A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Then he began to teach them…
Jesus is our teacher. It is from him that we learn the truth. But sometimes it’s hard to recognize the real Jesus in the midst of all the fantasies and images that people put forward about Jesus. People have always tried to understand Jesus by seeing him as in some ways similar to themselves. The most popular image of Jesus is that 19th century painting, where he is in a shining white robe, looking like he’s about six feet tall, fair-skinned, with long light brown or sandy hair. I doubt that you could find a single person born in the eastern Mediterranean region 2,000 years ago that had any of those characteristics. Mostly it reflects the imagination of 19th century American ideals. But this isn’t really what I’m getting at: Jesus teaches us, but we skip over things we should hear, and substitute things that we would rather hear.
Jesus teaches us about the freedom of God, and about our freedom, about abundant life in the Kingdom of God. The teaching of Jesus is not hard to understand, you don’t need to have a college degree, or some special magic glasses. Jesus tells us the Good News, and how we are to live so that it is good news for us, and it is not too high or too hard for any of us. The thing is, the Kingdom of God is in this real world that God created. And this real world was good enough for Jesus and he teaches us and leads us into that Kingdom. And you don’t get there by cheating, by ignoring what Jesus is teaching and making up your own kingdom.
Jesus was walking with his disciples. The sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark just before this, was that Jesus fed the Four Thousand, then there was a controversy with the Pharisees who demanded a sign, and a discussion with the disciples about the danger of the Pharisees and of Herod. Then Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus fed. He taught. He healed. Now he’s walking with his disciples and he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” There’s no trick and no secret here. The disciples knew the buzz about Jesus, and they answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.” These were good people, known for telling the truth, for challenging people and leading them to God. This is what the disciples were hearing from all over; even Herod was afraid that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. And then Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, the most outspoken leader of the group, spoke for them, “You are the Messiah.” For Peter and the rest, Jesus was more than a prophet—he was the anointed one of God, the one who was to lead Israel into the Kingdom of God.
But then … Jesus began to teach them. Jesus told them about the real world, about what would happen to this teacher and prophet. This is how Jesus told the disciples about the Resurrection from the Dead. But they were working on a different story of who the Messiah was, and what Jesus was teaching was not what they were prepared to hear; Peter and the rest had already filled in the blanks with their own story. That story was magical and wishful thinking, not the real world that we live in. Of Course. If you are wishing for things, you don’t wish for suffering and rejection, certainly not for your beloved Teacher. Of course, you wish for God to make things fine and comfortable for everyone. But Jesus wasn’t wishing, he was teaching, and he was teaching about the real world. Peter thought that he had the power to protect Jesus. He did not. He thought that he had enough dedication and commitment to stay with Jesus and never reject him, and he thought that others would also stay with Jesus and not reject him. He was wrong. On both counts.
I have talked about suffering in other sermons. Certainly the question of suffering is here in this lesson, and it is real and important, but I want to talk about another piece of this. Jesus was teaching about being engaged in the real world, in what actually happens. And in fact, he was not talking dismally and hopelessly; he was describing how you get to the resurrection of the dead. Peter wanted to skip the uncomfortable steps and it just got past him that in doing so he was also missing the resurrection. We live in a world where people usually want to skip over the uncomfortable, workaday steps of real-world existence and go right to already having their goal, which is usually power, privilege and wealth, in one way or another. In that selfish skipping over reality, it is other people who get skipped over; it is generosity and caring that are lost. It is abundant life that this world loses in striving to be the top. Jesus brings abundant life, and he teaches it this way: “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Jesus teaches us, would we but listen. Jesus is the Wisdom of God as we hear in this passage from our Old Testament lesson:
Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city she speaks: “… For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”
Jesus calls us to be wise and not fools—to live in this real world, faithfully, without fear, and without the distortions of self-serving folly. We rejoice in the constant love of God. God has given us this real world, filled with abundant life, the opportunity to live in generosity, in the midst of God’s love for his children.