Albert Mosley tells a story about going to college. He wanted to join a fraternity, but which one? At first, the only factor separating one fraternity from the other was the different Greek letters printed on their jerseys. Even though they went to extremes trying to convince freshman rushers that they were different from all the rest, they all looked the same: a bunch of body-conscious, beer-drinking, testosterone-filled guys.
Albert attended a number of parties and watched what they did. He finally decided on the one that was the least popular on the campus. When he joined there were only three members. But there was something different about those three guys. They acted as perfect gentlemen. They didn’t have wild parties; they were always sponsoring service projects; and those three members held the top three student government positions. Once he made it in the group he discovered why they had so few members. They required each member to perform no less than 10 hours of community service each week, and they required each member to wear a shirt and tie at least two days each week. These two requirements alone were high expectations, especially for lighthearted and mischievous first year students. This fraternity demanded something substantial, required real sacrifice and service, of its members.
In today’s scripture, Jesus presents to his disciples what it takes to be in his group. Peter, the disciples’ spokesperson, expresses their lack of understanding of the requirements and of discipleship in general. Sometimes they seem to get it. Other times, they seem to be clueless. As it turns out, following Jesus is not an easy thing to do, and like getting married, none of us are entirely sure what we’re getting into when we do it.
It is not the sort of decision that can be made on the spot. It is a decision that requires intense reflection because of the drastic changes that one is poised to go through. At the point where we read this story from Mark’s gospel, we’re half-way through. They’ve been with him through some fantastic experiences: feeding thousands, healing the deaf, the blind, the paralyzed, drawing huge adoring crowds. But Jesus knows that from here on, things are about to get hard. The second half of the Gospel is where he starts his way to Jerusalem, to confrontation with the powers and principalities that will lead to his death. It’s not going to be easy street. So he asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Following Jesus in the good times is easy. But to follow Jesus through hard times it helps to have an understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. This was Peter’s problem. In the good times, he could blurt out, “You are the Son of God.” But it turns out, saying something and knowing what you’re talking about are two different things.
Peter failed to understand that Jesus preoccupied himself with people who were on the fringes, “marginalized.” He failed to understand why Jesus spent his time with those who could do little or nothing for themselves. Peter failed to understand why Jesus hung around with the rejects of his time. Maybe he was in denial about it because of the implication of that fact as it reflected on Peter – who would have been a nobody himself. If Jesus hadn’t found him on the shore nobody would know anything about him today. History isn’t written about people like Peter, common fishermen, work-a-day people. But whatever the reason Peter didn’t get it, Mark is strikingly clear that Jesus taught against the conventional wisdom, encouraging those who would be his followers to go against the tide of popular opinion.
“If you are to be my disciple,” says Jesus, “you have to love your enemies, you have to mingle with those who are considered unclean, and most of all, you have to give up your life and take on a radically different and new life.”
“Take up your cross,” he says. And that’s not about putting up with aches and pains. It’s about self-sacrifice. It’s about giving your life for a purpose larger than yourself. This is what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not easy. It’s not the simple solution, but it is the high moral ground, the higher calling.
This is what makes, Jesus’ followers – which is to say, it’s what makes the church – this church! – different from a social club.
After the infamous terrorist attacks on our country, marked this past week, I saw a story on one of the news programs. They were devoting a portion of the broadcast in memory of those who lost their lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There were two women out of Boston who were the focus of the story. These women, and one of them had a little girl with her, had planned a vacation to Los Angeles. Initially, all three of these people were on the same flight, but one of the women decided to use her husband’s frequent flyer miles and she was placed on a different flight.
As it turns out, the woman with the little girl was on the first plane that hit the World Trade Center, and her best friend was on that second plane. Their families, in response to this tragedy, exhibited to the world what it means to really be a follower of Jesus Christ. Instead of responding with anger and vengeance, as so many did, these two families came together and decided to establish a foundation in the little girl’s name that would teach peace, tolerance, and understanding to children here in our country. I am sure this was a difficult decision for those families to make, but following Jesus is always difficult.
Friends, I expect in the week to come, you may be faced with your own difficult decisions. I hope not as hard as dealing with another 9/11. But I know many of us have relatives and friends, personal ties to the unfolding disaster of hurricane Florence. Maybe you’re contemplating a decision about your health care for someone you love. Maybe a decision about taking a trip, or a new job. Maybe a decision at work or school. As you make those decisions this week, I believe Jesus is really asking you through those questions: Who do you say that I am? And will you lay down your life with me?
Questions like who is the greatest, who is the richest, who has the best grades, who has the highest IQ, how can I come out ahead — these are questions we hear all the time, and we know how to answer them. They have pretty easy answers. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to realize that preference is given to the outsiders, the outcasts, the poor, the helpless, the rejected, the disabled, the scorned. Jesus declares that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Today we are on the road with Jesus, and he has paused and turned to us, and he is asking us: Who do you say that I am?
When we answer, we are really saying more about who we are than about who he is.
Jesus, after all is the Son of God — the Messiah, regardless of what we say. But who are we? Are we ready to give ourselves over to his higher calling, and to become the living, breathing miracles, the help and hope and blessing of those around us who still today are downcast, alone and wondering if there really is a God who cares.