Sermon - 16th September 2012
Who do you say that I am?
Scripture - Mark 8:27-38
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
What wows you? What is it that makes you stop for a moment and go “wow!”?
<Members of the congregation asked to reply.>
As we have just heard from some people here today, there are a number of things which cause us to be amazed: some of these things are personal to us; others are national or global. I am going to show you a short clip from a film. It’s an old film, made back in 1934. Then, very few people had ever flown in an aeroplane, so for cinema audiences, being able to see for the first time what it was like above the clouds was something which caused considerable amazement and awe.
Unfortunately, the wow-factor at the start of this film was merely a propaganda device. The film is, in fact, the opening scene to the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will”.
Recently, following the death of Neil Armstrong, we have revisited the wow-factor of a human-being setting foot on another world, the Moon; however, let us not forget that this endeavour in itself was the outworking of the rival political ideologies of Capitalism and Communism: the USA was determined to beat the Soviet Union in the so-called “Space Race”.
You may be wondering why I am talking about propaganda and political ideologies: surely, this is a sermon? OK, let us take a step back to the time of Jesus, in Roman-occupied Judea. The Jews were an oppressed people with a long history of oppression. Firstly, they were enslaved in Egypt; God through Moses freed them, but even when they had reached the Promised Land, they were beset with constant war from neighbouring nations, eventually defeated and exiled. And not long after the return from exile came the Roman invasion.
The Jews of Jesus’ time were desperate for release from their continual strife: they were looking for a Messiah, a Saviour, who would bring them freedom from the Roman occupation, so that they might live in peace. We know from Roman and Jewish historical records that a number of people had tried to bring about insurrection against the occupying forces, and the question surrounding each of them was: is this the promised Messiah, the Saviour?
Monty Python, in their film “Life of Brian”, parodied the passionate fervour of the Jews in their search for a Messiah, a Saviour. [Clip]
Back now to today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. The first eight chapters of this Gospel introduce Jesus, narrating the miracles He performed and some of His core teaching. The reading we heard today marks a new, second section to the Gospel.
Prepare to be amazed! Prepared to be wowed!
Whether it’s seeing above the clouds for the first time, or being amazed by technological achievements, or any of the things we mentioned together earlier at the start of this sermon, that which I am about to tell you is the most amazing thing ever!
Jesus asks the Disciples: “Who do people say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ!” and in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter’s words are expanded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Wow! This is the most amazing truth! But are we amazed, wowed by these words?
In 2012, in truth, we are unenthused by ideologies… we have seen political ideologies and key leaders such as in Communism, Socialism, Fascism and even Capitalism rise and fall. We are largely unimpressed by the onward march of technology, and we accept it readily, maybe even expect it. Thanks to medical advancements, we are living a lot longer, and our fear of death is far less than say 150 years ago, when infant mortality was high, and plagues and epidemics were common-place. We are sometimes shocked by terrible events in the world and closer to home, but by and large, we live our lives separated from the power of this central message.
In preparing this sermon, I considered who might be hearing it, and I think we would fall largely into two groups: those who identify as being Christian and accept the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; and those who are looking for God, still searching. Either way, I think the message is the same. I know I need to do this: we all need to return to this core message again and again.
<Slide: Elizabeth Wang – Jesus is the Bridge>
We are all here today, because we are seeking God in our lives. God, our Creator, longs for relationship with us, but the way in which generations of humans have chosen to live their lives has separated us from our Creator. In order to restore that relationship, God became human in Jesus.
The Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a military leader, bringing them political freedom. God, however, had a bigger plan. Many of you will have heard today’s passage read on many occasions, but the verse that sticks in my mind is when Jesus says to Peter: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of humankind.”
Jesus, here, is trying to point out to Peter and the other Disciples that they are setting their sights too low, that is “the things of humankind”. Jesus has something much better in mind – “the things of God”: that is, restoring each human’s relationship with God, our Creator.
Restoring your relationship with God – Wow!
