Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Pentecost 09/16/2012

In today’s gospel Jesus poses the big question, “Who do you say that I am?”  It comes at just about the exact midpoint of Mark’s gospel and the speculation is that its placement is not a coincidence.  For Mark and for us it is the big question concerning Jesus and apparently Jesus himself doesn’t settle for formulaic answers.  He starts there with “Who do people say that I am?” which only requires the disciples to report what they’ve been hearing, but then Jesus  makes it personal; “Who do you say that I am?” a question that requires a different level of thinking, a different kind of response.  Peter apparently gets the right answer, saying “You are the Messiah,” but then he is quickly rebuked for not understanding what kind of Messiah Jesus was.  His answer was right, but still, Jesus was looking for more than that.

Like the disciples, we know the right answers regarding who others say that Jesus is.  We’ve learned the answers the church has provided, especially in the creed and the catechism and they’re good answers.  We know who people say Jesus is, but can we go further than that and come up with our own words?  Maybe, maybe not; either way though, whatever our answer is, might we be subject to the same rebuke as Peter for not really understanding what we say?  Might we be subject to rebuke for not backing up our answer with our actions?  Jesus response to Peter can make you wonder if our answer, our words are really the most important thing.  Could it be that Jesus is less interested in what we say about him and more interested in what we do?

You know that the church has cared deeply about what we say, much care was given to the formulation of the doctrines about God and Jesus and the decisions that were made marked the difference between one being considered an orthodox Christian or one being considered a heretic.  But in this lesson today, while Jesus commends Peter for calling him the Messiah, Peter’s correct response seems less important than what he’s going to do with his response, less important than taking up his cross and following. 

What this does is to bring up the old “deeds vs. creeds” discussion; is what we do, our deeds, more important than what we believe, the creeds?   Or another way to get at it is to ask, “If you get some of the fine points of Trinitarian theology wrong, or if you even disagree with some of the accepted teaching about who Jesus is but still live as best you can according to his teachings, where does that leave you?”  At one time it would have made you a heretic; at best it would have left you on the outside looking in, at worst it could have left you burnt at the stake, but was trying to eliminate those who held different beliefs really the best way to handle it, was it the best way to handle differences in theology?  Trying to get rid of everyone you disagree with has never worked real well so I don’t think that’s the answer; then the question is, can you be a follower of Jesus without having all your theological ducks lined up in the order that has been deemed correct?

From this lesson today one could conclude that for Jesus, following his teachings and the way of love and acceptance that he modeled was more important than having the right words about him.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” is what he says.  He doesn’t say, “If any want to become my followers they must first correctly identity me as the Messiah and once the doctrine of the Trinity has been formulated they must accept every point of it without question.”  Jesus doesn’t say that.  The church has settled on correct answers to “Who do you say that I am?” and like I said, they’re good answers, but maybe Jesus will accept different answers as long as we follow.

At first it might seem that all kinds of Lutheran red flags should be popping up right about now what with the Lutheran focus being on God’s grace as opposed to a focus on good works.  I think however, that we are talking about different things.  We’re not talking about modeling the work and life of Jesus to win God’s favor, we’re talking about modeling the work and life of Jesus as part of the process of learning who he is.  For some, the starting point of their following might be that correct confession of who Jesus is; for others though, following might be the starting point that gets you to that confession, the starting point to understanding who Jesus is and what he represents, the starting point to your answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  Maybe you’re not sure about every point of doctrine but still, there’s something compelling about Jesus.  You’re not sure what it is exactly, but you’re going to follow to find out.  

But then the question, “What does that following look like?”  Take up your cross sounds like an invitation to suffering, an invitation that doesn’t sound very enticing, the kind of invitation that you might accidentally forget to respond to.  But I don’t think Jesus invites us to suffer.  Mark’s gospel spends the better part of the first seven chapters with stories of Jesus relieving suffering so it doesn’t seem likely that he’s all of a sudden encouraging suffering now.  What Jesus does throughout his ministry including his death on the cross is to put others before himself.  He never uses his power to serve himself, to satisfy his own needs, he uses it to serve others and I think that service to others is what Jesus’ invitation to follow is all about.

It is an invitation to deny ourselves, to deny our most basic instincts which are mostly me first instincts, and instead to put the needs of others ahead of our own.  It’s not easy because it does run contrary to our insticts, but it’s with that kind of denial that we take up our cross and follow and it can be in that kind of denial that we learn who Jesus is.  Still, it’s not easy and there isn’t really an instruction manual on exactly how to do it.  In the Bible, maybe the closest we come to such a manual is the book of James.

We’ve had readings from James for the past few weeks and we’ve got a few more to go and while Martin Luther wasn’t crazy about James because he doesn’t mention Jesus enough for his taste, James is just full of advice on how to follow, his thesis being that “faith without works is dead.”  So what he does very effectively is to identify behaviors that reflect ways to follow but there are also cautions concerning the ways we don’t follow very well.  Because of that, it’s hard to hide from James because at some point you have to be honest and admit that he’s not just talking about everybody else; each of us gets nailed in some fashion.

Today’s portion of James about taming the tongue is a good example of this.  Now I have to admit that my first inclination with this passage is to make it about others, in particular I want to make it about politicians and political commentators and political action committees as we’re in the midst of yet another nasty election cycle where almost every ad highlights the tongue as a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  I want to say that all of them should read chapter three of James and then pull their truth twisting, slanderous ads from the air, give all that campaign money to the poor, go away and put on sackcloth and ashes and repent for at least thirty days, maybe sixty and then the election would be over.

Yes, I want to say that, but with that little bit of vitriol I kind of just joined them didn’t I, making my own self-righteous, nasty remarks.  That’s the beauty of James; he takes us down a path that will never bring us to know who Jesus is until it kind of hits us upside the head so we see the path that will.  When it comes to speech and taming the tongue the Jesus path is the one our parents taught us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” or as we learn in the UP, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything because you’re probably talking to someone’s relative.”

In James’ view which is Jesus’ view, demeaning others with the same tongue with which we confess faith in Jesus is not following, it’s not how we take up our cross.  It’s self serving at the expense of others which is not his way.  It’s not a starting point that will bring us to know Jesus. 

James is full of good, practical advice on how to follow Jesus, and he definitely echoes a lot of the ethical teaching of Jesus so he is worth paying attention to.  But Jesus was more than a teacher of ethics and that’s why James wasn’t at the top of Martin Luther’s list.  To just model the ethic of Jesus and to identify him as a great teacher isn’t a complete answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus was and he is the Messiah, the Son of God through whom we are forgiven and made acceptable to God.  We can’t do that on our own no matter how hard we try to follow Jesus’ teaching.  Even if we tame the tongue and follow all the other advice that James offers, that’s not what makes us acceptable, that’s not what saves us.  But it can help to bring us to know the one who does make us acceptable and save us; it can help us to know who Jesus is.

This text is about following, about discipleship.  It’s about the journey, a journey that includes paying attention to and acting on Jesus’ teaching but which also includes worship where Jesus is proclaimed and where we share in his very being in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  Jesus is made known to us there as well.  That’s important too as it all kind of works together.  It’s all part of the journey, the object of the journey being to help us answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” 

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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