>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, March 8, 2009.  The text for this week’s message is Mark 8:27-39.

Last week, we looked at the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus is baptized, driven into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil and his ministry begins.  In the opening chapter, what Marks says brings up some major questions in the mind of his readers.  Who is this Jesus?  What is he doing here?  As the gospel progresses, we learn more about Jesus.  Mark tells us story after story of healings, teachings, and miracles.  Each one of these stories gives us a little more evidence that answers these questions.  And then we hit Chapter 8.
Mark 8 begins much like most of the rest of the gospel.  Jesus performs a miracle by feeding four thousand with just a few fish and seven loaves of bread.  He teaches the disciples and he heals a blind man.  But then Jesus does something different.  He takes a public opinion poll.  Now, before we get into the question, let’s look into where it was asked.
Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi was a city north of the Sea of Galilee.  It had a long history of pagan worship.  In Old Testament times, the Canaanite god Baal was worshipped in this city.  When the Greeks ruled the area, it became a center of worship for the god Pan.  In Jesus’ time, emperor worship was common throughout the Roman Empire, and Caesarea Philippi was one location where it was prevalent.  So, in the midst of this ancient city of pagan worship, surrounded by everything that the world is throwing at the disciples to keep them away from God, Jesus asks them a very important question.
He says, “Who do people say that I am?”  At any other time, this question wouldn’t have carried the weight that it does here.  It is when the disciples are surrounded by so many distractions that Jesus asks them a question that cuts to the very core of what Mark’s readers have been thinking since the beginning of the gospel.  Who is this Jesus?
There seems to be all sorts of ideas floating around concerning Jesus’ identity.  Some of the people think he is John the Baptist.  Others believe that he is the long-awaited Elijah.  And still others believe he is a prophet.  There is a rather broad spectrum of opinions here.  So, Jesus takes it to the next level.  It becomes more personal.
Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  In the midst of a key pagan worship center, in the middle of all the distractions and false idols that the world has to offer, Jesus wants to know who the disciples think he is.  And Peter speaks up, “You are the Christ.”  Our world isn’t all that much different from the first century.  We live in a time of rampant spirituality.  We live in an age full of idols.  And Jesus still asks us those same questions, “Who do the people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”  It’s important for us to focus on both of these questions.
We need to know what people are saying about Jesus.  There are a lot of different views about who Jesus is.  We talked a couple weeks ago about C.S. Lewis’ quote in Mere Christianity.  The idea that Jesus was just a good, moral teacher is one of the more prominent ideas that you’ll come across in the Pantheon of modern idols.  But, as Lewis says, “Let’s not come up with any patronizing nonsense about him being a great human teacher.  He didn’t leave that open to us.  He didn’t intend to.”  There are a group of “scholars” (if you can even call them that) that have taken it upon themselves to basically understand who Jesus is without all the superstitutous trappings of the first century.
It’s been happening for centuries, but more recently, you see all sorts of ideas running around about who Jesus is, and these ideas in no way connect with what Scripture has to say about Jesus.  There was a movement to “demythologize” Scripture that started with Rudolph Bultmann in the middle of the 20th century.  This movement basically claims that there is no way much of what is described about Jesus could actually be true, so what was it that the authors were really trying to tell us.  It feeds off of the idea that people in the first century were ignorant of the things that we know so well right now because of our scientific advances, so certainly they used this language as a type of code that people in the first century would have been familiar with.  There are all sorts of perceptions of Jesus in our culture.  These are just two of them.  So, when Jesus asks us this question today, “Who do the people say that I am?”  We certainly don’t have a shortage of answers.  But what about when he brings it a little closer to home?
“Who do you say I am?”  That’s the question that Jesus asks us.  And it is a question that we cannot avoid.  We all have to come to the point where we answer this question.  Because the answer to this question determines the direction of our journey.  It’s really at this point where Mark slows down the gospel.  It is here that Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem and where he takes the disciples the next step.  Once Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus begins to focus his teaching on what this means.
What we see in Mark from this point on is a cycle where Jesus speaks of his suffering death and resurrection; there is some failure on the part of the disciples; and Jesus teaches on discipleship.  In verses 31-39, Mark records the first of three cycles that follow this pattern.  Jesus begins in verse 31 by telling the disciples that he will be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and then killed, but he would rise again after three days.  Now remember, this is on the heels of Peter saying, “You are the Christ.”  In fact, it’s practically the next verse.  In saying this, Jesus goes completely against everything that was expected of the Messiah.
In the first century there was a sort of Messiah fever going around.  Messiah is the Hebrew word for Christ.  It was strongly believed that the time was right for the Messiah to come.  However, the task of the Messiah was greatly misunderstood.  It was believed that the Messiah would be this great leader that would break the chains of oppression that the people suffered under the Roman government.  But, as we often find out in our own walk, their view of God’s work was too small.  Indeed the Messiah was the one who would break the chains of oppression, but the oppressor was greatly misunderstood.  It wasn’t the Roman government.  The oppression that would be overcome by the Messiah would be the oppression of sin.
