The Most Basic Question of All

Psalm 22:23-31
Mark 8:27-38

Sermon:

There’s clearly something wrong with this generation of young people today, isn’t there? Here are some things that millennials are ruining: the napkin industry, golf, movie theaters, vacations, Home Depot, running, the NFL, suits… and so many more things. Those are just a few from one aggregator article I saw online. It’s so easy to find articles about what this generation is ruining, in fact, that you start to wonder… how much truth is there in it?

Of course, it’s not hard to go back to the generation that truly ruined everything: the Baby Boomers. Go read some news articles from the ‘50s and ‘60s about Baby Boomers. You’ll see what I’m talking about. All their newfangled music and dancing and their long hair on men and their lack of respect, and… well, of course, you get the point.

But then, those from a generation before had been told how lazy they were getting – the automobile, after all, was ruining everything. A man can’t even know the value of a hard day’s work if things are automated! I mean, after all, it was really the early part of the 20th century that ruined us all.

Of course, I joke. I find tremendous comfort in Jesus’ rebuke at the end of his speech about “This adulterous and sinful generation.” On the one hand, it’s hard to hear Jesus’ words as meaningless because complaints about “these young people today” have existed for literally thousands of years. On the other hand, I like to think that it’s here because, on some level, you have to respect that Jesus would come up with words that would resonate throughout history, because there will always be some part of us that nods just a little bit when we hear complaints about the “next generation.” Jesus knows that people will always be able to relate to that part because it will always be relevant, and it will always be a little true.

See, Jesus says that he lives in a sinful generation. Well… yeah, he did. That’s because every generation is sinful. We’ve all put ourselves before God; we’ve all had lapses in morality and judgment, we’ve all been selfish or cruel at times. In short, we’ve all done the same things that generations of human beings have done. So of course Jesus is right in his complaints about his own generation; they’re the same as every generation – prone to live in the world they’re given, with all that entails, including preferences for certain sins over other ones.

But look, that’s not the majority of what Jesus says here. Rather, Jesus spends most of his time in this passage actually talking about who he is. First, Jesus asks the disciples the most basic question of all – the one on which all other questions hinge: “Who do you say that I am?”

Now, that should be an easy question for a Christian to answer. We should know who Jesus is, right? But, in some way, being asked that fundamental question can be hard. It can be difficult for some of us to know exactly who Jesus is. Most of us, I think, would like it to be a more academic question, and not a question of our hearts. Frankly, we’re less comfortable speaking our hearts than we are speaking our minds – I mean, how emotional do we get in public, anyway?

That’s why one of my favorite things in the life of the church is a wedding. Weddings are a public celebration of love. Rarely do we see two people stand up in public and say that they love each other. In fact, most of us probably keep all that mushy “love” talk to the privacy of our homes. You might say that you love potatoes in public, but heaven forbid you say it about a person.

And the disciples are no different than we are. In fact, if there’s an overarching thing we notice in reading the Bible, it’s how similar, rather than how different, people are and have been for the last several thousand years. This tendency toward the “head” answer rather than the “heart” answer is exactly what happens here. Jesus asks the personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” And the disciples immediately deflect and start talking about what other people think.

“Well, some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets,” they say to Jesus. They aren’t willing to go far enough to make a personal claim, as they just present Jesus with several opinions of what others say. So Jesus asks again, “But who do you say that I am?”

At this point, the disciples are struck dumb. It’s interesting; in the Gospels, the disciples are often presented as speaking with one voice. Now, I don’t think this means that all of them said stuff in unison all the time; rather, the words of the Bible are just standing in for things that are like what they said. It’s about getting the gist of it. But while the first part of the verse says it was “the disciples” who answered Jesus, when he asks that personal question, there’s only one person brave enough to actually say, “You are the Messiah.”

That’s Peter – and it’s important that we know it’s Peter for context later in the passage. Peter has the courage to say who Jesus is. I always imagined Jesus smiling and nodding at someone finally giving the statement of faith that was needed for Jesus to convey all that was going to happen to the disciples. So I figure he smiled, happy for someone to acknowledge who we was, nodded… and then explained how he would be beaten, tried, and executed.

