By Paul Koch –
I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been out having a good time with my wife or some friends, and through a conversation with strangers they discover that I am a pastor. Now it’s not that I hide the fact that I’m a pastor, but once they find out my vocation the conversation is quite typical. They first want to know what church I serve. Then they want to know if it’s really my full time job. Then they want to give me a personal history of their spiritual journey. Then it culminates with their confident assertion that it’s all the same, anyway. Depending on my mood, either I’ll just smile and move on or risk offending them by pointing out how utterly ridiculous and demeaning is to those who actually hold to any articulated confession of the faith.
In Mark 8 we find the disciples engaged in a discussion about a faithful confession. It is a discussion about the identity and heart of the faith. It is our Lord himself who engages them. As they walk toward the villages of Caesarea Philippi he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer with what they have heard from the people they meet in their travels. Some have said that he is John the Baptist. After all, even Herod had believed the Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead. Others thought Jesus was the great prophet, Elijah. This was not unreasonable: God did promise in the book of Malachi that Elijah would return before the great and terrible Day of the Lord. Still others simply assumed Jesus was one of the other prophets of God.
But then, our Lord focuses in on the heart of his inquiry. Looking at his disciples he asks, “What about you; who do you say that I am?” Now Peter hits the ball out of the park. He makes a confident and bold confession about the identity of Jesus. He says, “You are the Christ.” That is, you are the long awaited Messiah of God. You are the one that was promised to our fathers. So, Jesus begins to tell them what it means to be the Christ. He approves of this confession of his identity and expands upon it. He teaches them that to be the Christ means that he will suffer many things, be rejected by the elders and the chief priest and the scribes, and they will have him killed. He also teaches after three days he will rise again from the dead. When Peter heard such things he pulled our Lord aside and rebuked him for such a notion.
Now, if you had never heard this text before I think you would be shocked. After all, Jesus asked who they thought he was. Peter gives a great confession: that he is the Christ. Then Jesus tells him what it means to be the Christ. The point here is that Peter had his own idea about what it meant to be the Christ, and Jesus wasn’t falling in line with what he desired. But Peter isn’t very different from us, in this regard. I’m not saying that you would pull our Lord aside and rebuke him, that was a gutsy move, but we all want our idea of Jesus: the idea that fits with our understanding of things, our expectations, our nuances in life. That’s the Christ we want, and we don’t want anything to do with any other Jesus.
In fact, I think we could say that there are as many churches out there as there are versions of Jesus. There is the nice comfortable Jesus, the hip cutting edge Jesus, the rock-n-roll Jesus, the traditional Jesus, the touchy-feely Jesus and the stern oppressive Jesus. There are versions of Jesus that fit our socio-economic status, versions that have a similar heritage to us, and even versions where he looks like us. I remember going to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL. They had these beautiful stained glass windows featuring scenes from our Lord’s life. The interesting thing about those scenes is that all the characters are black; St. Paul’s in Jacksonville is a mostly African-american congregation. But you could head up to Savannah, GA and go into a church that featured images of Jesus where he has blond hair and blue eyes.
Today there are churches who espouse an all-loving Jesus that no longer speaks of homosexuality as a sin. Then again, there are churches who present to us a Jesus that banishes homosexuals from their fellowship. What kind of Jesus do you want? Because if you’re patient enough and diligent enough, I’m sure we can find just the right Jesus for you. Does your Jesus prefer organ music and hymnals or a praise band and worship leaders?
To all of this the real, unfiltered, holy and righteous Son of God has something to say. He looks at all his disciples and declares, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” To demand that our Lord comes to us as we desire him to come, or to only follow if he leads as we want him to lead, is to set our minds on the things of man and turn from the things of God. To think that we can lay our hands on the Son of God and mold him into a Christ that will serve our purposes is nothing short of Satanic. This is not the way of discipleship. This is not how we follow our Lord. No, Christ says that if we are to be his disciples we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and then follow.
Jesus goes on to explain what he means by denying yourself. He says that you must lose your life if you are to be his disciples. You must lose your life. In fact, if you seek to save your life you will only end up losing it. But to lose your life for his sake and for the sake of the gospel you will end up saving your life. So there you have it! To avoid focusing on the things of man and not the things of God, to avoid being called Satan in our attempt to force Jesus to be what we want him to be, we need to deny ourselves. So… just how do we do that?
Our Lord doesn’t leave us up to our own workings to figure this out. He doesn’t abandon those he calls to follow him. For what he demands is a complete reversal of everything we know. What is required is an undoing of our sin and corruption. What is needed is something radical. What is needed is a dying and a rising again. And that is just what he does. Our Lord comes to us in our sin and corruption. He comes in our bondage to our own desires, hopes, and dreams and he attacks them. Oh, it may not be like any other attack you know. But then again, he isn’t a Savior that fits our mold or expectations. He comes in a simple washing of water. There he drowns your evil self. There he drives Satan from your heart. There he kills you so that he might give you new life in him.
He has done this great work in you. He alone has given you life. This is the promise that he made to each and every one of you. Today as we feel the pull to again and again remake our Lord into an image we like best, we are called to repent of the things of man and return to the things of God. When we repent, we return to the waters of our baptism. We return to death worked there by the promise of God. We die and rise again as faith holds on to the Christ that comes from outside our control and our desires. He is the Christ that calls you his own. He is the Christ that declares you this day to be forgiven. That is the Christ you have. He is the only Christ you need.