Discipleship 101

Mark 8:27-38    (Micah 6:6-8)      September 12, 2021

There are times when a plan or a decision must be made and we find we have a different opinion than that of a person we love.  Often each one of us is pretty sure that our way of doing it is better, faster, healthier, or easier.  Because of the close relationship, we are comfortable offering our own perspectives and expertise, and we tend to feel freer to disagree with someone we love.  We are more likely to be polite or acquiescing with a person we are not as close to, keeping our perspective and our expertise to ourselves. 

By the time we get to the midpoint of the gospel of Mark, the disciples and Jesus have been together for enough time to develop a close relationship.  That does not mean they were always on the same page regarding the content of the teaching and the recipients of the gift of healing or the overall direction of the ministry.  There were plenty of times that Jesus’ words or actions caught the disciples by surprise.  In the gospel of Mark there is a commonly held understanding that the disciples are in the dark about who Jesus really is.  It has been identified as the messianic secret—something that Jesus knows, and they do not grasp.  It also happens to be something that readers of this gospel know since we already know the end of the story.  Throughout the gospel, the disciples make certain assumptions about Jesus being king-like or governor-like.  That is their vision of where all of this is heading— they are looking for Jesus to take over and run things “the right way”.  The interchange on the road which we read this morning reveals some strong feelings on the parts of Jesus and the disciples, feelings which do not appear to be held back or minimized in any way.

Jesus starts off basically interrogating his disciples.  They had shared many miles and meals together.  They had already heard enough commentary and questions about Jesus and his ministry from people in the community. People are getting the picture that he is more than a teacher and a preacher.  He is more than a man with gifts of healing.  Jesus wants his closest friends, the disciples, to begin to formulate in their minds who he is so that they will understand the events which will unfold going forward. 

It is like a test: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples pipe up with a list of people from the distant past like Elijah or one of the prophets, or maybe John the Baptist, who had only recently been killed by Herod.  The word on the street was that any of them might return some day to show the oppressive Roman regime the amazing power of God.

            Jesus continues his interrogation, pressing the disciples to go beyond gathering ideas from others, and to think for themselves: “Who do YOU say that I am?”  You who know me better, you who have the insider view of my ministry, who do you think I truly am?

Peter seems to speak for the group because Jesus’ answer to him is to all of them.  Peter says, “You are the Messiah (or the Christ).”  Messiah is the Hebrew word; Christ is the Greek word.  Both mean God’s Anointed One.  Now, Peter and the rest had a vague idea of what a Messiah would be.  They were waiting for God to send someone who would operate like an emperor with great power, someone who rules with domination, someone we might call a heavy. Peter is right, Jesus is the Messiah of God, but the problem is that Peter’s picture of the Messiah and Jesus’ picture of the Messiah do not match up.

When Jesus hears this suggestion, that he is the Messiah, he sternly commands silence.  He is not kidding around.  He is not suggesting that the disciples be tightlipped.  He gives an order.  The same word is twice translated later in this interchange as rebuke—first Peter rebukes Jesus and then Jesus rebukes Peter.  This is more than a casual conversation.  The clash of definitions for Messiah is deafening.

At this point, Jesus does not want news about this title to travel—maybe he is trying to avoid it because it is so freighted with meaning that misleads.  Maybe he knows how confused people will get if the title Christ gets tossed around.  Maybe he is simply not ready for public distribution of his identity.  He firmly says to the disciples, put a lid on it!  Then Jesus ignores their stunned silence and begins to explain who he really is.  He identifies himself as the Son of Man, a term found in the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Daniel.  This is the only title Jesus uses for himself.  He often uses the title in this gospel when the conversation has shifted to his impending death and resurrection.  He clearly sees the Son of Man as the one who saves, not with military might, but by suffering, being rejected, dying, and rising again.  Whoa!  That is totally not what the disciples (or any other Jews) had in mind.  What kind of a savior is that?  Peter pulls Jesus aside and tells him he must have it wrong.  That can not be!  Suffering and dying is no way to save your people. Being rejected is no way to be a Messiah.  This is counterintuitive, unheard of, way off base.  Apparently the disciples can not get past the shock of suffering and dying to even allow the words “rise again” to sink in.

