Toorak Uniting Church

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Following the Messiah

Mark 8: 27 – 38
Rev. Pr Wolfgang Stahlberg
Pentecost 16
13 September 2015

Grace and peace

Who is Jesus? This question has been raised by people throughout the ages, no matter whether they were believers, critics, agnostics, or atheists.

Jesus of Nazareth has changed the face of this earth, he has had an impact on human history like very few other people. In the 21st century, he is still remembered, discussed, followed, and taken as a role model. But do we know who he was? Often we think so, but maybe it is a good idea to meet him again, as if it was for the first time.

Who was this historical figure, the one that was crucified by the Roman domination system around the year 30 CE? What did he do, what did he say, what was his impact during his lifetime? What does the fact that the Romans executed him as one who challenged their well-established system of violent power tell us about this man and his message?

I think that trying to understand as much as possible about the human being Jesus, this peasant preacher, healer and prophet from the first third of the first century keeps us on the ground! It keeps us from turning him into something he was not, which would be identity theft on Jesus.

He was not a divine magician, who could do all kinds of tricks. And he was not a warrior-messiah many people of his time were waiting for, hoping that this figure would beat the Romans and throw them out of the land. Sure, we cannot know exactly who the person Jesus was. What we can know about him is that he was a gentle, powerful preacher and teacher, filled with the Spirit of God. He used parables and memorable one-liners. Jesus was a healer, who could help people out of their loneliness and marginal situation in the community. Jesus was living the justice and peace of the kingdom of God he was preaching. He showed the Way. He was not afraid, and that is why he paid with his life for the integrity of his message!

In our story from Mark's gospel, Peter seems to be the hero: He might have waited for this opportunity for quite some time, and finally he can come up with his great line: You are the Anointed one of God!

I can almost hear the other disciples saying, "Yeah, Peter, tell it, you rock!" But when Jesus shushes them not to tell anyone, I imagine that Peter thinks, "Are you kidding me?" And then it gets even worse for him, when Jesus talks about the consequences of his ministry, that when they get to Jerusalem, his death might not be too far away. Now Peter has had it: In his mind, this should definitely not happen. He only tries to help, and what does he get back from Jesus? "Go away! You are setting your mind not on divine, but on human things. You just don’t get it!"

You see, Peter wants a strong God. He is looking for a descendant of the traditionally mighty king David to come and overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations. But that is not the God that Jesus is in a close relationship with. That is not who Jesus is!

All the expectations that Peter has, Jesus calls "human things." God has different measures: love is strong, vulnerability is important, possessions are vanity, compassion is necessary. That is what Jesus is teaching and calling the 'divine things'! Jesus talks about discipleship, about following his way.

To follow in Jesus' footsteps, taking up the cross, is not an easy walk in the park, it is a journey in the wilderness, where possible consequences and dangers can come up behind every corner. Jesus is fully aware of the risk, but he nevertheless continues his way to Jerusalem, to the power centre, challenging the system. Jesus' program is the 'things of God' that the text mentions. Jesus' program is spiritual as well as political. It is about personal transformation in the spirit of God's love, and it is about political transformation, about God's justice and peace for human society.

In short, the way of Jesus is about the kingdom of God, about what the world would look like if God were the ruler and not the emperor or the president or the prime minister. What does it actually mean to follow Jesus, especially in our times, and living in the rich part of the world? If we take the words of Jesus seriously about taking up the cross, denying ourselves, losing our lives for his sake, what is our life going to look like? Do we make the right choices for our shopping, supporting local producers and fair trade products? Do we vote for the candidates, who stand for justice and peace? Do we protest war and violence wherever we can? Do we have a car that is as much as possible in balance with the fragile environment? Do we try to get all the necessary information about the unwanted truth of climate change and our part in it? Do we give any thoughts to the poor of the world, who are human beings just like us, and how we can help them to full humanity? Do we reflect on all the orphan children of people who died of AIDS? All the fugitives who right now are dying, or do not have a place to live? We are all part of unjust systems.

Following Jesus is transforming us, is changing how we deal with our personal part in systemic violence and inequality. And it is as well about changing the system, building the kingdom of God here and now in this world! Following Jesus is going to complicate our lives!

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis executed for his involvement in a plot against Hitler, wrote: "Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort... it is grace without price, without costs... Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without cross, grace without the incarnate Jesus Christ...

Costly grace is the gospel, which must be sought again and again. It is costly because it calls us to do discipleship; it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it gives them their lives." (The cost of discipleship. pp.43-45)

Aren't we a lot like Peter, assuming that we have figured out Jesus, that we know what is best for him and for us? We want Jesus in small portions, enough to feel good about ourselves, but not enough to change our lives. Living a life that really matters in the name of Jesus does not have room for feeling comfortable and playing it safe. It asks us to walk a road that treats life more like a precious gift to be shared than a commodity to be stored. God cares about holiness in our lives that can bring joy and meaning far deeper than comfort and safety. If we want to have a worthwhile life, we have to look for ways to give it away!

Today, I would like you to go away saying not "What a nice sermon" or something like that, but saying, "I am a follower of Jesus! I will do something!"

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know
And never be the same?

Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer pray'r
In you and you in me
Amen.

© Rev. Pr Wolfgang Stahlberg, 2015


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