Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sermon: Luke 9: 18-27 Who do you say I am?

There’s a question that echoes around the world today. People try to answer it in all sorts of different ways. They come up with all sorts of ideas as they try to work it out, based on what they know or have experienced. It’s the same question that has been echoing through Luke’s gospel as we’ve been working our way through it. We’ve heard it on the lips of Pharisees (5:21), dinner party guests (7:49), disciples (8:25) and most recently on the lips of Herod (9:9).

The answer that we give to the question is crucial, because it determines where we stand in relation to its subject. What we think of him, because it’s a question about a person: Who is Jesus?

Jesus and his disciples are alone. He has been praying (as we’ve seen before just about every major moment in Luke’s gospel) when he asks a simple question: ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ (18). That’s an easy one. The disciples can rattle off the answer: ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ (19). It’s what Herod had heard as well. (9:7) It’s easy to share what someone else thinks about Jesus. And since the disciples had been among the crowd of at least five thousand (as we saw last week), they were able to say what the crowds were saying.

The crowds reckon that Jesus is a prophet, that this is the box he fits into. He does some amazing miracles just like Elijah or some of those people of old. Many people today also reckon that Jesus is some kind of prophet. That’s what Islam would claim. Special in some way, a good man, but just a prophet.

But then Jesus asks them a different question. He’s no longer interested to know what other people are saying. He doesn’t want to know what the twitter trends are saying. Now it’s personal. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (20) From what the disciples have seen and heard, what are they thinking? Have they realised who Jesus really is? How would you answer that question?

Peter answers: ‘The Messiah of God’ (or the Christ) (20). He recognises Jesus as the anointed one - God’s promised king. The king who would come and bring in the reign of peace; the king who would rescue from enemies; the king proclaimed by the angels as they told the shepherds ‘He is Christ the Lord.’ (2:11) The disciples have caught up after nine chapters.

Now what might you think would happen next? Do you remember the fuss that was made around the time of the birth of Prince George? A new (soon to be) king was born, and the world went mad with excitement about the king. Last week we saw how Jesus had sent out his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God (9:2). Well, now they know for sure who the king is, so surely he’s going to send them out to shout it from the rooftops?

Look at verse 21. It’s very surprising. It’s the opposite of what we expect. ‘He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone.’ Peter has the right answer, but they’re not allowed to say. Isn’t this a bit odd? Why does Jesus not want the word to get out about who he is?

The reason is found in verse 22. For us, now, we know what has happened. But the first disciples couldn’t get their heads around it. It’s another surprise. You see, they expected the conquering-kick-the-Romans-out kind of king. But Jesus tells them what type of king he is - what Messiah is really all about: ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ This isn’t an optional extra, something Jesus could take or leave. No, do you see the word he uses? Must. This is what must happen.

The ministry of the Messiah is the road of suffering and death on a cross. But that’s not the end of the story. Even now, Jesus is telling his disciples that his death will not be the end - that he will be raised on the third day. The disciples couldn’t get what he was saying. Even when Jesus is killed, they aren’t expecting his resurrection on Easter Day. But that’s to jump ahead of ourselves.

The Messiah is on the way towards the cross. Not as a misunderstanding or a mix-up, but as a must. In the rest of the passage, Jesus tells us that there is also a cross for all who will follow him. Not a sin-bearing death on an actual cross, but an ongoing cross-shaped life. Do you see in the middle of verse 23 that he says that ‘If any want to become my followers, let them... take up their cross daily and follow me.’

I’m sure that at some point you’ve spoken to your great aunt Doris who has told you in excruciating detail the story of her bunions. And that she then says something along the lines of: ‘We all have our crosses to bear.’ Ever heard that one? Some think of the crosses to bear as an illness, or a bad habit, or an annoying friend/relative/neighbour (delete as applicable).

But Jesus here makes clear that to take up your cross is more than just a minor irritation you’ve to deal with. It is (in the words I’d left out) to ‘deny themselves.’ As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.’ Crucifixion was a common occurrence at this time. The disciples would have seen people carrying their cross. It was a one-way journey.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves - not just once in a while; not just during a special season of Lent; not just once and that’ll do you; but to take up your cross daily. This is the reality of life as a Christian - fighting the same battles; dying to your selfish desires; seeking to follow Christ. An evangelist was once heard to say that the first sixty years of the Christian life are the hardest! So keep going.

It sounds difficult, doesn’t it? It’s not the most welcome message. Not something easy and light, and yet Jesus explains it by what he says next: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (24) You could try to protect yourself, live a life of luxury and ease, pursue all sorts of pleasures, have a good bank balance, and yet lose what really matters. To live for yourself is to ultimately die.

Just imagine that you owned all the banks. That you gained the whole world. That you were the richest person in the whole world. And yet, in having everything, you really had nothing, because you had forfeited yourself, your soul. As was said of the American millionaire John D Rockefeller at his funeral, his accountant was asked ‘how much did he leave behind?’ ‘All of it’ came the reply.

So who are you living for? If you’re living for yourself, then you’re really losing. But to live for the one who died for you - this is real wisdom; this is true, eternal life, that cannot be taken away. To live for the one who died for you - by dying daily to your sinful desires, not to win God’s approval, but as the way to follow the crucified Christ - this is the call, to come and follow. On that day, when we see the Son of Man in glory, we’ll need to be ready to answer that question to each one of us: ‘But who do you say that I am?’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 23rd March 2014.

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