Jesus comes right back—rebuking Peter in front of the rest of the disciples, making himself very clear.  I know who I am.  You have it wrong.  If you refuse to come to an understanding that the messiah is different than what you thought, you will not be able to follow me.  You will be too focused on things of this world, too distracted, and you will miss what I am trying to do here. 

Jesus then addresses the crowd—maybe they had been observers to this interchange on the road. This is my paraphrase: ‘Do you want to be my followers?  You must understand the cost.  You must understand that my dying and rising are essential to who I am, essential to my purpose for being here.  If you are going to follow me, you must set aside selfish desires and pick up your cross. Don’t let your image of who you think I am get in the way of who I really am.  If you focus only on your own life’s comforts, you will lose it.  If you give up your life for the ministry of the Christ, you do run the risk of others disagreeing with you, but you will save your life.’   

 You see, Jesus has angered and offended the powers that be with his boundary-breaking preaching and teaching.  We know that it ends up getting him killed.  He does not seem to be asking any follower to be a martyr, but he is clear that anyone who wants to follow him must be known for the same kinds of boundary breaking words and actions , risking the ire of the powerful.

I will never forget my experience in New Jersey when I volunteered at the elementary school that our boys attended.  I worked with a class of 3rd graders in a special Camp Fire Girls and Boys program designed to help them identify a problem in their neighborhood, brainstorm ways to attack it, and then take action.  Third graders.  They identified the problem of people being shot.  I know it was nothing like the rates of homicides we experience in Baltimore, but it was clearly often enough for the children to name the guns as the problem.  The class decided to write letters to a store that sold guns and ask them to stop selling them because of the damage they were doing to their community.  Sounded logical to me. Third graders.  We bundled up the letters and mailed them to a nearby gun store.  Ay, yi, yi! What a backlash from the gun store owner!  The news stations and newspaper reporters were called, the store owner rebuked the children and their letters, the project, and the school itself.   The principal and other administrators had to work hard to diffuse the explosive situation we had set a match to with letters from third graders who had their finger on a problem in their community.  Was it worth making the gun store owner angry?  I think so.  I think it was a way for us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, Son of Man and Messiah. 

Forget about the baggage you carry.  Take up your cross.  That means, don’t be afraid to say what must be said.  Don’t be afraid to do what must be done. Discipleship involves risk. Discipleship just might step on someone else’s toes.

I like the way my colleague Jack Carlson phrases Jesus’ instruction on discipleship in his poetic rendering of the gospel of Mark.  Carlson writes: “If you would follow, do not cling to life; be ready at any moment to let it go.  For if you wish to truly live you must disown your claim upon the things of this world and renounce their claim on you.”

Disown our claim upon things of this world.  It could be things we have accumulated or stored up for an emergency, things we have created or accomplished, things we are proud of, things that show off our power or strength or wisdom or even our kindness.  The more we claim ownership of things, the less credit is given to God.  Following the Christ involves giving more credit to God and letting go of our claim on things of this world.  By the same token, the things of this world hold claim on us.  That happens whenever we get so bogged down, so distraught, so anxious over situations, decisions, or plans that focus on the tangible or temporal only. Or when we allow material things or our own definition of success to take over, the things of this world have claim on us, demanding our time and attention, therefore pulling our time and attention from God.  To be a disciple of the Christ, means disowning our claim on the things of this world and renouncing their claim on us. 

Discipleship is an ongoing commitment.  It is never a one and done kind of thing.  A disciple is at her root a learner, one who watches and listens, one who reads and reflects on the actions and words of Jesus the Messiah.  A disciple of the Messiah emulates the attitudes and the outlook, the brazenness and the gentleness, and the boundary breaking speaking and acting of the Messiah himself.  This learning, this discipleship, is a life-long process.  We wander through our lives, sometimes looking more like Jesus and sometimes looking less like him.  The Old Testament prophet Micah hit the nail on the head:  let us do what the Lord requires—do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. That is what being a disciple of the Christ is all about. Amen.

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