Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 12, 2021
Many years ago, I was attending a presbytery meeting in Minneapolis. One of the items on the agenda involved an invitation to the presbytery to attend an interfaith event. The Dalai Lama was coming to town and he would be there. I am not a Buddhist, but I understand the attraction. His belief system is basically about love and he says things such as, “If there is love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue.”
A minister stood up to question whether or not the presbytery should sponsor an interfaith event with the Dalai Lama. He said, “I don’t think we should encourage this kind of partnership with non-believers.”
It seemed odd to label a person who devotes his life to peace and justice would be labelled a ‘non-believer.’ A non-believer perhaps in the sense of not holding to particular doctrines or dogmas. But do we judge actions of love and kindness from the source of their belief system, or are love and kindness universal regardless of the source?
I’ve been asked at times what I believe or how I justify my beliefs according to Scripture. Believing for me is not about what or how, but who – my belief is not about a religious code or doctrine, but about who – Jesus. And so I ask myself what does it mean to know Jesus and to follow him?
One write, Marcus Borg described knowing Jesus this way – “Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to Jesus is the movement from second-hand religion to first-hand religion, from having heard about Jesus, to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ. For ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure from the past, but a figure of the present. Meeting that Jesus, the living Jesus who comes to us even now, will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time.”
Who is Jesus? Even Jesus wanted to know the answer to that question. He asked his followers, “Who do people say that I am?”
Who did they expect him to be, who did they want him to be, and who did they need him to be? They gave him varying answers.
Some people say you are John the Baptist.
Some people say you are Elijah.
Some people say you are one of the prophets.
People get you confused with that other guy. Even though he was killed in prison, people don’t keep track. Jesus, John the Baptist, what’s the difference? Both of you are rabble rousers. Neither of you has made much of an impact on polite society.
Although there are those who like it when you manage to knock the Pharisees off their pedestals. They like it when a guy cut from common cloth seems to know more than the know-it-alls.
Some people are hoping that you’ll turn out to be another Elijah. Someone who tells the truth, who orders down fire from heaven and who can make the king shake in his boots. You do always seem to be odds with the powers that be.
Or maybe you’re just another prophet. A few good words here and there. Rattling a few cages, turning over a few money changing tables. Bringing people to their spiritual senses for a while before things settle back to normal. Some folks are willing to give you that.
Those answers were all well and good, but more important were what his own followers thought.
“What about you,” he asked, “who do you say I am?”
“Why that’s clear enough,” answered Peter. “You are the Messiah.”
Those were dangerous words, “the Messiah.” If Jesus were the Messiah that came with certain expectations. It entailed a vision that saw him gaining power and eventually taking over. At the least he could establish a Jesus movement that would infuse Judaism with new life and vigor. At most, once they built their kingdom, God would act to throw off the oppressors.
He told his followers what would happen. He told them he would suffer, he would be rejected, and he would be killed. After three days he would rise again. They didn’t want to hear it. That’s not how things were supposed to turn out. Suffering, rejection and death were not part of the disciple’s mission statement.
Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him, set him straight; talk some sense into him. Peter was an anxious person and that’s something that anxious people tend to do. Once he heard the voice of reason, Jesus would see the light.
“Get behind me, Satan!” said Jesus. Now that was a rebuke. But when did Peter become “Satan?” In essence Jesus was saying –
“You’re looking at this from the wrong angle. You see it in human terms when what you need to do is to try and see from God’s perspective.” Part the challenge of following Jesus is to tell the difference between divine things and human things, and knowing the difference, making the right choices.
What are the human terms that Jesus referred to? In one sense it could be that social and religious movements exist in order to grow. Growth requires a certain momentum. Followers are enlisted, norms are established, requirements for membership are defined, expectations are laid out, and in time an institutional framework begins to take shape.
After time, the movement has its own history and traditions begin to form. Along with that process comes a sense of power. Power has to be maintained and exercised. Oftentimes power is abused.
Jesus identified such conventional wisdom as Satan. Tempting, but not the way to go. You need to set your mind on divine things, he was saying. Simply stated, self-denial and the cross. Another way of saying it is hardship and death. He talked then about trying to save your life and in the process losing it. He talked of gaining everything the world has to offer and losing your soul in the process.
This notion that we have to pick up our cross in order to follow Jesus is not a new idea. It’s been with the church since the beginning. But of any of the conditions Jesus put forth for discipleship, this one of embracing death is most offensive to our sensibilities.
Jesus never played it safe. He could have avoided dying on a cross. He could have, if he chose to, lived and died in a different way. In order to do that he could have played it safe. He could have said less about things such as justice. He could have stayed more within safe social boundaries. He could have taken fewer chances. He could have been less offensive. In accepting the manner of his death, Jesus defined the nature of his life. He knew that the end result of his life as he chose to live it would be the cross. Had he played it safe, things would have turned out differently.
We find it offensive mostly because we are human.
Why? Wasn’t there some other way? He asked them, “What can you give in return for your life?” If you start to think of what your life is worth, not in net worth, but the deep, underlying intrinsic value of the soul of you, then you begin to get a view of your reason for living. The meaning of life; the divine thing. Once that sense of the divine enters your soul consciousness, there’s no turning back from it, even if up ahead somewhere a cross is waiting.
There is a lot at stake for us. I’ll admit it. I like comfort and safety as much as anyone. Jesus did not come to make the world a safe place. He came to reveal to us something about the nature of life as God intends, and in the process save us from our human failings. He travelled in the way of love, goodness, kindness and justice. Because change is inherent in these concepts, his way will always be a threat to conventional wisdom and the status quo. His way will never be risk free.
And the way to deal with threats is to eliminate them. Eliminate them either by absorbing them into the system, thus removing their effective power, or by outright destruction. The former is the “Satan” in Peter which Jesus rebuked. The latter is the cross.
Like Peter, I wrestle with the concept of the suffering servant. I wouldn’t mind if my Jesus were strong and powerful. But I also wrestle with what I would stand to lose. My soul? Is it worth my soul? Am I deep down ashamed of that suffering servant?
Play it safe, says the one voice. Play it safe, don’t risk, don’t alienate, be nice, and be sensible.
But the other voice says, be merciful, forgive, love, do justice, make peace, be kind, tell the truth. Jesus, set me on your path. Help me to see through your eyes the divine pathways. Help me to see myself and others through the eyes of the One who sees people not for how they might be rejected, but for how they may be redeemed. Amen.