Our restored relationship with God means not only sating the spiritual hunger which every person has inside, but it also brings the promise of eternal life.
Can it be that easy? In the picture by Elizabeth Wang on the screen, Jesus becomes the Bridge when His arms are outstretched, as on the Cross. In today’s reading, we hear for the first time in Mark’s Gospel about what must happen to Jesus in order to make possible that which He came to do: to restore our relationship to God. He must be put to death, and He will rise again.
OK, Jesus did that. What do we have to do? How do we have to respond in order to be part of what Jesus did for us
The final part of today’s reading gives us some very radical suggestions as to how we might live. In Verse 35, Jesus words are: “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” These words would have be horrifying to Jesus’ Disciples, as He was saying that they should be prepared to die, nailed to a cross, a punishment reserved for the worst criminals.
For many Christians in our world, they do face the threat of execution, imprisonment or persecution because of their faith. We are fortunate in the UK that this does not happen, but are we proud of our faith, or are we scared of the embarrassed silence or mild discomfort we might experience with our co-workers, friends and family when the subject of religion is raised?
In Verse 38, Jesus words are: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words…” Let us be proud of our conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, just as we might be proud and unashamed of who we are, proud and unashamed of our sexuality or gender identity.
And in Verse 37, Jesus says: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” That almost sounds like a bet. A 17th Century French philosopher called Blaise Pascal came up with an argument which has become known as Pascal’s Wager.
It goes like this: everyone has to bet. You can either bet that there is no God (be an atheist) and live your life accordingly, or you can bet that there is a God and live your life accordingly.
And so, in this game we call life, when we come to die, there are four possible outcomes:
1: If you are an atheist, and it turns out there is no God, you have gained in that you have wasted no time on religion. You have finite gain.
2: If you are an atheist, and it turns out there is a God, you have lost an infinite amount, because Jesus said that unbelievers will be cut off for eternity.
3: If you are a believer, and it turns out there is no God, you have lost a finite amount in the time you have wasted in your life on religion.
4: But, if you believe, and it turns out there is a God, you will gain eternal life.
Pascal argued, therefore, that that best way to live life is to choose the route which leads to the greatest gain, so to be a believer: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
In today’s sermon, we have looked at the most radical, most amazing, most awesome message that we can possibly hear: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As a Christian of many years, your spiritual skin may have become hardened to this amazing message – it has become old news, and you need to experience the message anew; or, as someone who is still seeking God, you may be wanting to know how you might begin your journey of faith.
Jesus said (Matthew 18:3), “I tell you the truth: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Remember that children need a lot of looking after, and younger children need a lot of things doing for them. So let go, and let God do things for you.
To illustrate this final point, I am going to finish with a short extract from a children’s story. It’s from CS Lewis’s fifth Narnia story, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.
<Slide: from BBC Narnia film>
Eustace, the argumentative cousin, has been turned into a dragon. He is like how we can be: his hard dragon skin is like a hardened, cynical heart. This extract tells of how this boy meets the Lion, Aslan, an allegory for Jesus in the Narnia stories.
"I won't tell you how I became a - a dragon till I can tell the others and get it all over," said Eustace.
"Well, last night I was more miserable than ever. And my leg because of that beastly arm-ring was hurting like anything.
"Well, anyway, I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly towards me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. But it wasn't that kind of fear. I wasn't afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it - if you can understand. Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn't any good because it told me to follow it.
“I knew I'd have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And on the top of this mountain there was a garden, and in the middle of it there was a well: but it was a lot bigger than most wells - like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first.
"I was just going to say that I couldn't undress because I hadn't any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that's what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after sunburn, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well to bathe.
"But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that's all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I'll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under-skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well to bathe.
"Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, however many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
"Then the lion said "You will have to let me undress you." I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know - if you've ever picked off a scab. It hurts but it is such fun to see it coming away.
"Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt - and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. Then he caught hold of me - I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on - and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again.”
[Text abridged: Lewis, CS (1952), ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’]