Many of you know my mom because you’ve talked with her or at least seen her on her many visits up here to see Ellen. What you may not know is that the majority of her career in education was spent as a school counselor. So, of course, when anything went wrong in my life (related to school, that is) mom would often put on her counselor hat and offer up advice. When it came to teasing and bullying (as I fear we all were victims of at some point in time) mom would say “their actions and words say more about them than they do you.” That didn’t always make me feel better, but bless her for trying. I thought about that this week as Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” echoed in my head. And I was challenged. Could I answer that for myself? Who do I say that Jesus is? Then the challenge and the scary part is wondering “what does that say about me and my identity?”
I am going to weave a bit today between the Gospel reading and that reading from James. So, if you have a bulletin available, you may want to have that open. Otherwise, I’ll try my best to reference the scripture I’m speaking about. Who do I say that Jesus is? It’s not as easy of a question as you might think initially. If I say “Jesus is my savior” then is he only my savior? What about the rest of you? If I say “Jesus is the source of all grace” but I’m too quick to believe that I actually am not a recipient of that grace, then what? If I say “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life” yet I take life from others with the harsh use of my tongue (like it says in James 3:9) then what? You can understand my dilemma here. Who and what we say Jesus is says a lot about us. And who and what we say Jesus is and our actions and words often don’t mesh very well.
When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter anxiously speaks up “you are the Messiah.” But I wonder if Peter had any idea what that actually meant until Jesus told him. The Messiah (as Peter called him) will undergo trial, suffering, be killed, and rise three days later. And of course Peter tells Jesus he is wrong. What kind of Messiah would let themselves go through that? A Messiah was supposed to be a conqueror, a hero, the one who saves the day. A Messiah certainly isn’t someone who lets themselves be killed. Because we know the end of the story, it may be tempting to roll our eyes once again at Peter and sigh because he just doesn’t get it.
But, let us not be too quick to claim that we “get it” my beloved. After all, I think we would answer “who do you say I am” one way in public and another in private. In public, I may say “Jesus is the savior of the world” but in private I may confess that “Jesus is on my side and I hope he crushes my enemies.” It doesn’t work like that. Remember, if you and God hate the same people then you’ve most likely fashioned God in your image and not the other way around. Jesus tells the disciples of his fate because they are his disciples. And he expects them to follow his lead. Which means, if we fancy ourselves as disciples, we are expected to follow Jesus as well. This does not mean that we are to clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, making martyrs of ourselves. To take up our cross does not mean that we are to suffer like Jesus. Rather, are we willing to suffer the consequences of what it means to follow Jesus?
Are we willing to be ostracized? Are we willing to to associate with people society would rather forget? Are we willing to forget about our own goals, our own mission, our own purpose and instead focus solely on the purpose, mission, and goals of Christ? When we lose our lives for the sake of Christ, we are gaining time to do all the things Christ calls us to do. When we are no longer the most important people in our own lives, we can use our resources so that others may come to know the love of Christ. But who do we say Christ is? The thing is, that reading from James should convict us. When we say who Christ is and at the same time curse those made in the likeness of God, are we really the disciples Christ is calling us to be?
Maybe it’s not so much who we say Christ is, but how we talk about Christ and how we treat Christ. Let’s say that we believe and confess that Jesus is Lord of the oppressed. That’s not wrong, after all. But if we say Jesus is the Lord of the oppressed but then ignore the fact that African American men are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group in this country then who are we saying Christ really is, moreover, who are we saying we are? Perhaps we confess that Jesus is Lord of the marginalized. Again, this isn’t wrong. But, if we confess that Jesus is Lord of the marginalized but blame an addict when a pimp beats her again, who are saying Christ really is? Who are we saying we are? If we victim shame and victim blame then what do we really think of Christ? If we were all made in God’s image, yet we shame those who are victims, what do we really think of a man who was crucified? My beloved, what we say, what we believe about Christ says more about us than it does about Christ.
But the good news is that God, through Jesus Christ, is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. Even in the times we fail, which we will, God will remain steady. When our words confess one thing but our actions confess another, Jesus still meets us at the table and in the waters. Because we have a God of infinite chances. No one said that discipleship was easy. In fact, being a disciple should be the most frustrating job you have. Christ’s constant call on your life might have you feeling torn or afflicted. Following Christ, taking up your cross, isn’t for the faint of heart. When Christ died on the cross, he died the least heroic death possible. Crucifixion wasn’t meant for heroes or leaders. But, in the cross, we got a new definition of a hero and leader. We are able to see what it looks like when self sacrifice leads to the good of all. The promise of the cross is this: even in our moments of denial, like Peter, Christ does not forget us or abandon us. And on the third day, we were shown that God’s power is stronger than any attempt at power that we may ever have. God’s power is stronger than our best and our worst. We are reminded at the table, in the waters, and at the empty tomb that nothing separates us from God’s love.