Discipleship (1): The Hinge of It All

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 12, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

So I Can Just Sit Around?

These past few weeks we’ve really focused in on the fact that Jesus wants to transform us, to transform our lives, transform our hearts. By the power of the Kingdom of God arriving in and through him, arriving in very concrete and real ways, Jesus is offering to transform us in the most unforeseen and unforeseeable of ways.

And like we also talked, Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry demonstrating that he wasn’t full of hot air. He says all of these things, makes all of these crazy claims—but then he backs them up by demonstrating the power of this Kingdom at work: he multiplies bread and gives them the true “bread from heaven”; he heals a deaf and mute man; cures diseases. He has shown that the power of this Kingdom is at work in and through him. Great!

And so where and how is this Kingdom going to show up now? Through the people that have been transformed by Christ, through the people whose lives have been changed, through the people that follow Christ—through them the power of this Kingdom will continue to break in.

But, like I’ve mentioned before: this isn’t magic. All of us here have been baptized, been confirmed, we show up to Mass, we receive communion—but that doesn’t mean we’re good, we’re done, we can just sit around. That’s what’s going on in the Gospel today. All of a sudden the attention turns toward Jesus’ teaching about discipleship. Because the people through whom the Kingdom of God will arrive aren’t the people that are card-carrying Christians, but through Christian disciples.

Discipleship: A Scary Word

Now, I’m aware: when I say that we need to be “disciples,” we can get a lot of very strange ideas about what that means. If I were to walk around and have you define what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (and I’m not going to do that, don’t worry)—but we would get some strange answers. But let’s keep it simple. Being a disciple of Jesus, at a very fundamental level, means being in relationship with Jesus.

We all know what it means to be in relationship with someone, whether that’s a relationship with a sibling or a parent, a relationship with a friend, with your boss, with your spouse, or your boyfriend. Lots of different relationships, lots of different kinds, lots of different levels. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, a life of discipleship, at its most fundamental level, means being in relationship with him.

One thing about any relationship, though, is that it always involves risk. What if you open yourself up to someone and they reject you? What if she doesn’t like you? Some people are like, “Oh, just be yourself!” But then we second guess ourself, we worry what they will think. And when we start to perceive the risk, when we start to see that we’re putting ourselves in a vulnerable position—we can easily pull back, put up our walls, put our defenses back up, and shut it all down. But Jesus is going to constantly invite us farther along, invite us to follow.

Peter’s Confession: The Beginning of Next Level Discipleship

That’s why this scene in the Gospel is so important, such a hinge, a turning point on the narrative. Here at the center of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks the most important question to the people following him. And it isn’t a test of, “What have I taught you?” or, “What are the rules to following me?” No, Jesus asks a very simple question. Jesus stops, turns around, and asks: “Who does everyone seem to think I am?”

And so the disciples rattle off the classic answers: “Some people think you are John the Baptist, other think you are Elijah, other say you are a prophet.” If we answered this question today, if we were to report the answers of “who people seem to think Jesus is,” we could respond: “Well Jesus, some people think you are the source of a bunch of oppressive rules, a name to make people feel guilty. Others seem to think you are one who will provide comfort when we are having a difficult time. Still others think you are a scam and that people who follow you are naive and unintelligent.”

But then he asks them point blank: “Ok, so that’s what other people think. But you, who do you say that I am? Based off of everything you’ve seen and experienced, all of these concrete and real experiences and events—who do you say that I am?

And as usual, it’s Peter who goes for it. Remember a few weeks ago in our Gospel, people stopped following Jesus. They couldn’t take it anymore. And so Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Everyone else is gone, aren’t you going too? Will you abandon me too?” At that point, it was Peter who responded, “Lord, you’re right, we don’t fully understand you; we don’t even totally understand why we follow you! But we are sure that you are the only one who takes us seriously, takes seriously our need for complete and total fulfillment. Only you have the words of eternal life! Only you have the words which correspond to my heart. Master, to whom else would we go?” (c.f., John 6:68).

Today, Jesus doesn’t simply ask if they want to abandon him. No, Jesus raises the stakes: “Sure, you’re still here. But you, who do you that that I am?”And so Peter goes for it. He makes a bold claim: “You are the Messiah. Jesus, you are the one who will fulfill everything the LORD has promised us. You are the one who will fulfill the deepest longings of our heart. You are the Christ, the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for.”

Discipleship: Sharing In His Life

This is the question Jesus asks us. “Ok, you’re here at Mass. But you, who do you say that I am?” Answering this question involves a risk! Because it’s like when you first admit you like a girl, when those words come out of your mouth. Once that is out there, once you admit that—things change. All of a sudden there is a whole new dynamic to that relationship. Things reach a new level of intimacy. You want to begin sharing more and more. You want to share in their life. 

Crowds following Jesus is nothing new, people listening to him, people eating the bread he offers—those are often the people that left. They couldn’t admit that he was who he says he was, so the relationship remained at a very surface level. Here we are today, “the crowd” showing up to see Jesus, to listen to him, to eat the bread from heaven he offers—we’ve been doing it for a while, and we keep showing up each week. But at some point we have to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?” And when we do that, honestly do that, we are also opening a new dynamic of this relationship. We can no longer just follow him around, we have to take the risk of sharing in his life.

So let’s assume that we all agree with Peter, “Yup! Jesus is the Messiah.” Which means, “Yup! Jesus, you are the one who will fulfill everything the LORD has promised us. You are the one who will fulfill the deepest longings of my heart.” …well that changes the dynamic of this relationship. If we say, if we admit that Jesus is who he says he is, everything changes. 

And Jesus knows that. That’s why he immediately talks about what this looks like. If all of a sudden there is a whole new dynamic to that relationship, a new level of intimacy, and they will begin sharing more and more, sharing in each other’s life more and more—then we need to know: what does this look like? what does it mean to share in this life? to be in relationship with him? to be his disciple? 

He says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus lays this one on them. Just unapologetically lays this out there. What does this mean? “Deny yourself? Take up your cross? Follow him?” What does this mean? What does this look like? Well, that’s what Jesus is going to be laying out the rest of the Gospel of Mark.

But as a quick insight, Jesus is inviting us to set aside a life of self-invention and self-reliance, and instead to follow him on the path of complete dependence on and trust in the Father.The cross looks ridiculous, sounds like a stupid idea—I mean look at it, you end up abandoned, humiliated, dead. But the story doesn’t end there. And that’s the point. When we become his disciples, follow him, embrace this life—as bad as the externals look, it will end in resurrection.

Today the question is asked of us in a new and fresh way: “Who do you say that this Jesus guy is?” And if, like Peter, you say he is the Christ, our next question, our next desire, should be to know how to live in this relationship with him. And little by little, as we continue to ask that, to desire to live that, Jesus will open the path for us, he will show us the way, he will make us his disciples.

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