September 16, 2012

The Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Karin I. Liebster, Associate Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Houston, Texas


Readings (NRSV) ad Psalm (ELW)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.  

The school year is still fresh, homework and paper assignments are done with a decent attitude, instruments are practiced. Company projects may be up and running for the fall quarter, and here at church we enjoy the resuming of programs, study times, music opportunities and fellowship with each other.

It is a good time to pause and look at ourselves in what we do.

Who am I in the places in which I find myself – work, relationship, school, parenthood, retirement, illness, in work or out of work, in this city, in society?
And, to draw the circle still wider, who are we as Christians in this time in this place in the Western hemisphere, as a new stage of discernment of our religion and culture is forcing itself into our lives, in a week when the Islamic Arab world and the Western world have clashed again and continue to do so, in Libya resulting in the tragic death of the American ambassador, three more Americans, and Libyans working for peace and a new society.

In personal life and in the larger context of the world of which we are a part, who are we? The gospel put before us today is deeply about identity.

Jesus asks his disciples what others say who he is. Their answers are sensible, John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is. Peter answers correctly, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the one for whom the people of God have waited so long.

Then Jesus says who he is, that he must suffer, be rejected, killed, and after three days rise. He says this openly.

And then he says who we are, we all, not just the disciples, the few special ones who later will have the strength and the guts and are in the right place to become world famous examples of the Christian faith and even martyrs. No, Jesus calls the crowds in and says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

If anyone here is baptized, you have been marked as someone who has this identity.

The cross of Christ is marked on the forehead of each one baptized here in this nave with the words, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” And if you were baptized in a different rite somewhere else, maybe without the cross-shaped anointing with oil on your forehead, you bear the watermark of the cross on your body, your mind, heart and entire being declaring you a member of the body of Christ. It is an ID sticker which cannot be taken away.

“Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus’ definition of discipleship, of Christian identity is anything but attractive or easy.

Self-denial and cross-bearing have had a long and misleading history in Christian culture mostly because they have been taken out of context, separating what Jesus unites – his ministry of healing, power and authority in the arrival of God’s kingdom and the ministry of suffering and defeat in the cross.

Just a few examples of what self denial is not.
Salvation and healing is not found in self-annihilation, and not in the plain squashing of our desires. But Jesus heals and restores people, thereby helping them to completely redefine who they are in the eyes and in the light of God.

Self-denial does not mean seeking abuse or embracing it for its own sake, as if suffering itself is redemptive or a mark of virtue. Salvation is not in the cross by itself. It is in Christ crushing death and hell underfoot in the resurrection on the third day. The kind of suffering Jesus speaks to in this passage is very specific: persecution resulting from following him. Self-denial and redefinition come with risks when the confession of Christ crucified stands in opposition to abuse or systems of power.

Cross-bearing has often been understood as patience or obedience. But cross bearing means so much more. It means the resignation of one’s reputation and life. Crosses imply rejection; people who were crucified in the Roman empire declared publicly that their society or their leaders had denied them. Those who follow Jesus, bearing with their Christian names and in their baptismal identity Christ rejected, pose threats to the world’s ideologies and idolatries by the way they live their lives.

The baptismal ID sticker “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” then means that we have to resubmit who we are, how we define ourselves, how those around us define us, how other cultures perceive us and we our own, that we resubmit all this to new and ongoing discernment. Because God loves us we have to be open to change and redefining.

It is not easy to sort out from the stores of life’s experiences what can stay and what needs to go.

The disciple Peter had a hard time letting go of his definition of the Messiah, the Christ. He did not in Jesus’ lifetime understand how the healing, the new life, the appointment of new family relations with fellow followers, how all that translates into God suffering on the cross in Jesus Christ and rising from death into the dawn of Easter morning. Peter did not deny himself but during Jesus’ trial he denied having ever known Jesus at all. It was not until after Easter, after Pentecost, that God’s love for the world in Jesus’ dying was opened to him.

Actually, none of Jesus’ followers in Mark are reported to have done this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But Mark is not pointing fingers. He leaves his gospel open ended and invites us to re-enter the discernment process anew. We are already marked with the cross of Christ forever.

The question “Who am I” in the places where I find myself in school, at work, in family; and who we are together as the members, the body of Christ, is fundamentally and lovingly already answered for us in baptism.

It is this economy of precursory love in which I put my hope that we might be able to also accept then the challenge to discern how we can be agents of peace and re-definition of the role of Christian religion in this time when small radical groups easily dominate international relations with religious hatred and fear.

Jesus’ call for self-denial claims our entire life, personal and public – but only to bless us with his life, so that we may join with all who are made in the likeness of God and walk in the land of the living. Amen.