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Confessing Christ: the Challenge and the Necessity

San Williams

March 4, 2012
Mark 8:31-38

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This pivotal passage in Mark’s Gospel concludes with a comment that strikes uncomfortably close to home.  Aware of how threatening his teaching sounds, Jesus intuits that there will be those who are ashamed, embarrassed, scandalized by him and his words. Now my hunch is that most of us in the room are not exactly ashamed of Jesus, but, given the current environment, many of us do find that speaking of Christ is intellectually challenging and socially awkward.  So our Gospel reading on this Second Sunday in Lent challenges every would-be follower of Jesus to ask ourselves: How do we witness to Christ in the world today?

One huge obstacle is that religion is increasingly viewed as a global nuisance at best and as a dangerous force at worst.  The cover story in the current Newsweek magazine is titled, “The War on Christians.”  The article chronicles the often under-reported murders and atrocities against Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries. Coptic Christians in Egypt, Christians in Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are being threatened and killed for their religion by religious people of another Faith.  Is it any wonder that many people today, especially in the increasingly secularized West, have concluded that religion is a mostly negative, divisive force in the world.

And in our own society, all sorts of factors make it awkward to speak of our faith–to witness to Christ.  For one thing, we may feel uncomfortable with the way religion, especially evangelical Christianity, gets translated into campaign rhetoric and identified with political agendas.  Whether in the realm of politics, sports or just conversation among friends, religion of any sort will often be viewed as an unwelcome intrusion.    I’m just saying what I expect many of you have already concluded:  confessing Christ in the world today is not easy.

Well, if it’s any comfort, confessing Christ has been difficult from the beginning. Peter is the first person in the Bible to confess Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. While Peter got the words right, he totally misunderstood their meaning.  Peter, like most of his Jewish contemporaries, expected that God would send a David-like Messiah to deliver Israel from oppression either through military means or miraculous signs. Peter and the other disciples had witnessed Jesus healing the sick, proclaiming release to the captives and performing other miracles.  Thus, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter steps forward and makes his confession of faith:  “You are the Messiah.”

But no sooner does Peter make his confession, than Jesus shatters Peter’s expectations.  Jesus began to teach that he must undergo great suffering, rejection, death and after three days rise again.  Peter was flabbergasted and appalled.  The Messiah was supposed to save people from suffering, not suffer himself.  Peter believed in a Messiah who would reject Israel’s enemies not be rejected. God’s Messiah, Peter imagined, would save us from dying.  Peter couldn’t fathom a Messiah who himself would die.  Peter showed us how easy it is to get a confession right in form but wrong in substance; to have the right words and still miss entirely what Jesus is about. Peter was right to say that Jesus was the Messiah, but he clearly didn’t know what kind of Messiah Jesus was to be.

And in all likelihood, we Christians today continue to make the same mistake Peter made.  We, too, want a strong God, an awesome God as the praise songs like to say. We want a God who will serve our instinct for self-preservation, power and success. You may have seen a “map of religion” that’s circulating on the internet.  The map shows the percentages of the population in each state by religion.  In every state, Christians, especially evangelical Christians, are far and away the majority of the population.  Given our numerical superiority, the message attached to the map asks “Why are we allowing our government and special interest groups to take God out of culture and schools.  We Christians need to stand up!”  On the one hand, the internet message raises a legitimate concern—that conversations about God are becoming less welcomed and witnessing to one’s faith often not appreciated or sometimes not even allowed.

But on the other hand, we have to ask: Does the tone of that message repeat Peter’s mistake?  That is, does it trigger that human instinct to flex our numerical muscle, assert our power and call the shots?  After all, we’re the majority.  Time to stand up, the message suggests, and take back America for God.  We’d all like to see our nation become more godly, but we have to guard against expressing our faith convictions in ways that sound arrogant and self-assertive.  It’s these human things—power, success, getting our way—that tripped up Peter, and continue to misguide Christians today.  In today’s polarized environment, we probably feel every bit as confused as Peter felt.

Yet it was in this moment of bewilderment that Jesus called the crowd and the disciples to gather round and listen up.  “If any want to become my followers,” he began, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  So according to Jesus, true confession is not just the right words coming out of our mouths but an alternative model of being, a way of living that challenges us to be generous, giving our ourselves, even when it may mean suffering.  Following Jesus means that there is no true confession that is not expressed in human compassion… no witness to Christ that does not prioritize the welfare of the other…no standing up for Jesus that doesn’t sit down with the hungry, the outcast and the needy.  In short, no confessing Christ without taking up the cross.

I know that many of you honestly struggle with how to confess and practice your faith in our religiously pluralistic, increasingly secular society.  Admittedly, it’s hard to do, and we don’t always know how.  Still, confessing Christ is absolutely necessary, because Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  His path of self-giving, suffering love is the only way that God’s Kingdom will ever come on earth as it is in heaven. We must, if the world is to know true peace, make Jesus’ priorities, purposes and path our own.

So friends, as we go from this sanctuary today, think about how you will confess and witness to Christ this week.  Ask yourself:  Where can I be of help?  Whom can I serve?  How can I give?  Keep on that path so that when Jesus comes today, tomorrow or in the future, he’ll recognize us as his disciples…those who often struggled, misunderstood and even failed, but  who weren’t ashamed of him or of his words.