I preached this sermon at Faith United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, FL on September 13, 2009.
Is there a more poignant question than that posed by Jesus to Peter in today's Gospel reading? "Who do you say that I am?" This probably came as a bit of a shock to Peter, who, like most of us, probably bristled at being put on the spot. The conversation began harmlessly, "Who do people say that I am?" Easy - just repeat what you've heard - the latest word on the street. No personal investment is necessary to answer this question. You and I could answer it as well without giving away anything personal about ourselves.
The challenge to this story is that Jesus didn't really care who "people" said that he was. He cared about what Peter thought. He cares about what you and I think. Peter, who do you say that I am? Greg, who do you say that I am? 'Okay, Jesus, you're putting me on the spot. But, that's okay, 'cause I have the answer. You're the Messiah.' That answer seemed to satisfy Jesus for the time, because we have no record of Jesus asking a followup question.
However, as Jesus taught his disciples that he was going to suffer, be rejected and killed, and then rise after three days, it becomes clear that Peter doesn't understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Peter doesn't like Jesus' version of messiahship at all. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. I can imagine him saying, "Look, Jesus. I'm excited about you being the Messiah. We've waited for so long for you to come and make things right. We've waited for someone to reestablish the kingdom of Israel and to restore us to our former glory. But there must be some mistake. The Messiah can't suffer and die. What kind of leader is that? Aren't you here to lead us to a brighter more prosperous future? Isn't that what we hear from the Sunday morning preachers – Jesus is here to make us feel good about ourselves, to bless us, to give us our heart's desires. But Jesus, you can't do that by letting them torture and kill you. Oh, and who ever heart of dying and then rising on the third day. Jesus, you've got to stop with the crazy talk!
Then it gets serious. Jesus responds to Peter's rebuke with a rebuke of his own. 'Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.' That's some serious stuff – divine things vs. human things. The way of suffering and death or the way of worldly triumph and victory. Who among us wouldn't chose Peter's way rather than that of Jesus?
After speaking with Peter, Jesus calls the crowd to join him and his disciples. He says, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.'
Today, this text from Mark invites us to consider what it means to call Jesus Messiah. I assume that most of us here have no problem with that language – it’s the language of the church after all. We use the term frequently in our hymns and prayers. However, we're reminded today that discipleship is not just about what we say but about how we live. It is not enough to say that Jesus is the Messiah. We must translate that word into action.
The Epistle of James, from which we read this morning, offers us some guidance here. It is James who says, 'Faith without works is dead.' James tells us that it's not the words that we utter in this beautiful sanctuary that count but how we translate them into tangible actions throughout the week. In the first chapter, James says, 'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.' What a profoundly simple definition of authentic religion! What an incredibly difficult definition of true religion to practice consistently in our lives!
As you know, I work for Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville. Habitat for Humanity is committed to helping people to put their faith into action. When Millard Fuller founded Habitat in 1976, his dream was that volunteers who wanted to live their faith would work side by side with those who lived without adequate shelter. Habitat embodies the true spirit of James – that we answer Jesus' question – 'Who do I say that Jesus is' with our actions.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the tremendous privilege of listening to a young woman in her early twenties talk about her experience of growing up in what she called 'the hood.' We'll call her Annie. She described her mother as a 'crack head.' Her younger brother was killed in a drug related incident. Crime was all around her. But something happened to Annie that changed her life for ever. One of the programs that HabiJax runs is called the Hick's Prep Club. Any teenager who lives in a HabiJax home or Jacksonville Housing Authority or Section 8 housing automatically qualifies to participate. The goal of the Hicks Prep Club is to give inner-city children the tools to get into college. It's a rigorous program that requires dedication on the part of the participants. Annie went to the tutoring sessions. She studied hard. She had to work to support her family; yet she continued to study and to attend the Prep Club sessions.
Despite all odds, she did well enough to qualify for another of our programs run in partnership with the University of North Florida, the Hick's Scholarship Program. She had to apply twice, but eventually she received a scholarship to attend UNF. She went to college and studied and worked hard. Then she became pregnant and things went into a tailspin. She flunked out. But something in her told her that she couldn't give up. She had her baby and dug deep within her soul to find the strength, hope, and courage to go back. She worked at night to support her child and herself. She studied and attended classes during the day. It wasn’t' easy. There were times when she wanted to give in – times that it was just to difficult. But Annie had been given a gift as a teenager that made all the difference. That gift was hope. Hope that life could be different. Hope that regardless of her drug addicted mother and regardless of she herself being a teen aged mother, she had it within herself to pull herself out or poverty, out of hopelessness, out of the cycle of despair, and into a new life for her family and her!
When I heard Annie speak, she stood with her second child. She now has a stable, well paying, skilled job. And she is one of the newest owners of a Habitat home. She is no longer trapped in the cycle of poverty. She no longer lives with crime. She no longer lives with hopelessness. HabiJax gave her the gift of hope! People who put their faith into action gave her hope. People who knew that proclaiming Jesus as Messiah meant living it with their lives and not just their words created opportunity for Annie to make a better world.
Since its founding in 1988, Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville has empowered over 1,700 families – offering them not a handout but a hand up. What a gift. We've helped these families to create homes of their own. We've offered them the gift of hope. I am here today to offer you the opportunity to partner with us. You can be agents of hope as you live your faith in tangible, direct ways. We have giving boxes here today – house-shaped coin boxes. I ask you to take one with you and fill it up. The resources that you provide allow us to continue our work of offering hope to people who live currently in poverty housing, people who need a hand up, not a hand out, so that they can move beyond the cycles that keep them down.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to share with you all today. May God bless you as you, as a community of faith, proclaim with your lives as well as your lips that Jesus is indeed the Messiah! Amen!