Greatness on All Fours

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, February 28, 2021.

Frederick Buechner has said that during Lent one question alone should dominate our thinking, namely, “What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?” Buechner notes that after being baptized, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness pondering the question of what does it mean to be Jesus. Likewise, we who call ourselves “Christians,” which literally means “little Christs,” are invited in Lent to explore what does it mean to be faithful Christian disciples.

Mark’s Gospel answers these two questions by inextricably linking them together. Thus, before we can understand what it means to be a disciple, we must understand what it means for Jesus to be Messiah. Jesus’ answer is just as shocking and challenging today as it was back then. Messianic expectations differed among first-century Jews, but the prevailing notion was that the Messiah would lead Jews to triumphantly overthrow their occupying Roman oppressors.

The first seven chapters of Mark’s Gospel take us on a whirlwind tour of Galilee, where Jesus heals diseased, disabled and troubled people. He tells parables, feeds thousands with a few scraps of food, walks on water and confronts severe critics. But where his ministry was leading was still not clear. What was Jesus’ ultimate focus? It was still not clear as Peter reveals today.

The eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is the hinge on which it hangs. Jesus leads his disciples on a retreat and asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” At first, they fumble for answers. “Some say that you are a great prophet. Others say that you are Elijah or John the Baptist raised from the dead.” Then Jesus singles out Peter and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, who has come to save us.” It’s a brilliant reply.

Underlying Jesus’ dramatic healings, his perplexing parables, his incredible miracles and his shocking inclusion of those traditionally excluded, Peter sees characteristics of the Messiah, but Peter’s conception and Jesus’ conception of what it means to be Messiah are vastly different.

Jesus tells his disciples that he will be rejected, suffer, be killed and after three days rise again. This shocks Peter to the core as he cannot conceive of a Messiah who fails to conquer and win. So, like a good church warden, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for speaking in such negative terms. This isn’t what the script calls for, admonishes Peter. His reaction demonstrates that the disciples and he do not see Jesus’ message as “good news.” Even his prediction of rising from the dead seems like a small consolation for the horrors Jesus suggests lay ahead.

What happens next is really powerful. Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Despite following Jesus for nearly three years, Peter cannot truly comprehend Jesus’ truest identity. He longs for Jesus to be a superhero and lead a revolutionary army, but Jesus stands firm, stating, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Think about that for a moment. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow, not lead. Lose, not win, for in losing your life you will save it. Even I know that this is not a good church growth strategy. No wonder, Peter was so upset. This message won’t sell. It will not fill a church with lots of happy faces.

But Jesus is clear. His disciples must be prepared to struggle with loyalties, reevaluate priorities, confront evil, put faith into action, and even give away some of what they own. Jesus isn’t being harsh, he’s just being honest. By the time that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, Christians were already being persecuted. Many had been arrested, tortured and put to death. Having a family member convert to Christianity was dangerous and could tear a family apart. Christian is still dangerous. The last century produced more Christian martyrs than any other century in history. Jesus was right, following him can be costly and scary.

This is where Martin Luther drew the distinction between the “theology of glory” and the “theology of the cross.” For the theology of glory is built upon our human assumptions as to how God works. God is the champion of good, who always overcomes evil. If you play by the rules, God will bless you. This is the theology of glory.

But the theology of the cross is grounded in the Passion – Jesus’ suffering and death. It defies all that we imagine God should be – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, invincible, and able to overcome all evil. As the confrontation between Peter and Jesus plays out, Jesus points to a different way – the way of humility, sacrifice and service as the path to God. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This is a difficult teaching, but it is the essence of Christian living. For Luther, to know God truly is to know God in Christ, which means to know the God who is rejected, suffered and killed for our sake. The theology of glory, where God conquers every evil and vanquishes all suffering is pure folly. After all, God in Jesus was crucified, and the way things should be is not the way of God, for the way of the cross is not the way things should be. Our spouses should not die early in life. A child should never precede a parent to the grave. Disease should not kill those whom we love. No one should starve or be homeless. But God and suffering co-exist.

Mark’s Gospel rules out a romanticized portrait of Jesus as a great teacher, healer and helper, because Jesus is tortured and dies. When Peter mistakenly assumes that Jesus’ messiahship will lead to kingship and power, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” for he recognizes that Peter’s plan is akin to Satan’s tempting him in the wilderness.

Those who want God on human terms, cannot accept a Messiah who suffers. They need a superpower God, who can cure every illness and make his followers prosperous. But that’s not what Mark reveals. In fact, this large section of Mark’s Gospel is framed by miracles of the blind being restored to sight. The first miracle is the only miracle recorded in the gospels that takes two stages to occur. Jesus opens a blind man’s eyes, but his vision remains unclear. Only after the second laying on of hands does he see clearly. When Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, he sees but his vision is fuzzy. Only after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, does Peter truly see the kind of Messiah that Jesus is.

Christianity is completely countercultural. Jesus invites us to make ourselves small, not big. He encourages us to reject living in narcissistic ways and to shoulder our cross and follow him. His hearers knew what he was describing for in the year 6 A.D., the Romans crucified 2,000 Galilean insurrectionists. Each cross was like a billboard advertising Caesar’s supremacy and threatening anyone who dared to challenge it. Imagine the impact that this made on the young Jesus.

Like I said at the beginning, this message is as difficult to accept today as it was when Jesus first said it. If I were church shopping and visited a church and heard this message, I think that I would keep on looking for a church elsewhere. I would be inclined to seek the Church of Eternal Self-Affirmation or Our Lady of Perpetual Happiness – a church that doesn’t challenge or ask anything of me, but instead lets me be at the center of reality.

But if we’re focused on ourselves or on success and power, we cannot make progress on the Christian journey for the path to God’s kingdom is paved with streets called kindness, patience, humility, generosity, sacrifice, service and redemptory suffering which surprisingly lead to joy. Let me close with a story that illustrates this. Phillips Brooks, the Rector of Trinity Church in Boston, was the greatest preacher of his day. He could easily have been aloof, remote, a sort of hands off leader. But he wasn’t. One day, an elderly Boston Brahmin – a lady inspired by his eloquent preaching came and asked what she could do to care for the poor. She envisioned writing a large check, heading home and feeling very satisfied with what she had done.

To her surprise, Brooks said, “There is a poor widow living ten blocks away. She has no money. She is very lonely. It would be a wonderful thing if you could visit and offer to help her.” The lady was silent. She found Brooks’ suggestion repugnant. So, she quickly departed. But her conscience nagged her, and several weeks later she decided to visit to the widow. As she was led into her tiny apartment, she saw a very unexpected site. There on all fours was the great preacher, Phillip Brooks, scrubbing the widow’s floor. True greatness comes in surprising shapes and forms like greatness on all fours as we offer humble service to others like Jesus. Amen.