on one of your music sharing services and have a listen. The song is a ballad about a man whose absentee father named him Sue before leaving the family, and about all the challenges that the name posed for him throughout his life. When he became adult he tracked his father down for the sake of vengeance and after a confrontation his father explained that by naming him Sue he knew that the boy would naturally grow up in adversity and be tougher and stronger for it. Well, the man reconciles with his father and the song ends with the line, “And if I ever have a son, I’m gonna name him . . . Bill or George; anything but Sue!”
I never really heard of someone purposefully giving their child a name so that the child would grow up in adversity, but I have to tell you, I have some folks in my extended family that carry some really different names and have had friends through the years with names that were even stranger. The saddest situation that I think I have ever known has to do with a high school classmate of mine. Her last name was challenging enough, although it is a rather common family name back in southern Indiana. It is Christmas. Well you known it; her parents named her Merry. And if that weren’t bad enough, they spelled it “M-E-R-R-Y”!! I remember as a teenager looking at that situation and saying to myself, “What were they thinking?!”
I mentioned to at least a few people here that when both our boys were born we had a name picked out for them. But when I looked at each newborn infant in my wife’s arms something just didn’t feel right and we changed our choice then and there. I remember very distinctly at the birth of our first saying to my wife, “Jenny, he just doesn’t look like a Nathaniel. And Jenny replied, “Well what does he look like then?” I don’t think that I even paused much before answering, “He looks like a Ben. We need to name him Benjamin.” From what I remember, the name Ben was not even on our ‘short list’.
We know God’s Son as Jesus because Joseph and Mary were instructed by an angel of God to name him Jesus, but here in today’s Gospel passage I don’t think that his birth name was what Jesus was looking for when he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus wanted to know how people viewed him in the midst of the pantheon of heaven and earth and as a result of his preaching and teaching and miraculous deeds. And his disciples had probably heard plenty over the weeks and months that they had been with Jesus. People talked, people speculated, people guessed at who this amazing man might be based upon his powerful words; based upon his divine powers.
I have always found it interesting and more than a little weird that the answers that the disciples gave Jesus all had to do with people of the past; that the people believed that Jesus was actually some important religious figure from the past brought back from Sheol and reanimated in that particular moment of history to demonstrate the power of God. Why is it that, in minds of the Jewish people, Jesus had to be someone brought back from the dead? Why could they not simply identify him as new prophet?
When confronted directly, Peter was able to come up with an identity that didn’t involve the past, in fact it was an identity steeped in what most Jews saw as the future. The Messiah was the one who “was to come”, not someone who had already been. Of course Jesus had never even hinted up to that point in his life that he was the Messiah, nor does he really proclaim it after Peter’s confession. And, of course, Peter had the whole concept of what a Messiah was to be all messed up. Peter was seeing the Messiah in the traditional Jewish romantic form; as a conqueror who would reign victorious over the world, elevating Jews to their proper position and vanquishing even the imperial armies of Rome. In other words Peter got the title correct, but not the concept behind it.
If we study the Old Testament prophets carefully, we will find, especially in the book of Isaiah, that the Messiah of God was foretold to come to earth not as a mighty warrior and conqueror, as a King in all his resplendent finery, but rather as a servant, a teacher, a proclaimer of truth. And yes, the Messiah must be one who would suffer.
Sadly, I really don’t think that the world has ever moved much from Peter’s romantic concept even to this day. We look at the gospels and at the entirety of Holy Scripture and think, ‘OK, Jesus came to suffer and to die on the cross, but that was the first time. When Jesus comes back; when Jesus returns; then he’s going to whoop all the evil in the world, then he’s going to establish a new kingdom, a new Jerusalem. We take the last few chapters of the book of Revelation, we cherry pick a few concepts of the Apostle Paul and we blow them up way out of context and we go right back to the conquering Messiah concept because, hey, let’s face it, a big part of the appeal of our coming salvation is the fact that we get to see all those bad people get their comeuppance! We’re really not all that interested in forgiveness and grace (except when it comes to us and those closest to us). We really are a rather vengeful sort when comes to dealing with what we see as the sins of others and what we identify in this world as evil.
And Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan.” a term that Mark hadn’t really used since Jesus was tempted in the wilderness before his ministry began. “Get behind me trickster – deceiver – liar; for you are setting your mind not upon divine things, but upon human things.” That really had to sting when Peter heard it.
I sometimes think that many people in this world believe that we can make the world a good place by simply killing off all the bad people; that we can create good by destroying evil. I don’t find that concept at all in the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What I find instead is that we are called to overwhelm evil with good, that we must counter hatred with love, that we must offer grace and justice and even compassion when confronted with injustice. “If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” “Get behind me.” Jesus says to Peter. “Follow me. You are not here to lead. You are not here to counsel. You are not here to rebuke me. You are here to follow me, and to follow me to the cross.
It is a hard instruction, a difficult teaching, and it is the way of Christ our Savior. It is part of our identity. It is the life that we have been named to in baptism. It is the life that we remember and embrace each time we share bread and wine in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is, quite simply, who we are in relation to who Jesus was and is. So come, let us follow together. Let us follow the one who is the Christ. For in doing so we gain a different level of life; a level of life that will enrich us today in this world and will bring us to new life in God’s kingdom which is forever. Amen.