Peter, unaware of the true meaning of his confession just a few verses earlier, pulls Jesus aside to fill him in on what the Messiah was supposed to do.  Jesus’ teaching didn’t line up with the expectations that Peter had, and so Peter had to pull him aside and set the record straight.  Doesn’t this seem a like backwards?  We may laugh at the idea right now, but how often does Jesus teach us something that goes against our expectations?  If you are anything like me, it happens more often than you would like to admit.  Jesus is constantly challenging us.  He takes our world, shakes it up and shows us something new.  And suddenly, we want to pull him aside and say, “Hey, Jesus.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”  But doesn’t that seem a little backwards too?  It’s not much different than what Peter did here.  
And what is Jesus’ response to Peter?  “Get behind me, Satan!”  Ouch.  It seems a little harsh, but where was Peter’s heart on this one?  Peter wanted Jesus to be the political ruler that the Messiah was “supposed” to be.  He is more focused on the here and now, the things that will pass away, than the eternal.  Jesus’ mission was bigger than just setting free one people group from the clutches of a foreign government.  Peter’s vision wasn’t big enough to see that and in saying what he said, he was tempting Jesus to lay aside the bigger mission for something smaller and less meaningful.
We can suffer from the same thing in our lives as well.  We see what is in front of us, and forget about eternity.  We set our minds and hearts on the things of this world, and not on the things of God.  Do you remember seeing those bumper stickers that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins”?  I think it is more appropriate to point out that he who dies with the most toys… still dies.  Our lives are just a speck when it comes to eternity, but the decisions that we make in this limited timeframe have implications that last for eternity.  We can’t be bogged down in the temporary things of this world.  And that is what Peter was doing here.
Not only can we do this as individuals, we can lose track of the bigger vision as a congregation as well.  We can get bogged down in the things that don’t matter as much, and forget that we have a larger mission to make disciples through sharing the gospel and growing in the faith.  There are some legitmate concerns that we need to make sure we don’t neglect, but we don’t need to worry about them so much that we forget our primary purpose.  When a church decides to stop reaching out and growing, it has decided to become irrelevant to the community and it will die.  Thankfully, I haven’t seen signs of that here, but I know that there are churches that have made that decision.  It no longer becomes a question of “if” but “when” that church will dissolve.  That is why it is so important to keep our eyes on the things of God, and be obedient to the calling that he has placed on us.
The third stage of this cycle begins in verse 34, where Jesus begins to teach about discipleship, and he breaks it down into three steps.  First, deny yourself.  Second, take up your cross.  And third, follow Jesus.  That’s it!  That’s all it takes.  All you have to do is deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus and you are a disciple.  Now, of course, in reality, it is a whole lot harder than it seems.
Who wants to deny themselves?  We live in a day and age where almost anything that you want, you can get right away.  Hungry?  There’s fast food nearby.  Don’t want to wait in line at the grocery store?  There’s a self-scanner at many.  Library not open?  You can find an article online.  Need to get somewhere?  Use the GPS, and make sure you’ve got your cell phone on you just in case you need to talk to somebody along the way.  Cell phone isn’t charged?  That’s what the car charger is for!  Just about anything that we want, we can get at the drop of a hat.  Deny yourself?  We barely know what that even means any more.  It means that we don’t put ourselves and our agendas first.  It means sometimes not getting what we want because there is a greater cause that we work towards.
Take up your cross?  When we think of the cross, it’s a good thing.  The cross is what helped redeem humanity.  It is an instrument of salvation.  We wear it on our jewelry.  I have a cross in my wedding band.  We have a giant cross hanging above our altar right now.  That doesn’t seem so bad either.  Of course, what we may forget is that the cross was on jewelry when Jesus said this.  The cross was an instrument of death.  It was intended to utterly humiliate and destroy its victims, and to do so slowly.  When Jesus says this, he’s telling us that it’s not going to be easy.  It’s going to be a long, difficult journey, and in the end, it will claim your life.  However, this is the crazy paradox of faith.  
We have to let go of our lives in order to truly live.  We have to let our old selves die and be raised in Christ.  No longer do we have to be slaves to the sins of our past.  No longer are we trapped in a life of decay.  Jesus comes that we may live, but in order to do that, we have to let a part of us die.  And the truth is, that’s the part of us that will cause us to die for all eternity.  We need to let it go if we truly want to live.  And that’s where the final step takes over.
The final step is to follow Jesus.  Jesus is not one of many paths.  Jesus is the Way.  It will not always be an easy journey.  Like most roads, there are a few bumps along the way.  But when you arrive at the destination, you find out that it was more than worth it.  That is the hope and promise of eternity that we receive when we follow Jesus.  It’s not an easy road, but following Jesus is the only road that we can really go down.  All other roads lead nowhere.  I came across another C.S. Lewis quote this week.  He says, “We all want progress, but if you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”  If you aren’t following Jesus, you are on the wrong road, and no matter how far down that road you go, you aren’t progressing in your faith.  It’s time to turn around and follow Jesus.
While this is not always easy, it is necessary.  Following Jesus can be difficult.  In fact, if it’s too easy for you, then maybe you ought to take another look at the direction you’re heading.  Jesus asks us the same question that he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  We start with that question.  If we can’t answer that one correctly, the next order of business becomes even more difficult.  Because after we know the answer to that question, even if we don’t fully get the implications, he challenges us to let go of everything that we’ve ever known, to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.  Let go of your expectations of Jesus because I can guarantee you that they are too small.  Take this journey one step at a time, but always make sure that it is Jesus who you are following.
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