At this point, Peter, the hero like 30 seconds ago, starts rebuking Jesus. “Rebuke” is not a word we often use, but it means a criticism, a “telling off.” So basically Peter starts telling Jesus that he’s wrong about this whole thing. This “rebuke” might actually be more emotional than intellectual. It could just as easily be Peter saying, “NO, Lord! It can’t be true!” as it could be Peter saying, “Stop it Jesus! Don’t say that stuff.” You can’t really tell from context. But either way, this is where Jesus gives his famous, “Get behind me, Satan!” rebuke of his own to Peter.

Jesus is not saying here that Peter is Satan, or a demon, or even hat he’s possessed. Rather, he’s just telling Peter that his ideas are wrong-headed; that he’s thinking in this world rather than the next.

And we see this in the next thing Jesus says to the disciples. Because instead of just laying in to Peter and yelling at him, Jesus changes tactics here. I’m reminded of what good teachers, or good coaches, or good parents do. Instead of just taking one kid to task in front of the group, they turn it into a learning opportunity for everyone. So, while Jesus gets the rebuke in in private, he then returns to the group and tells them that they need to start thinking of their walk with him differently.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” Jesus tells them.

That’s right – Jesus here is telling people that you’re supposed to lose your life on his behalf. It’s probably not, ultimately, the way that most people would recommend you gain followers. Yet, as Christians, that’s our call. But there are a couple of caveats.

First of all, “lose your life,” is a really loaded phrase. Obviously, we think of that most as meaning, “dying.” However, it doesn’t have to mean that, does it? It could mean giving up your life – again, not as in dying, but as in giving yourself to a greater cause. Jesus is asking us here, not necessarily to die for him, but rather to give up our own right to our lives, and to follow him.

Second of all, he says specifically that we are supposed to “take up our cross and follow him.” that means that we’re called to bear the burdens of life, rather than try to just pawn them off on someone else. It means that we have to be willing to endure difficult consequences in order to follow what Jesus tells us to do. But it also means that the reward for us, in the end, is that we save our own lives. In different times and places, this has meant enduring persecution, it has meant literally dying, and it has meant giving up our time, energy, and resources for the sake of Christ. All of these are valid interpretations and ways to follow the guidance of this passage.

I began my sermon today with what I think is probably the most memorable bit from this little moment in Mark’s Gospel, the part about the awful generation – but the truth is, that’s not the heart of the passage. Instead, the real lessons come from what Jesus teaches the disciples. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the love of God. We shouldn’t be afraid of giving “heart” answers rather than “head” answers to difficult questions. Jesus has to teach his disciples to do that, and he has to teach us to do it, too. Because their sins and ours, their weaknesses and ours, have a lot in common.

So note again that Jesus asks two things of the disciples in this short teaching. The first: “Who do you say that I am?” And the second is like it: “Take up your cross and follow me.” We have to ask ourselves the same first question. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Depending on how you answer that question, it’s necessary to ask the follow-up – are you willing to take up your cross and follow him, even when it’s not popular, even when it’s hard, even when those around you think you’re wrong, even when the pressure you get from others tells you not to? If you, like Peter, believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords… well, then you must be willing to lose your life for his sake.

So where does that leave us? On the one hand, church has a hard message to sell, if this is the point, isn’t it? “Come to church so you can lose your life!” That’s not really going to attract too many people. On the other hand, you know what church offers that other people don’t? Meaning. We’re not losing our lives to addiction or to something that fades in the morning; we’re not giving our time or our energy to the next election cycle or to the popular trend of the day or to the place that gives us the most return on investment. Instead, we’re giving our time, our energy, our resources, and our love to God almighty, who cares for us, who loves us, and who sent us Jesus to show us the way. We give ourselves up for the one who looked death square in the eye and said, “Do your worst.” And then, he won!

Brothers and sisters, Lent is a time in which we contemplate and work our way to the cross. Usually, that’s a metaphor about how we follow Jesus’ journey to Good Friday. But today, I suggest to you that it’s more than metaphor – it’s about your own life, too. We must be willing to do what Jesus did, and take up a cross of our own. We know the answer to the fundamental question, the most basic question, “Who do you say that I am?” We, like Peter, know Jesus to be the Messiah, the Lord. And knowing that, we get ready to bear our own crosses in the march up the hill. But brothers and sisters, do not despair that the journey is hard and that the pain is great; we know that we live for something more. And we know, too, something that God promises us on Easter Sunday morning, just a few short weeks from now: in the end, it is not the wealthy nor wise who win; it is not the prudent nor the adventurous; it is not the attractive nor the popular who win. Rather, it is God who wins, who conquers all, and who asks us to follow Christ, even to the cross. Amen.