Due to technical difficulties with our website, today’s sermon can’t be heard on the Christ Church website yet, so you’ll have to read on.
Earlier this week, my family had the opportunity to do something that we hadn’t done in a long time: We piled onto the couch and enjoyed a movie together. Thanks to the magic of Red Box, we were able to swing by Walgreens and rent a copy of the movie Wonder, which is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, written by R. J. Palacio. It tells the story of Augie Pullman, a fifth-grade boy who was born with a rare, genetic defect, known as Treacher Collins syndrome, that left his face disfigured. After twenty-seven surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie’s parents enrolled him in a mainstream prep school to begin junior high. The movie, and the novel, tell the story of that year. The movie organizes itself in a few different ways. It switches perspective among several of the major characters. It jumps across the high points of the calendar from summer vacation, through Halloween, Christmas, spring play season, and graduation. It also uses Auggie’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Browne, to carry time forward. Each month, Mr. Browne unveils a new precept for the class to consider. Precepts he explains, are rules about really important things. They are words to live by. For Mr. Browne’s students, each precept is a core value that defines their common life. The school year begins with a quote from Wayne Dyer, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” It ends with a quote from a song by the Polyphonic Spree, “Just follow the day and reach for the sun.”
I’ve preached a lot recently about our core values as they are expressed in our mission statement, but as I watched Wonder and thought about Mr. Browne’s precepts, I’ve began to think more and more about my personal core values. What are the rules by which I want to live my life? For those of us who claim to be disciples, fundamental to answering these questions is trying to come to understand the precepts of Jesus. The Bible is full of rules about really important things. The Old Testament has the forbidden fruit, the 10 Commandments, and the 613 Laws of the Torah. The New Testament includes laundry lists of moral teaching in Paul’s letters. Even in the teachings of Jesus, we can find all sorts of rules that seem as important as they are impossible to live by. How do we distill it down? Where do we look for the core teachings? It seems reasonable to set our sights on a few highlights by looking for some moments where Jesus’ teaching seems to stand out. Last Sunday, for example, we heard Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’ first sermon. It seems to reason that this inaugural address would serve as a precept for the ministry of Jesus. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” To be a disciple means to repent, to change direction away from following the ways of the kingdom of this world and toward the ways of the kingdom of God.
Our Gospel lesson for today is another one of those highpoint moments in the life and ministry of Jesus from which we can learn some of the core values of kingdom living. Jesus and his disciples are on a corporate retreat in the mountain town of Caesarea Philippi. After a flurry of activity, they’ve gone on retreat to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday ministry and to take stock of where things are. Here, Jesus invites his disciples to reflect on what they have seen and heard. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. “John the Baptist,” they reply, “and others say Elijah or another one of the prophets.” Like any good retreat leader, Jesus presses them further, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter is quick to answer, “You are the Messiah.”
In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first and only time that Jesus is called the Messiah in a positive way. During his trial, the High Priest will ask Jesus accusingly, “Are you the Messiah?” Later, while Jesus is being crucified, the crowds mock him, shouting, “Let the Messiah come down from the cross.” It is only here, while on retreat in the resort town of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus’ disciples call him the Messiah, and so it is here that Jesus takes the opportunity to help them better understand what that means. While they might have images of riding into Jerusalem with an army, ready to overthrow the Romans and reform the Temple system, Jesus is quick to let them know that being the Messiah of God means something very different. He will be rejected by the religious powers that be, undergo great suffering, and ultimately, be killed. But, on the third day, he will rise again. Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus offers a core values sermon, as a reminder of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, for not only his closest disciples, but the crowd that had followed them even on retreat.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is certainly not the vision of discipleship that people like Peter were hoping for, but it is what Jesus has had in mind from the very beginning. It is, I believe, the most important precept of the Christian faith. Following Jesus means setting aside our own desires, no matter how noble they may seem, in order to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Following Jesus means taking up our cross and following in his way. Contrary to common usage, the crosses we bear aren’t the minor inconveniences of life, but the cross is the very means by which we lose our lives. Our faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the one who has come to restore all of humanity to right relationship, is the cross we are invited to carry. It means giving up everything for the will of God. It means laying down our lives for the betterment of the other. The cross we bear is not a difficult part of life that God gives us, but our whole life given back to God. Just as Jesus will carry his own cross to his execution, so too do we carry ours, laying down our lives for the sake of the kingdom, so that today and every day, we too might know the resurrected life.
Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means standing up for what we believe in. It means living into the fullness of our baptismal vows. It means loving our neighbor, even when it is unpopular. It means opening our doors to strangers who might make us feel uncomfortable. It means sharing our resources of time, talent, and treasure to share the love of God with a world that desperately needs it. And, it means, coming to grips with the reality that the adversary is standing at every turn, inviting us to doubt God’s never-failing love, to fear the unknown, and to question God’s goodness. Nobody, certainly not even Jesus himself, said following Jesus would be easy. We who claim to be his disciples should be well aware of that, but Jesus does go on to promise that those who lose their lives for his sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.
The penultimate precept in Mr. Browne’s class is attributed to Anglican Priest and co-founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley. It reads, “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” That’s taking up your cross and following Jesus. We don’t get to pick to whom we will share God’s love. We don’t get to pick when or where or even necessarily how. Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is simply to use the gifts entrusted to our care to build up the Kingdom and spread the love of God today and every day of our lives. Amen.