"Avoiding Death Like Hell" - Pentecost 17B
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
September 16, 2018 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Mark 8:27-38
Pentecost 17B

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: September 16, 2018 – Pentecost 17B

Mark 8:27-38


Avoiding Death Like Hell


              Pastor Jane finished up her sermon. She thought it had gone well. She had managed to preach on a very difficult topic – Jesus’ sayings on divorce – quite adequately, she thought. She’d spent quite a bit of time on this sermon, weaving in experiences of her parent’s divorce and those of close friends. At the receiving line after worship, most people were very complimentary. “Nice sermon, Pastor,” many said. One woman even told Pastor Jane that she was very touched.


              But then came Royal. Royal (yes, his name in this story is Royal) came up to Pastor Jane, red as a stormy morning sky, and began shaking his finger in her face. “How dare you!” he yelled. Pastor Jane was taken aback for a moment, but regained her composure. Royal, after all, was well-known for being a royal pain in the you-know-where. She was used to this sort of thing. Royal repeated his words, snarling, “How dare you, Pastor!”


              “What’s the matter, Royal?” Pastor Jane responded, keeping her voice as calm as she could.

              “You know what’s the matter!” Royal growled. “You got Jesus’ name wrong!”

              “I, uh, what??” Pastor Jane stammered.

              “He isn’t Jesus THE Christ!” Royal sneered. “He’s Jesus Christ!”


And then Pastor Jane got it. Royal was deeply offended that Pastor Jane had referred to Jesus as Jesus the Christ, “Christ”, of course, being a title rather than a name. Royal apparently didn’t know that. As if Jesus’ actual last name was “Christ”. As if Mary and Joseph sent out a notice in the Bethlehem Herald, “Mr. and Mrs. Joseph and Mary Christ are the proud parents of a baby boy, Jesus Christ.” Pastor Jane stifled a laugh. She knew better than to fight this battle.


Of course, we know that “Christ” is a title, not a name. It’s the same title as “Messiah” in Hebrew, which means “Anointed” or “Chosen”. Israelite kings were “messiahed” when they were anointed with oil, showing that God had chosen this person to lead. In a similar way, God chose people to be priests and prophets. Jesus combines all three offices: the perfect prophet who speaks God’s word to God’s people, the perfect priest who makes full atonement between God and humanity, and the perfect king who will rule with complete justice for all. But the way Jesus does it is a way that no one expects.


Jesus tells his disciples just what being the Christ means. It means going to Jerusalem – the city that has killed prophet after prophet. It means being arrested and killed by the combined powers of religion and the state. And it means resurrection.


Can you imagine what it was like when the disciples heard this? What a bombshell it was? Mark tells us that “he said this plainly”. It must have floored them into silence when Jesus told them what being “the Christ” really meant.


Until Peter spoke up. Peter, the well-meaning loudmouth, Peter the thick-headed, Peter the bemused tells Jesus that under no circumstances can this ever happen. Mark doesn’t report what Peter said, other than that “he began to correct him”. I imagine that Peter decided that enough was enough and that he needed to explain to this would-be Christ what being the Christ meant. It meant victory. It meant conquest. It meant the expulsion of the foreign oppressor. It meant the establishment of a new and perfect theocracy – one with Jesus as an earthly king – the long-lost scion of David restored to power, and the 12 disciples around him in positions of power and prominence. Being the Christ, to Peter, meant success, glory, and power. And none of the sacrifice.


Are we that different from Peter? How often have we longed for a messiah figure to come and fix everything for us, to punish those we think need to be punished, and to privilege those we think deserve it? How often have we wanted a strongman to come in and “clean house” for us? How often have we longed for someone to make things “the way they used to be”? And here is the rub for us – too often, we want someone who will fix everything and doesn’t ask much. Someone who will make our path easier. Too often, we want all of the glory and none of the cross.


But that’s not what being the Christ means. And it isn’t what discipleship means either. Being the Christ means going through the shadow of death itself. It means making the ultimate self-sacrifice – carrying the sin of the world on himself to free a trapped and enslaved humanity. To be the Christ means going through the cross to bring eternal, abundant life to humanity.


We receive this life as a gift. We can’t earn it. But there is something that happens to us once we receive this gift. Once we have this abundant, eternal life as our own. This life that Jesus offers is a fundamentally different kind of life. When we receive the life that Jesus offers, we, too, go through the cross and death. We change. We become new people. In baptism, this happens for us – and continues all our lives. The life Jesus offers is the baptismal life – the life in which our old, sinful, selfish self is killed and buried with Christ so that the new person can rise with Christ. Saying no to ourselves, picking up the cross, and following Jesus isn’t about mere discipline or morality. It means accepting the death of our old self – the old self that wants to earn salvation, that grasps at power, and wants to be its own god. The old self in us avoids death like hell. Luther said that “the old Adam (and Eve) in us is a strong swimmer”. We continue to drift back to our old ways. But God continues to work in us – to kill the old self and bring forth the new self. It doesn’t seem like a gift at all sometimes because it involves radical change. But this road – this road through death – is the road to true life.


That truth is something that Peter and the other disciples eventually understand. It’s what makes them willing to face persecution and death for the sake of the gospel. They realize just what Jesus had accomplished in them. What he had done for them. And such a gift couldn’t be contained to them. It had to be shared. And because it was shared, you know – we know – just what Jesus has done for you and me. The change that Jesus works in you and me. The resurrection that awaits you and me.


Let us pray.


Help us to accept the death of our old, sinful self, Lord, trusting that in baptism you have made us new. Help us to continue to live this baptismal life, continuing to die to ourselves and rise to new life, until one day we reach the fullness of the resurrection life. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.