“Who, What and Why?” by Marjory Bankson

September 12, 2021

“Who do YOU say that I am?” When Jesus asked that question of his disciples, I suspect there was dead silence as they shifted from what others said — to their own wondering: Who was he indeed! Then, as usual, Peter blurted out his answer for all of them: “You are the Messiah.”

Quickly, Jesus warned them not to tell anyone. Why? Because he was shredding their traditional understanding of “Messiah.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is quite clear that he is NOT the triumphal Messiah that his disciples have been hoping for. He is NOT there to restore Israel or free them from Roman rule.

Mark’s Jesus calls himself the Son of Man — who must suffer and die — like the rest of us. And furthermore, Jesus says, anyone who would follow him can also expect that fate as the path to life itself. There is nothing here about avoiding pain. In fact, Mark’s Jesus says “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.”

Notice here that Jesus is speaking to his disciples as a group, not as individuals. This is NOT a special challenge to Peter or James or John – or to you or me. “Take up your cross” means group vulnerability or systemic loss, not individual martyrdom.

Reading the text for this week, I was reminded of Rebecca Wheaton’s sermon on the Buddhist practice of tonglen – breathing in pain and breathing out love. Trusting our bodies to be a crucible of transformation. Take up our cross. Breathe in pain and suffering; breathe out love and forgiveness – and let that be our guide to action.

It sounds – well — unAmerican. After all, didn’t we just spend 20 years punishing those responsible for the 9/11 attack? Didn’t our President just promise to hunt down and hurt those who attacked the last flights out of Afghanistan? Don’t we, as a nation, see violence as entertainment? And support gun ownership as a civic right?

I grew up thinking that the primary question for Christians was “Are you saved?” Everything depended on one’s individual answer. Belief in Jesus “as my personal savior” was the KEY to eternal life and it had virtually nothing to do with this life  — except when we needed a miraculous intervention. It was a MY decision. Even today, that focus on individual salvation helps to keep our racial caste system in place, here and in many parts of our country.

But when Jesus tells his disciples that they must “take up the cross,” he is NOT talking about individual salvation. He is speaking about the work of “a people.” Becoming a follower of Jesus was about their life this world, and not the next. It was about embracing vulnerability and shame as well as peace and dignity.

Jesus’ way IS “unAmerican” in that sense, but it points the way to an evolutionary shift away from our visceral response of fight or flight — toward what could make us truly human: the capacity to respond with love in the face of danger, to offer forgiveness instead of hate. To respond with peaceful resistance instead of violence. To walk the path that Jesus walked, even if that means simply embracing the pain in our own community.

“Who do YOU say that I am” is really the basic question for every Christian, because everything follows from that. His question, and the disciple’s answer had everything to do with this life, here and now. Jesus was a different kind of Messiah!

So, what does that have to do with Seekers?

Today marks the beginning of Recommitment Season – which will end on the third Sunday in October, the date when Church of the Saviour began.

I remember being very surprised by this yearly practice of reviewing our commitment to Christ and to each other, because my experience had been one of joining a church and never thinking much about it again. But here we are asked to examine ourselves, our relationships, and our call to ministry for a period of six weeks! Every year! It is an exercise in updating our conscious commitment over time.

When we were meeting in person, we would typically find a bulletin insert for reflection — with the Member’s commitment statement, the Steward’s commitment, and also this commitment statement for the children. Listen carefully, and notice your response:

I promise:

  • To learn about God by coming to this church;
  • To take care of the air, water and earth, and to love the plants, trees, animals, birds, and fish;
  • To love and respect my body;
  • To help people who don’t have much money;
  • To try to get along with my family, my friends, and others; and
  • To say “yes” to God as I grow.

For the adults, an insert that I found tucked in my journal suggested these topics for reflection about recommitment:

  • Participation in common worship
  • Financial stewardship
  • Personal spiritual growth
  • Call
  • Group life
  • Commitment to inclusion (especially of children)

The bottom line here is that we are saved from toxic individualism by our commitments to one another — commitments that will take us beyond the comfortable “givens” of family and like-minded friends. In fact, if Jesus is calling us to “take up the cross” as the path to life beyond our physical comfort and convenience, few of us can do that alone. We need help, even to face the realities of our own diminishment, along with the larger questions of injustice, disease and climate change. We need both challenge and encouragement.

Every year during recommitment season, I put my Steward’s commitment and my two mission groups on the altar, asking God for any “course corrections” that I need to make. Sometimes I have felt an agony of indecision. Some years I was called away from what had been life-giving. This year, I have already heard a clear word to “stay on course” as we make our way through this pandemic. I need to be steady and reliable. For me, it’s a season to listen carefully, be selective, and then do my part in the community of Seekers – trusting that others will also find their place in this living body of Christ.

Finally, the Epistle reading from James brings up my last question: Why the School for Christian Growth? The text begins with this warning:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Because we have an open pulpit, we cannot expect the kind of consistent teaching that Gordon Cosby used to provide by working with a single book over many sermons. Instead, our classes in the School are meant to be a place where we can deepen our knowledge and understanding of our biblical roots, examine the traditions that have shaped our faith over time, and explore new outreach together.

We do expect our teachers to offer both content and community. Will we be judged with greater strictness? Perhaps, but that too is part of the journey. I have always found our class members eager to make it work, offering their wisdom and energy to make each class a good experience for all.

In the next few weeks, you will be hearing from different members of Learners & Teachers, the mission group undergirding the School. We want to grow good teachers and we would welcome new members to the mission group.

For now, let me close with the three questions I started with:

First, “Who do you say that I am” is the basic question of our faith as followers of Jesus. He IS the Messiah in an unexpected and revolutionary way.

Second, Recommitment keeps us conscious of what matters most as we practice how to love in this world, here and now, helping us be accountable as we respond to God’s call in our lives.

Third, the School is a primary structure for deepening our practice together, helping us to grow in faith even in times of trouble or need.

I hope that YOU will take this season of recommitment as a time for reflection on the commitments in your life, and especially your commitments here at Seekers. Your answer and mine will ultimately shape our life together.  Amen.

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