a sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
A short time after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a radio producer who had been living in Brooklyn began traveling around the country to learn what was really important to Americans. She interviewed hundreds of people, and asked them the same three questions: What do you live for? What would you die for? What would you kill for?
A short time after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a radio producer who had been living in Brooklyn began traveling around the country to learn what was really important to Americans. She interviewed hundreds of people, and asked them the same three questions: What do you live for? What would you die for? What would you kill for? Most people found it easy to answer the first question. Most of us would agree that we live for love – for our families or closest friends. Or maybe we live for self-fulfillment; to be able to travel and see the world, or to experience something greater than ourselves.
At the same time, most people were uncomfortable with the idea of killing a person for any reason other than protecting themselves or their loved ones. But the most interesting responses were for the second question, “what would you die for?” For most of us, that’s where the rubber meets the road. What do we believe strongly enough to be willing to die for?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples come to Caesaria Phillipi. They had been traveling all over the countryside, healing people, feeding them, and preaching. The crowds had been growing everywhere they went. And Jesus stops and asks his disciples, “who do they say that I am?” The disciples weren’t sure. “Maybe John the Baptist,” they said. “Or Elijah, or one of the Prophets.”
Then Jesus stops, looks them all in the eye, and asks, “But who do YOU say that I am?” In other words, “what do you believe strongly enough to be willing to die for?”
Most of us aren’t used to making very strong statements about what we believe. In fact, most of us aren’t used to talking about our faith at all. After all, there are so many people with so many different ideas out there, surely it’s better to just keep our own ideas to ourselves, right? I have often wondered what I might have said if I were there that day: “Who is he? I know he’s a teacher and healer. And I know that his heart’s in the right place. But this is the big city. Folks here have their own ideas, their own gods, and they might be offended if I go off claiming that he’s God. I don’t want to go out on a limb, do I?” And so just like the others, I probably would have looked down at the ground, shuffled my feet, coughed a little and tried to do my best imitation of a potted plant, hoping he’d call on somebody else.
The problem is, Jesus wasn’t going to let the disciples off the hook so easily. It was “put up or shut up” time. And so he waited, until Peter, of all people, speaks up: You are the Messiah. Peter’s confession is the first time anyone recognizes Jesus for who he is and proclaims it. “You are the Messiah, the Christ. You are the one who will lead us.”
Of course, Peter doesn’t exactly know where Jesus was going to lead them. After all, the messiah was supposed to be a mighty king and warrior, who would lead the Jewish people out from under Roman rule. But Jesus wasn’t talking about kingship. He was talking about taking up one’s cross, and about losing one’s life in order to save it. In other words, Jesus was asking the disciples what they are willing to die for.
Who do you say that I am? What are you willing to die for? These are the questions that frame our calling as disciples, the questions that Jesus asks us to answer. For if we claim to be his disciples, we are called to be followers, not leaders. Disciples are followers of Jesus. We need to deny ourselves, set aside our own self-interest, in order to follow Christ. We need to be willing to be losers for the sake of the Gospel, and that’s not easy for us to do in a society where money, power, and political connections are what determines who gets ahead in life. And that’s not easy. But it is possible.
This past Friday, each of you should have received an email containing our latest copy of our electronic newsletter, “On the Way.” This month’s issue is all about Discipleship and it talks about an adult class we’ll be offering on Sunday nights, called The WAY. The WAY focuses on what Jesus taught and how we live this today. The WAY is a process—a time when we will read scripture, talk about things, pray together, and share how God fits into our lives. The WAY is not about Church dogma; it is not about what you must believe. Instead, it asks the question, “who do you say that Jesus is?”
Who is this class for? I’m going to go out on a limb here and ask you ALL to give prayerful consideration to participating in The WAY in some fashion:
- Former Pilgrims in Christ—We need your experience and your support as teachers and mentors. Please consider this as an opportunity to renew your own discipleship calling by helping others on their journey.
- Baptized members of SSSJ—For those of you who were, like me, baptized many years ago as a small child, please consider this an opportunity to reexamine the vows that were made on your behalf at your baptism. For those of you who were were baptized as an adult, perhaps this is an opportunity for more intentional consideration of your baptismal calling. In either case, my hope is The WAY will lead to a fervent renewal of your baptismal vows.
- For newcomers and those who are simply trying to understand what this is all about—this course will be an excellent time for you to “come and see.” You’ll get to know other members of the congregation while learning what we believe as Episcopalian Christians.
- For those not yet been baptized, my hope is that your journey on The WAY will lead you to consider formalizing your relationship with Christ through the waters of baptism at the Easter Vigil next spring.
My hope is that through The WAY, we will each learn to speak more confidently, about what it means to be a mature disciple of Jesus Christ. That we will be able to recognize who Jesus truly is in our lives. And that we’ll come to learn how our daily lives are shaped by our faith, a faith that is based on giving up ourselves to follow him.
Thanks be to God.