Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
O God, may your Living Word be present in the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, in our liturgy and in our lives. Amen.
Reflecting upon the relationship between who we are and what we do, the Quaker teacher Parker Palmer asks the following question: "Is the life you are living the same as the Life that wants to live in you?" It is a provocative and, perhaps, frightening question; especially when we recall that it is indeed all too easy to gain the whole world and yet forfeit one's life in the process. Our Gospel lesson today invites us to consider this all-important question, "Is the life you are living the same as the Life that wants to live in you?"
It is possible to live a life other than the one that God intends for us. It does not require a tremendous leap of imagination to consider this possibility. We see the evidence of it all around us, most tellingly in our own lives, if we can bear to look honestly at ourselves. I know there are times in my own life when the life I am living is not the Life that wants to live in me, times when the persona I am projecting bears no relation to my true self, the Christ within me who is the divine source of life and love in the very depths of creation. It is this same Christ who is the Life who wants to live in you, too. But is that the Life we choose? Is that the Life that comes to expression in our daily lives?
Not long after I was ordained I had lunch with a parishioner named Gene. I happened to arrive at the restaurant early and secured a table for us. I was sitting looking outside for Gene, when I noticed him walking by looking in. I must have been invisible, because he walked right by and stood outside the door as if he were waiting for me. So I walked outside and told him that I was there and had gotten us a table. He hadn't expected me to be dressed in civilian clothes and said with a twinkle in his eye, "Oh, I didn't see you, I was looking for a collar!" I laughed and replied half-jokingly, "I guess I'm just a collar to you now, rather than a person."
Now, I know that Gene sees me as more than "just a collar," and I know that my priesthood is an intrinsic part of my identity -- it is in fact one way that God has called me to give expression to the Life that lives in me. It is about who I am and not simply what I do. But it is tempting at times for all of us to confuse the Life within us with the roles that we play -- the role of priest, or teacher, or lawyer, or doctor, or reporter, or retiree, or parent, or partner. These may give expression to the Life within us, but they may also become a false self, a mere persona that is cut-off from the Christ in us. We are so much more than the roles we play, and those roles must serve as ways to express our true humanity; otherwise, they must be rejected.
When Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" Peter responded with a list of roles, cultural scripts, familiar figures to the people of his time. The answers, "John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets," were not bad or wrong; they were just woefully incomplete. There certainly was something of each of these religious figures in Jesus, but he was not reducible to any of them. It is easy for us to want to identify others and even ourselves with a cultural or family role and to follow and impose on others the expectations that go along with them. This is perhaps the easiest way to live a life other than our own, sacrificing our uniqueness on the altar of conformity, social acceptance, and denial of our authentic humanity.
Jesus will have none of this, so he asks another question of his disciples. "Who do you say that I am?" Surely his closest companions, his dearest friends will really appreciate his true identity and vocation. Heretofore in Mark's Gospel, the disciples have not been very savvy in this regard, so it is surprising that Peter gets it right. "You are the Messiah, the Christ," he says. But does he really understand? Jesus quickly and firmly tells his disciples not to reveal this to anyone.
It is a fearful thing, a vulnerable thing, to reveal the Life that wants to live in us. It can be easily misunderstood, even rejected. So it was for Jesus. He speaks quite plainly to his disciples about the relationship between his identity as the Christ and his vocation: suffering, rejection, death -- and only then the glory of resurrection. Peter hits upon the truth of who Jesus is and immediately wants to distort that truth beyond recognition. "What a minute," says Peter, "this is not what being the Christ is supposed to be about. This isn't what I bargained for. You can't expect people to believe this. In short, you can't be who you were created to be!"
How often have you heard those words spoken to you in one way or another! How many of my colleagues were told as girls that women can't be priests? How often have we been told that gay men and lesbians can never find true love and happiness? To what extent in your life has some deep truth about your self been discounted, distorted, or forced to die to preserve someone else's ideas about who you should be? Aren't you ready for that true self to be resurrected?
Our answer to such abuse should be the same as Jesus': "Get behind me Satan!" We were not made to conform to any image, whether of our own or someone else's creation, other than that of the image of God within us. No human concept is our rule of life or arbiter of our destiny, but only the divine image, the Christ within us, that comes to expression in our lives when we realize and honor our genuine humanity.
Our vocation, our life's work, is to discover the ways in which our lives are to give unique expression to the Christ in us.
Today's Gospel is not only about Jesus' true identity and vocation; it is about ours as well. The Christ that was absolutely, perfectly, and ultimately realized in him is the same Christ that is partially, imperfectly, and proleptically realized in us. I suspect this is why Peter is so resistant to Jesus' revelation about his true identity and vocation, because it forced Peter to die to the life he was living so that the Life that wanted to live in him could be born. Peter, the militant Jew who would have Jesus be the victorious warrior-king restoring the might of Israel against her Gentile enemies, would become the first Jewish Christian to preach the Gospel of peace and reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. And it was this same Peter who himself would die a martyr's death on his own cross.
Being one's true self, dying to the false self of family and culture and religion, so that Christ can be born in us, is never easy and is always full of risk. I'm not talking here about self-realization or the kind of self-preoccupation that refuses to acknowledge the needs of others and our obligations to them, so rampant in a culture marked by individualism and consumerism. Jesus told his disciples, "If you want to follow me, take up your cross right now. The self-giving love, the generosity, the compassion, and the joy that are my way," says Jesus, "will scare some people enough to make them want to kill you.”
Why? Because our freedom in Christ will undermine the world they have so carefully constructed to defend themselves against their own humanity and protect their unjust privilege. They cannot afford our revealing the lie that the world they have gained isn't worth the Life they have refused to allow to live in them.
"So take up your cross now; take up whatever fears you have about the true self God has created you to be; and live into and through those fears. Do not be afraid. I am with you; I am in you; and you are in me," says this Jesus the Christ. "We are one as the Father and I are one. 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."
What in you must die so that this Life can be born in you? What fear is keeping you from trusting that there is resurrection on the other side of that death?
Is the life you are living the same as the Life that wants to live in you?