Sermon Seeds: Who Are You, Jesus?

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19 color_green.jpg

Lectionary citations
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19 or Wisdom 7:26-8:1
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Mark 8:27-38

Weekly Theme:
Who Are You, Jesus?

by Kathryn Matthews (Huey) katehuey150.jpg

Every way we turn in the life of the church, we seem to hear the question of “who Jesus is.” More conservative voices have a clear and compelling answer about Jesus’ identity and our need, first, to accept him as our Lord and Savior, and second, to convince others to do the same. More progressive voices seem to strive to explore the mystery of who Jesus was and who Jesus is in our lives today; they also seem to focus on Jesus’ actions as much as his words in order to understand his identity. Perhaps a clear answer is more compelling than a mystery for some people, and yet, both have their power in our lives, and perhaps we need both: clear answers and an appreciation of mystery.

Shane Hipps has written a fascinating book, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, in which he describes a conversion that “can feel like a light switch has been flipped from off to on, and everything is suddenly illuminated,” and a different kind of conversion that can “feel like the gradual brightening of a long darkness – or like a long fade from clarity into doubt.” Perhaps the Gospel of Mark so far has been about the gradual brightening of the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus is. Peter’s bold claim about Jesus might sound like a “light switch” experience of conversion, but he’s taken some time to get here, after witnessing one impressive deed of Jesus after another, and hearing Jesus proclaim the reign of God throughout the first part of Mark’s Gospel. Like us, he has stumbled and struggled at times, but today he seems to have a moment of great clarity. Hipps reassures us that we will find Jesus in both “the darkness and the light. In both sudden epiphany and unhurried evolution.”  

Hearing about Jesus, and encountering him

What we have heard (“Who do others say that I am?”) and what we have been taught is important, but so is the encounter we have with Jesus in our own lives and in the life of the church. Is this a question that you spend much time contemplating? Scholars agree that not only Peter but the rest of the disciples must have recognized Jesus as the Messiah (see Andrew in John 1:41); why else, they ask, would those disciples have given up everything to follow him? In a culture where most people still claim to be followers of Christ (and few of us give up everything to follow him), perhaps there is a second question in our own lives: “So what?” So, what will we do, today, in our lives, if we accept Jesus as the Messiah?

The response of Peter that “some” people think Jesus is Elijah, some John the Baptist, and some “one of the prophets,” is significant. According to Richard W. Swanson, “Whereas John and Elijah promise to change Israel’s position over against its enemies, the prophets of old challenged Israel’s character in the face of her enemies” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). On the other hand, Morna D. Hooker notes the importance of this moment in the Gospel of Mark, when the truth of who Jesus is begins to dawn on the disciples: he’s not “a figure from the past” but “God’s anointed one.” Of course, they’re not sure exactly what that means, or what to do with that knowledge (The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). Marcus Borg observes that this is the first time that any “human voice” has called Jesus the Messiah, an identity that is not at the heart of Jesus’ message in Mark’s Gospel: Jesus didn’t teach doctrine or exhort his followers to believing “a set of statements about him.” Instead, Jesus, as we know, proclaimed “the coming of the kingdom of God, conveyed in stories about exorcisms, teaching, healing, parables, the sea, feeding, conflict, and ‘the way'” (Conversations with Scripture: the Gospel of Mark). What does it mean to you to “believe in” Jesus Christ?

Living in the shadow of empire

The geographic setting of this passage is very significant. The “villages of Caesarea Philippi” have Jewish residents in the shadow of a town built by the empire. Surely prophets spoke to the people about the empires surrounding them, but they addressed the values and concerns of the people themselves. In this case, the people were oppressed by the Roman Empire, which tried to impose its values and worldview on everyone it conquered. In the shadow of what empires do we live? How do we conduct our lives in the shadow of these empires, and do our values and pursuits align more closely with theirs, or with the worldview and values of Jesus? What message do we long to hear?

How does it feel to contemplate denying yourself in the midst of “empire,” to take up a cross, the most shameful way of all to die? Even the phrases, “denying yourelf,” and “taking up your cross” have been interpreted in many ways. John J. Pilch interprets “deny yourself” in a communal way that is in harmony with Jesus’ command to deny brother, father, sister, and mother: we are to put our identity and our loyalty as followers of Jesus before all other loyalties. To Pilch, this is what Jesus is commanding when he instructs the disciples to deny themselves (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B). We think of self-denial as an ascetic lifestyle, but this discipleship is far deeper, down to the very roots of who we are and what we value most in our lives.   

Is self-denial “good news”?

It is a challenge today to connect “self-actualization,” self-esteem, and claiming our identity with “denying ourselves.” Perhaps they are in conflict, or maybe they aren’t, if we find our deepest authenticity, our truest self, in following Jesus. Perhaps these values live in creative tension with one another. For example, feminist and liberation theologians offer a critique of an emphasis on denying “the self,” when historically oppressed people have lived their lives being denied their full personhood. Martha L. Moore-Keish wonders, in that case, if “‘self-denial’ [is] really good news” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).

