March 4, 2012
The news recently has been full of stories about the intersection of religion and politics. There’s been all the talk about Mitt Romney and debate whether a Latter Day Saint can be president. There’s been Rick Santorum and his criticism of JFK’s famous speech. We’ve heard the Roman Catholic bishops complaining about the implications of healthcare reform for their faith, and their claims that their religious freedom is being violated. We thought the presidential election was going to be about the economy, and it turns out after all, that it’s going to be another front in the culture wars.
I know it can be difficult, especially in an environment like Madison, to confess one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Too often, outsiders, non-religious folk, our friends down the street at the Freedom from Religion Foundation, regard anyone who admits to being a Christian, to being one of those people who hates gays and lesbians, is against reasonable things like widely available contraception or evolution, and now, apparently hates all women as well. To attempt to explain that all Christians are not like those people, can be just too difficult. So we keep our mouths shut, our ideas to ourselves, and perhaps feel a little guilty, occasionally, for not speaking up more boldly.
I’m not going to offer you my take on the relationship of our Christian faith to the political realm. It’s an important topic, as much misunderstood as it is maligned. But I will admit that I am often as uncomfortable with the ways in which progressive Christians talk about political issues as conservative ones. Both sides, all American Christians, perhaps all Christians everywhere, and throughout history, have too easily interpreted scripture, especially the Gospel through their own political perspectives and viewpoints, and neglected to allow the texts to inform us. We bring our prepackaged ideas, assumptions and positions and look for proof-texts to support those arguments. Instead, we should let the Word of God stand in judgment of us—but that sounds too Lutheran.
We look back to scripture in hopes of finding help in negotiating our own situation; in this case, the place of religion and our religious beliefs in a secular society. Unfortunately, scripture isn’t much help, because the categories we use didn’t exist in the ancient world. There was no clear distinction between the religious and the political. The emperor used titles like savior and divine; and one of his most important titles was “pontifex maximus” a title now used by the pope. One of the emperor’s most important roles was to serve as the chief priest of the empire, to ensure that the sacrifices were performed, the sacred fires tended. The political and religious were intertwined, inseparable in the ancient world.
We’ve been reading from the Gospel of Mark for over three months, except for a few digressions into the Gospel of John, and I hope in that time you have been getting a sense of the strangeness of the gospel. I urge you also to read the gospel through again. It’s short. Mark writes in a style that is quite alien to us. He is spare with his language, leaves many details out, and emphasizes themes that are often quite puzzling. Today’s gospel reading brings us to the heart of his gospel, and confronts with the central challenge of his writing.
To understand this pivotal text, we need to look at a couple of verses that precede today’s reading: I’m going to read it for you, beginning with v. 27:
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
I would like to draw your attention to the dramatic changes in these few verses. Jesus asks the familiar question, Who do people say that I am, and after others respond, Peter makes his confession, “You are the Messiah. The very next verse is the beginning of our gospel reading today. In a nutshell, Jesus begins to explain what being the Messiah means, that he will go to Jerusalem, be arrested and crucified. When Peter hears these words, he protests, “that’s not what Messiahs do! That’s not the messiah we’re expecting, that’s not what I meant at all.”
The Messiah Peter was awaiting, the Messiah the first-century Palestinian Jewish community was awaiting was someone who would come and restore Israel’s political fortunes. In a time of political turmoil and repeated rebellions, the Jewish community was hoping for a leader who could defeat Rome and restore Israel’s independence.
The geographical context for this episode is important as well. Mark places the conversation in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It was founded by Philip the Tetrarch, and named in honor of Caesar Augustus. Thus it was a solid reminder of who ruled in Palestine, the Herods, thanks to their connection with the Emperor. It was a monument to Roman imperial power.
This is quite clearly a political text. For Peter to confess Jesus as the Messiah was to make a political statement. For Mark to place this interchange at the heart of Roman imperial and client power in the area was also to make a political statement.
Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, but Jesus did not conform to his notion of what the Messiah was. In fact, this is the first of three parallel stories in Mark’s gospel. Three times, Jesus is recognized as the Messiah; three times, he predicts that he will go to Jerusalem and be crucified. Three times, the disciples fail to understand his meaning. And each time, the episode concludes with Jesus teaching his disciples, and us what it truly means to be his disciple.
We face an enormous problem in interpreting these texts. In our culture, the lines between religion and politics, between what is religious and what is not seem clear, even when the precise place we might draw that line is contested, in politics and in our culture. But when no such line exists, as it did not exist in first-century Palestine, how do we make sense of Jesus’ words? What is the message in these verses for us, in the twenty-first century?
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
How do we hear this words in our context, remembering and honoring the context in which they were first spoken? Some of us might want to discount them entirely. They sound too much like self-denial, even perhaps self-hate. Some of us might want to say, well, Jesus is talking only about our inner life, the life of the spirit, and these words have nothing to do with how we act or live in the world. But remember, Jesus was crucified, not because of some spiritual message that he offered, but because the Romans interpreted him as a political threat—the charge against him was “King of the Jews.” We might even be inclined to say that those words are meant for Jesus’ closest followers, the disciples whom he selected, and not for everyone who claims to be Christian. But that won’t work either, for Mark states quite clearly that Jesus said these things quite openly to everyone in earshot, not just to some small group.
Jesus demands our allegiance. If, as Peter did, we confess him to be the Messiah, the Christ, he is Lord of all our life, not just the portion that we want to give over to him. Jesus demands all of us.
Unlike Peter and the other disciples, we know what Jesus meant when he said that he was going up to Jerusalem to be crucified. We know how the story ends. But Jesus has the same words for us that he had for his first century listeners, if you would be my disciple … They are as difficult for us as they were for those who first heard them, perhaps more difficult because we know what awaited him, and they did not. Many of them continued to expect that he would instigate a revolt and it was only at the very end that they learned the truth.
These words are difficult. Following Jesus is difficult. Denying our self, taking up our cross, even when we understand the idea, we blanch at the prospect of it. But perhaps more difficult are the words that come next: whoever will save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will lose it.
Jesus’ call to discipleship is radical and total. Jesus invites us to follow him, but if we do, he wants all of us. What precisely that means may be different for each of us—it is certainly different from what many of those who proclaim the loudest that they are his disciples do and say. Jesus rejected the political solution, even as he was condemned for being a revolutionary. His way, the way of the cross, is the way of love, self-giving, and service. He bids us today to follow him on this way, during Lent and throughout our lives.