Hi everyone! I hope those of you who are getting hit with this storm in the northeast are safe, dry and warm! We did gather for worship at RCC this morning – it was a small crowd, but where two or more are gathered, right?
Here is my sermon! Enjoy …
Rehoboth Congregational Church
January 20, 2019
Our Midterm Exam
I have this reoccurring nightmare where I am back in school and I have to take a final in a class that I forgot to attend all semester and therefore did no work for. I am not sure what this says about me (other than the fact that I am disorganized and forgetful sometimes), but every time I have this dream, I am overwhelmed with this feeling of intense angst, because I know I will never be able to get caught up on all the work and I am about to take a test that I am not at all prepared for.
The disciples might not have realized it at the time, but in this morning’s scripture reading, they were about a take a test that they were not necessarily prepared for, either. If they were taking a course in Christology – the theology of Christ – this would have been their midterm; an exam part-way through their class, testing them to see what they had learned up until this point about who Jesus is, why he is here and what it means to follow him.
We have reached the halfway point in the Gospel of Mark. Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has taken place in small boats and in cities and villages along the Sea of Galilee. Now their journey is about to point towards Jerusalem. Things are starting to get more serious; this is not just about Jesus’ life, but about his death and resurrection. For the disciples to truly follow Jesus, it was going to require more of them than just words or actions; it was going to require their whole lives, in the most humble and devoted way.
This exchange between Jesus and the disciples is one of the more fascinating exchanges in the Gospel partially because while we are starting to understand the messianic nature of Jesus (as opposed to Jesus as a teacher or a healer), but also because we do not know what, exactly, this means and who is supposed to know.
Jesus wants to know who people think that he is and also who the disciples think that he is. Peter answers and tells Jesus that he is the Messiah; but instead of affirming Peter’s response, Jesus sternly orders Peter and the other disciples not to tell anyone.
Now, if you remember, this is not the first time Jesus tried to downplay the messianic nature of who he was. At the very beginning of the gospel, in chapter 1, after Jesus cleansed a leper, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone what had happened. There was a mystery to what Jesus was doing, one that – for whatever reason – Jesus was not quite ready to share with everybody.
But then Jesus goes on to teach (of course) and he tells the disciples what is going to happen next; he says that the Son of Man was going to have to undergo great suffering and be rejected, killed and then – three days later – come back to life. Peter, despite telling Jesus earlier that he believed Jesus was the Messiah, rebuked Jesus; in other words, he disapproved and was critical of what Jesus was saying.
But then Peter gets in trouble with Jesus; Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
You kind of have to feel bad for Peter in this scenario; there was always that one kid in school that always thought they knew the right answer, but they just kind of missed the point and I feel like that was Peter in this scenario. He understood that there was more to Jesus than just the man in front of them and the ministry they were taking part in, but he did not actually know what that meant.
And that’s okay, right? Because it is only the midterm! He still has time to get ready for the final exam. But things are about to get real; and Jesus has some teaching to do.
Jesus decides to take a little bit of a different approach. Instead of just speaking to the disciples, he calls a crowd to gather around him and then begins to speak to them. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I said earlier that the exchange between Jesus and Peter was fascinating to me, because we are not quite sure what this messianic nature of Jesus means and, in this moment – when Jesus gathers the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” – we get another piece of the messianic puzzle.
First of all, I think it is really important to note here that Jesus calls a crowd; he is not just talking to the disciples anymore. And he says, “If any want to become my followers” – meaning this invitation is open to all. Christianity is not for the chosen ones; it is for allwho seek the grace and redemption that Christ has to offer. You do not have to be chosen; you have tochoose to follow.
Second of all, the stakes are higher. Up until this point, Jesus and his disciples had been traveling and he had been teachingthem, but now he is asking people to do morethan learn; he is asking them to follow. It is no longer simply about speaking or thinking or doing, it is about following; it is about making a conscious decision to deny yourself and take up the cross and follow Jesus.
And that is what we are being asked to do, today. It is not just about professing a belief in Christianity or even about speaking or acting a certain way; it is about following Jesus. Jesus says we are supposed to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him and this notion of following surpasses any human understanding we might have of it.
Let’s talk about context; the Gospel of Mark was written during some of the worst persecution the church has ever experienced. So when the Gospel writer recounted this story, he understood on a real level what it meant to take up his cross and follow Jesus. He knew it was not going to be easy; he knew that he would be questioned, threatened, mocked – that, at times, his life would be in danger.
The magnitude of what Jesus was and is asking people to do was not something they could comprehend at the time; truth be told, it is not something we can even comprehend today.
But we do have to remember that there is an intentionality to following Jesus that we need to take seriously. And yes, it is different today than when Jesus first spoke those words and even when the Gospel writer wrote these words. The church is not being persecuted, per say, and we have the freedom to practice our faith openly. But I would argue that the stakes are just as high.
The Church is in a very vulnerable place right now; not our church, specifically, but the Church universal, the institutionalized Body of Christ. People are questioning its relevance and its importance in their lives. New England, alone, has an astonishingly low percentage of people who attend church – I saw a statistic once that said only 10% of people in New England attend church.
It is up to us to change that statistic. We have to do our part to follow Jesus, to spread the Gospel and proclaim its relevance.
What does it mean to follow Jesus today? It means believing in the hope of grace and resurrection, even when you are walking through some of the darkest moments of your life; believing in the power of God’s healing love, even when you are grieving and in pain. It means not passively coming to church, but actively soaking up opportunities to learn, serve and grow in your faith. It means reading and praying and listening and talking and breaking bread and serving and learning and cultivating. It means not being ashamed to claim your identity as a Christian, but to tell others that you attend church, to boldly and unapologetically talk about how your life has been changed by the church and to invite someone who might be searching for something attend worship sometime.
And remember this is something that we can alldo. You don’t have to pass this one off to me, because I am the pastor or even to one of the Deacons; we can allfollow Jesus. Jesus was not just talking to the disciples, he gathered a crowd to hear this lesson and because of this we know that this kind of discipleship is accessible to allof us.
I don’t want to scare you into thinking that you showed up to church today and now have to take a test that you are unprepared for, but, friends, this is our midterm. The stakes are just as high. The messianic nature of Jesus is no longer a secret. It is time to tell the world who Jesus is and what the Church is capable of doing.
We need to take the call to follow Jesus seriously – for the sake of our own faith and for the sake of others, so that they, too, might have the opportunity to know and follow Jesus. We cannot be passive observers as God works in this world, but active participants in the work that needs to be done to transform our brokenness and make us whole again. We have to be willing to take up our cross; to let go of a piece of who we are so that we can fully be who God is calling us to be and not only reach our capacity as Christians, but extend beyond it.
The time to follow Jesus is now. The test is about to begin.
Thanks be to God!