Getting in the way of God (A sermon from Mark 8:27-37)
Sometimes, maybe more times than we ever realize, even with all our good intentions we get in the way of God. It’s interesting how quickly this can happen. At Caesarea Philippi, as they make their way to Jerusalem, Peter makes a revelatory confession, “You are the Messiah.” But no sooner than he makes this confession, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have the faintest idea what it means. After Jesus tells them he is going to be rejected and killed in Jerusalem, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Jesus calls him “Satan” and says, “Get behind me. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Keep in mind that Peter functions in the story as the spokesperson and representative for all the disciples. Peter says what the group is saying. So one minute the disciples make a revelatory declaration, then the next minute they are acting as Satan’s emissaries. And Jesus is still being visited by angels and wrestling with wild beasts just as he did in the desert.
A lot of us are just like these first disciples. We declare that Jesus is the Christ – but we really don’t know what that means. We think we do, just like the disciples. We were taught clearly and absolutely what that means by parents, Sunday School teachers, preachers, and other Christian leaders in our churches. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. These who taught us were not bad people. They had good intentions just like we do. They were teaching us what they were taught. They were passing down to us what was passed down to them.
What did they pass on? They taught us about an exclusive Christ. I preached an exclusive Christ for the first part of my ministry. And in so doing, I controlled Christ, because I controlled who had access to Christ. If someone would have suggested that Christ is too large to be possessed by any one religious tradition exclusively. If someone would have insinuated that I had not gone deep enough into my scriptures and tradition, that maybe Christ is far more inclusive and universal than I knew. Well, if someone had suggested that, with all good intentions, I would have labeled such suggestions heresy and then proceeded to defend, rebuke, correct, and punish as much as I was able anyone who would suggest such a devilish thing. We have people who have left this congregation for that very reason.
When you think about it, it should be no surprise why any of us might want such as exclusive Christ – one confined and limited to our tradition, our religion, our group, our teaching, our denomination or church. We can control an exclusive Christ. We get to say who gets to know this Christ. We get to determine who’s in or out, who gets included and who gets excluded, who gets saved and who gets condemned. We convince ourselves we are defending the truth, but we are really defending our own interests. So you see, sisters and brothers, we are just like these first disciples.
The disciples wanted a Christ who would do their bidding, who would fulfill their wishes and cater to their interest – and they had no greater wish or interest than getting the powerful Romans off their backs. Israel was an enslaved people. The Romans did give the Hebrews some measure of freedom, but it was clear on every hand that the Palestinian Jews were subjects, not citizens, and were made to bend to the oppressive will of Rome.
Scholars tells us that there was some diversity of opinion regarding the kind of person the Messiah would be. But they were generally united on what the Messiah would do, namely, deliver Israel from her enemies. Some thought this deliverance would come by divine intervention; others thought it would come by violent revolution. Either way it would mean the violent overthrow of Rome. And they didn’t think twice about the Messiah using violence to achieve this end. After all, there is plenty of divinely condoned and sanctioned violence all through the Hebrew Bible. A Messiah who taught nonviolence, and preached forgiveness and peace would have been completely unconventional and countercultural – an unthinkable oddity. It was certainly not in their human interest to imagine such a Christ. For such a Christ would serve no useful purpose.
So the disciples wanted an exclusive Messiah who was not only confined to their nation and their people, they wanted a Messiah who would be courageous enough to employ violence to save them from their political, economic, and national bondage to Rome. It seems to me that there’s not a few American Christians who want basically the same thing.
Everyone of us who has an exclusive Christ, to some degree control Christ, because we claim to know who knows the Christ and who doesn’t, and who gets to be part of our exclusive in-the-know group. For the first part of my ministry I preached an exclusive Christ. I thought I knew who was in and out of favor with God. During my first year in Waldorf, Maryland, as a pastor of a Southern Baptist church there, I was asked by a funeral director I had come to know to preach a funeral of a man who had no church connection. The man had lived a tragic, very self-centered life. He had practically no friends. He had alienated just about everyone. He had never been in church or professed any kind of religious faith. Only a handful of people were at the funeral. His sister was present. She had traveled some distance to arrange the funeral. She trusted the funeral director to invite the appropriate minister to conduct the funeral. That was a mistake. Now, I didn’t put the man in hell, okay. But I sure didn’t put him in heaven, and I danced all around. After the service, this woman came up to me and she said, “Could you not give my brother any hope of redemption?” That made me angry and defensive. I don’t remember what I said to her. I am glad I can’t remember. Today, when I reflect on that experience, it pains me. It grieves me that the Christ I preached was so exclusive and small. Because the Christ I know now is so much larger and greater, a Christ who does not give up on anyone, not just in this life, but in the next life too. The Christ I know now never withdraws the invitation to respond to God’s unconditional love and grace.
Belief in an exclusive Christ, a Christ we can control, and the policies and practices that have emerged from belief in an exclusive Christ have been the major fault of Western Christianity from the time Constantine declared Rome a Christian nation in an attempt to unify and solidify the Empire. The Western church has primarily preached an exclusive Christ. So when the church sent out missionaries, the missionaries were not taught to respect the traditions and beliefs of the people they were sent to, let alone learn from them. They were taught to convert them to their faith in an exclusive Christ. So we have a long sad history in missions of imposing our faith, our will, our ways on others. We should have repented of this long ago. But the sad fact is that this is how many denominations and Christian groups still do missions.
