I had the honor of sharing lunch this week with one of our youth who graduated high school this past June and who is enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. In fact, he’ll be getting on the bus for boot camp today, right after worship! I think he knows the congregation is rightfully proud of him, and I wanted to snag a chance to let him know that before he went, and to assure him of our support. As we talked about his goals and his future, he shared with me his excitement about what lies ahead. He seems to be very realistic about his future, and at one point he made a comment that stuck with me. He said that what has drawn him to this particular decision for the time-being is the opportunity to have “discipline redefined.”
For whatever reason, this appeals to him—a chance to reprogram some concepts of self-control, perhaps, or a reorientation of values where honor and service to country are instilled afresh. In any case, I suspect within the next 24 hours discipline will begin to be redefined in all kinds of ways for him.
For all of us—that young man, included—Jesus redefined discipline during the gospel reading just a few minutes ago. Discipleship will go, for example, from being about tasks that gain one fame and popularity to a way of life that involves suffering and humiliation. Life as one of his disciples will go from asserting yourself, gaining more and more attention and higher and higher status, from working your way farther up the ladder, to being about humbling yourself and getting rid of your self-importance. Enlisting with Jesus will go from looking for ways to dominate to looking for ways to serve:
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
It’s difficult to tell sometimes because of the chopped-up way we read the Bible in worship, but we have reached a critical point in Mark’s story about Jesus. Up until this point, Jesus has been gaining more and more followers primarily through the amazing miracles of healing and feeding he has performed. Especially at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus shows his power over the forces of darkness and evil by rebuking demons and physical illnesses. He shows his power over the often chaotic forces of nature by walking on water and feeding thousands of people at one time. He’s a rock star. People demand more. He can’t go anywhere without folks showing up and asking him questions.
But now, suddenly, we find ourselves in that part of the movie where the music has started to change in the background. Suddenly the disciples get the sneaking suspicion that they might have signed up for something a little different than they thought. Before, you see, Jesus was all about rebuking the dark forces and storms. Now he’s rebuking Peter. It’s all a part of Jesus’ plan to redefine exactly what following him entails.
|Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! (James Tissot)|
And in order to do that, of course, he needs to redefine himself and how he will be a Savior. This is why he’s brought them to Caesarea Philippi, a gleaming new city built to glorify Caesar’s empire. It’s almost like he’s taken them away for discipleship boot camp, bringing them out of their comfort zone in the heart of Galilee to this distant outpost of the region. As it happens, there’s a lot of symbolism there that he can use to set himself against.
Caesarea Philippi, you see, was set upon the ruins of another ancient city near a huge rock face that was a temple to Pan, the ancient god of victory in war. The local ruler, Philip II, who was a puppet for the emperor in Rome, had recently made vast improvements to the city, erecting all kinds of statues bearing his likeness and constructing new buildings with his name emblazoned on them. Philip’s image had been placed on a coin that had been minted right about the time Jesus would have been there. The point, therefore, at Caesarea Philippi was that Caesar was lord, the empire was unshakable, and that greatness came if not by military victory, then certainly by asserting yourself and stamping your pompous style and fingerprint on everything around you.
|part of the modern-day site of Caesarea Philippi|
With that as a backdrop, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And when Peter finally answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the people, Jesus quickly sets the record straight about what that will mean: Undergoing great suffering, being rejected by the popular people in power, getting killed, and then, at long last, having his life put back together again. He says all of this quite openly, which is a line in this story that might seem kind of pointless to us but it’s actually a big deal. He’s clearly redefining Messiah-ship, because up until this point whenever Jesus does something big he tries to either do it in secret or he tells people to hush up about it.
And here, so openly, in a city with so many bold and imposing monuments to Caesar and Philipp, Jesus begins to point to the monument his life will end with. “Monument” is probably not even the right word for it, because it is an instrument for execution, and it’s not like he designs it for himself. But in his effort to re-define life for us, he must confront death. In his mission to re-define what it means to be the one who provides God’s victory, he must hand himself over in humility.
So every time we look at this monument of his we will remember that sacrifice of self stands in the middle of our salvation. Every time it is lifted in our midst, we will realize, once again, we must die to ourselves to gain any kind of real life. The core of our Savior’s identity is not in some flashy way he preserves those who love him, but in the way he chooses to suffer, die, and rise even for those who turn his back on him. It is such a powerful re-defining of everything that giving up our life results in finally gaining it—setting aside our pet agendas, our sacred cows, our enlightened opinions is often where we find God’s grace will pick us up and make us new.
In her recent article called, “Why I Go to Church Even When I Don’t Feel Like It,” blogger Trudy Smith shares a brief sketch of her own life story of falling in and out and eventually back in belief in God and her back and forth relationship with the community of Christ’s disciples. At some point in her journey she discovered that church “was not a place to go because everyone had their act together. It was more like a refuge where all sorts of people could gather to remind each other of the story we were all in…It was more like a school for conversation where we were all stumbling through basic lessons on how to love.”
Indeed, Jesus has assembled a school for conversation: “Who do you say that I am?” God gathers a refuge for remembering this core story of the cross that stands at the middle of our faith. And through this school, this refuge, this re-defined Savior re-defines us. At the font, at the table, in our repentance and forgiveness, and God is constantly re-defining us with his grace. God receives our brokenness, our shortcomings, our idolatries of self so that he can hand us himself. And bearing his cross does not always occur in grand, epic occasions for faith-sharing, but more often in the small, quiet daily opportunities to suffer for the cause of righteousness, to lift a gesture of self-denial for the sake of someone else.
There’s a lot of disappointment in and with the community of Christ’s followers these days. But—news flash!—there always has been. Look at Peter on his first step! Jesus is always going to have to work to shove our delusions of perfection into the background. Even on this Rally Day, we know many of our grand new objectives for the year, personally or corporately, won’t exactly pan out like we hope. Nevertheless, my friends, a re-defined Savior will still be here re-defining us with his love. A re-defined, suffering Savior will still be here, reminding us it’s not about us, it’s not ever about us. It’s always about him…the one who goes to the cross.
So, from these Sunday School classrooms…from these discussions in youth group about being disciples in middle and high school…from these relationships forged over handbells, canned food donations and confirmation conversations Jesus will be forming a new type of followers. And to that point, I’d like to add another re-definition of the church to Ms. Smith’s school and refuge. The church is also a boot camp. A boot camp for losers. A bunch of losers who eventually, because of Jesus, gain it all!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.