Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
September 17, 2000
The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Who Do People Say That I Am?
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Mark 8:27-38

If someone were to ask you what is the primary, most fundamental governing principle of your life, how would you answer them? If you wanted to be radically honest, what do you think your answer would have to be? Do you think you'd be likely to give such answers as faithfulness? Or good health? Or perhaps an enduring sense of security? Or would you tend more to say the acceptance of others, or the certainty of power or of wealth or of success or popularity? What is the fundamental governing principle of your life? Do you know?

The poet David Whyte takes it even one step further by putting the question this way: "How much time do you spend in that place of first principles within you? How much time do you spend in that place of first principles within you?" Do you even know how to find and to enter that "place of first principles"? Do you try to go there often, taking a compass reading and correcting your course as may be necessary? Do you do that?

Perhaps in many ways these are questions which most of us would just as soon prefer to avoid and never have to face. But I think we would do so at our peril. For they are questions of profound significance for our lives, questions that we really can't live fully without confronting. And they are also the same questions that the story in Mark's Gospel unequivocally puts before us this morning.

Hear again the story. Jesus and his disciples are walking along the dusty, rocky road to the region of Caesarea Philippi. And as they walk, the talk between them flows easily, perhaps to offset the rigors of the long miles or their slow progress. But then, perhaps out of a time of silence or a consciousness of the deep bonds of friendship between them, Jesus asks a simple but probing question, "Who do people say that I am?" It's a question not so much of identity as of the perception of identity. And when you stop to think about it, it's not such an uncommon question. People are always wondering how they are perceived by others. I'm reminded, for example, of that wonderful line of the Scottish poet Robert Burns:

"Pray the Lord above will gie us, to see ourselves as others see us."

And my own memories go back now to times in my childhood, maybe around jr. high age, when several of us girls would get together for long, heart-to-heart talks, and, sworn to honesty, we'd tell each other what others thought of us. And after we'd finished that, we'd move on to the next thing, and one at a time, we'd tell what each one of us thought of each one of the others.

Typical adolescent talk, you might say, and true enough. Yet it strikes me that, quite innocently, what we were doing in our small, intimate group of youthful, friends was very similar to what Jesus was doing with his close friends. "Who do people say that I am?" he asked them. And then, hearing their answers, he too pressed them even further: " But you, who do you say that I am?" It was Peter who first spoke up, perhaps on behalf of the others. I always picture in my imagination that he spoke in a low voice, quieted by his awe at what he was just beginning to understand,. "Why, you are the Messiah," he said. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And then, as if in a movement of assent, Jesus responded quite openly and told them all that that would mean - that he would suffer and be rejected and finally be sentenced to death on a cross. But then he went on to say that in three days he would rise and overcome even the powerful bonds of death.

So take a moment now and look at the cross. (Altar, hangings, elsewhere) Or touch the cross that you may be wearing on a chain around your neck or perhaps carry in your pocket. What does that cross mean for you? What does it symbolize? What does it ask of you? Can you hear it saying even now to each of us here, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."? Can you hear it? Can you hear it speaking in your heart? I believe - and I experience - that the cross is what we call a participating symbol - a symbol that actually accomplishes what it symbolizes - because in that terrible execution of Jesus, it was the cross that both announced and accomplished the ultimate victory of life over death.

But then let me take this a step further. For I have come to see that same cross also as a participating symbol and an invitation to a profound, self-giving generosity on our parts as well, an invitation to an all encompassing giving of ourselves for the sake of love, even as Jesus did, and not just in his dying but also and more so in his living, in the fulness and wholeness and holiness of human life.

To be generous in this way is to declare our unequivocal trust in the power of good to overcome evil and the power of life to overcome death. It is to proclaim our trust in the ultimate victory of Christ, not just with our minds alone but with our hearts and our actions as well. It is to be caught up not in the ways of the world, but in the ways of love and in the ways of God. To be generous is to be generative, to be bold and creative - a contributor rather than a detractor in the very building of the Kingdom of God on the earth. And you and I can do this because of the total generosity once shown to us by Christ on the cross.

The Dalai Lama, currently living in exile from his beautiful, beloved land of Tibet, is reported to have given this instruction to his people on the occasion of the new millennium:

"Take always into account that inevitably great love and great achievements involve great risks."

I believe that this same wisdom is included in the invitation of the cross and the invitation of the Christ to us. "Come and dare to risk!" they say, "for that is the only way to enter into the true fullness of life." How sad it would be for any one of us to come to the end of our lifetime and to look back and realize only then that we have failed to be courageous, that we have not dared to love fully or to live fully, that we have not dared to take risks, or to step forward into uncharted territory. But that we have lived instead a life of fear and hesitation, afraid to be open, afraid to be generous - with ourselves or with our abilities, with our wealth and even with our poverty.

"For those who want to save their life will lose it," Jesus said,
"and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

So let's get going! Let's join the other disciples of Jesus and walk along the pathways of this life together. And every day let's try to learn more and more of who our companion Jesus truly is and of who we really are. And then let's go confidently wherever he may call us.


Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: 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." NRSV

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