A couple of weeks ago I included in your worship bulletin a paragraph from John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God. He was giving a talk in Ottawa, Ontario on some of the main themes of the prologue of John’s Gospel. He particularly focused on the theme of the Light of God enlightening every person coming into the world, which is mentioned in John 1:9. That text seems to teach that the true light of God that became particularly illuminating in the life of Jesus enlightens every person who comes into the world. Or perhaps we should say has the potential to enlighten every person, because the light is within every person. Not everyone is aware of that of course. And not everyone accesses the light. But the light is there.
In attendance that evening was a Canadian Mohawk elder. He had been invited to draw some parallels between his First Nations spirituality and the spirituality of the Celtic world that Dr. Newell was expounding on. At the end of Dr. Newell’s presentation this Mohawk elder stood with tears in his eyes. He said to Dr. Newell and the people present: “As I listened tonight . . . I have been wondering where I would be tonight. I have been wondering where my people would be tonight. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world tonight if the mission that come to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find light in us.” What if? That’s a huge “what if” isn’t it?
Dr. Newell points out that we can’t go back and undo the tragic wrongs that have been done in the name of Christianity to the First Nations people of Canada, and to the Native Americans, and to the other indigenous peoples of the world. We cannot undo the acts of cruelty and violence and arrogance done in the name of Christ, but we can be part of a new beginning. And we can begin by letting go of an exclusive claim on the Christ and realize that the Christ is a greater and larger reality than our particular religious faith or tradition.
It has been in our human interest to limit and confine the Christ. To make the Christ much smaller than the Christ actually is. It has also been in our human interest to make Jesus larger than he actually is. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. We make Christ too small, and Jesus too large.
In the book of Acts Luke gives us the pattern of the earliest Messianic preaching. Acts 2 is the classic example. The message that is attributed to Peter in Acts 2 goes like this: The man, Jesus of Nazareth was called and appointed by God for a special work. He was empowered by the Spirit of God and went about doing wonderful deeds of mercy and healing. This man, appointed by God, we crucified. Not directly, but indirectly. The powers that be crucified Jesus. But the sins of the Jewish leaders and the Roman powers that made sure Jesus was executed on a cross, are the same sins that we have committed and continue to commit. So indirectly we killed Jesus. The sins of humanity killed Jesus. God didn’t kill Jesus. We killed the man, Jesus.
But we did not have the last word. God raised him up. The man, Jesus of Nazareth didn’t raise himself. God raised him up. We killed him. God raised him. And in raising him, God vindicated him. In raising him God vindicated the values he embodied, the message he proclaimed, the good works he did, and the life he lived that led to his death by the powers. Then, says, Peter in Acts 2, God made him, appointed him, declared him Lord and Christ. Then, the risen Christ endowed the disciples with his Spirit and the Spirit empowered them in their work of preaching and healing and doing works of mercy and justice. This is the pattern of the early Christian preaching, which is basically the same pattern of the Christ hymn that Paul references in his letter to the Philippians (2:5-11).
Now, as Paul and later Christians began to reflect on this they began to realize that the divine reality we call Christ is greater than the human reality of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul frequently spoke of our being in Christ and Christ being in us. He said we are the body of Christ. We are not, of course, the body of the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. But we are the body of Christ. Jesus, the human being, the man from Nazareth could only have one body. But the Christ is able to take multiple forms. Paul said, “We are all members of Christ.” He said, “Christ in you is your hope of glory.”
You see, what we have done by directly equating Jesus with the Christ is that on the one hand, we have made the Christ too small, and on the other hand, we have made the historical human person, Jesus of Nazareth so “high and lifted up” his life is unreachable.
As you know Clarence Jordan is one of my heroes. He founded Koinonia Farm in Americus Georgia, an interracial farm community, even before the civil rights movement. He said this (this quote is in your worship bulletin): “Jesus has been so zealously worshiped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illuminated, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. He has become an exquisite celestial being . . . By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”
When we elevate Jesus so high, we effectively rid ourselves of him, says Jordan. He’s too far above us mortals for us to ever be like him. Then, having rendered Jesus’ life unobtainable, we go the next step. We turn the gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and embodied into a gospel of going to heaven when we die. We turn the good news of the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven into a gospel about heaven. We supplant Jesus’ gospel of love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others what you would have them do unto you, with believe the right things and get your ticket stamped for glory. We effectively subvert the very practical gospel of mercy and justice, love and forgiveness, compassion and service into a juridical courtroom proceeding about penalties and punishment. And by doing this, you see, we rid ourselves of having to do the hard work of forgiving those who have offended us, loving our enemies, and setting a table so big that everyone is welcome.
So we keep repeating the sin of the first disciples. We set our minds on human things and not on divine things. We play to human interests by fashioning an exclusive Christ who plays favorites, and a glorified Jesus so high and lifted up he is completely out of our reach.
For the first part of my ministry I had a Jesus who was unobtainable and a Christ that I had carefully stuffed in a box. I was like Paul before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. I had a lot of religious zeal, just like Paul, but it was mostly misguided and unhelpful. But then, somewhere on the journey, the light broke through. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Paul’s encounter. I am nowhere near as radical as Paul. Paul, speaking of his passion to reach his fellow Jews with the good news of Christ, said, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed . . . for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (9:3). I don’t wish myself accursed at all. But I do wish that more Christians would take the human Jesus seriously and let Christ actually be Lord of all.
Gracious God, it’s hard for us to see how human Jesus was and how inclusive Christ it – and yet, it’s quite possible the salvation of the world rides on more Christians coming to this new revelation. Help us, in this place, among friends and loved ones, to embody the unconditional love of the Christ and commit ourselves daily to actually doing and living what Jesus taught. In the name of the Christ I pray. Amen.