The same might be said of “carrying our cross.” Many women, people of color (especially slaves long ago, listening to their “good Christian” owners), and poor people have been told to accept their suffering as “carrying their cross.” We trust that Jesus would rebuke such a misinterpretation of his words.

Of course, there is no question that faithfulness to the gospel is costly: we remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “the cost of discipleship,” a cost that he surely paid, with his own life. Rather than identifying our small (or large) burdens with “carrying our cross,” would we be willing to be embarrassed (shamed) because of our relationship with Jesus? How does this fit with our belief that religion is something we must never discuss in polite company, and that religion should not affect politics? What price, what cost, are we willing to pay as disciples of Jesus?

Peter comes face to face with reality

Peter was clearly distressed at Jesus’ talk of death; if Jesus was the Messiah, good things should be happening, not bad ones. In fact, this passage indicates that it’s finally sinking into Peter not only who Jesus is but also what it could cost to follow him. Charles Cousar says that Peter’s “fleeting glimpse” of what is going to be required in true discipleship is behind his rebuke of Jesus in verse 32, a protest that may represent “good common sense,” but is nevertheless “a human perspective,” while Jesus sees and understands things differently, as God does (Texts for Preaching Year B).

Megan McKenna eloquently calls the Gospel of Mark “a summons to discipleship,” which “calls us to sink further and further in the waters of our baptisms, which are mysterious, fearful, and wondrously filled with grace.” (This is a lovely image for reflection on baptism as a dynamic, ongoing experience that still affects our daily lives.) Mark has been describing the disciples’ slow progress toward opening their hearts and minds to who Jesus truly is, which is one stage of conversion, and now Jesus speaks “a second call to conversion” that leads to self-denial, suffering, and even a cross. And then, like Jesus’ retort to Peter, McKenna’s questions make us acutely uncomfortable: “What if everything we have done in our religious living and personal relationship with God has been for the wrong reasons?” Are we seeking reward for our actions, and to avoid “suffering, rejection, persecution, and death?” (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross). In struggling with those questions, we experience more deeply the discomfort Peter was expressing in his objections to the words of Jesus about suffering, rejection, and death. What do you expect of life as a follower of Jesus; what do you expect of the promises of God? Where does the path of your faith lead you?

Nathan G. Jennings’ advice to those who preach on the demand of this text, the demand of each of us to make the decision to follow Jesus, is insightful and deeply motivating. The gospel calls the followers of Jesus both as individuals and as communities to faith to follower Jesus faithfully; this message, Jennings writes, “may well be a cross for the preacher to bear” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).

For Further Reflection:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”

Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, 21st century
“We need to shed our unearthly and nonsocial and idealistic and romantic and uber-spiritual visions of kingdom and get back to what Jesus meant. By kingdom, Jesus means: God’s Dream Society on earth, spreading out from the land of Israel to encompass the whole world.”
“Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it.”

N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 20th century
“Tell someone to do something, and you change their life – for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life.”    

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 19th century
“‘I am an average good Christian, when you don’t push my Christianity too far. And all the rest of you — which is a great comfort — are, in this respect, much the same as I am.'”

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 20th century
“[Jesus] had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 20th century
“To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”  

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

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Lectionary texts

Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street;
   in the squares she raises her voice.

At the busiest corner she cries out;
   at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
   and fools hate knowledge?

Give heed to my reproof;
   I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.

Because I have called and you refused,
   have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
   and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
   when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
   when distress and anguish come upon you.

Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
   they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.

Because they hated knowledge
   and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
   and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
   and be sated with their own devices.

For waywardness kills the simple,
   and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
   and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
   which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like an athlete runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
   and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;
   the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart;
   the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of God is pure, enduring forever;
   the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
   sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is your servant warned;
   in keeping them there is great reward.

But who can detect their errors?
   Clear me from hidden faults.

Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
   do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless,
   and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
   be acceptable to you,
O God, my rock and my redeemer.


Wisdom 7:26-8:1

For she is a reflection of eternal light,
   a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.

Although she is but one, she can do all things,
   and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
   and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much
   as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
   and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
   for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
   and she orders all things well.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Psalm 116:1-9

I love God, because God has heard my voice
   and has heard my supplications.

Because God inclined an ear to me,
   therefore I will call on God
as long as I live.

The snares of death encompassed me;
   the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.

Then I called on the name of God:
   “O God, I pray, save my life!”

Gracious is God, and righteous;
   our God is merciful.

God protects the simple;
   when I was brought low,
God saved me.

Return, O my soul, to your rest,
   for God has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
   my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.

I walk before God
   in the land of the living.

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Mark 8:27-38

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?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.