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Sermon for Ash Wednesday (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 2/25/09, Mark 8:27-38)

Who Do You Say that I Am?

Today, Lent begins with this service of Ashes, as we pause to think about our own mortality, our own finite nature, and as we consider what it means to repent and turn back towards God. This year, we’ll use music from Jesus Christ Superstar at our 10am service to help us think about this Lenten journey, to help us think about how and why and if we are willing to follow Jesus on the path to the cross. You know already that Superstar is my favorite musical. I started going to see a local annual production of Superstar when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have seen Superstar on stage in various settings about 30 times. I’ve worn out multiple cassette tapes and CDs from overuse. I could probably perform a one-woman version of the show all by myself. And when I wrote my senior religion paper in undergrad, Jesus Christ Superstar figured heavily into my project. So you know I love Superstar. But you don’t know why I love it. I’ll tell you more about it on Sunday when we focus in on Judas in particular. But the main thing is this: Jesus Christ Superstar makes me want to be part of the story. Watching and listening, I just want to be part of it. As a teenager, nothing drew me in to the gospel story quite like Superstar. I wanted to know what made each character tick – what motivated them and what did they see in Jesus, I wondered? I asked myself where I would be in the story. Would I be a disciple? Would I be on the sideline? Would I be one who wanted Jesus put to death? Superstar simply drew me in, and my fascination with the musical led me to a love of the season of Lent, a curiosity about the passion story, and a deeper faith. I hope, through the next several weeks, to convey some of that to you.

For me, the heart of the story of Superstar is an identity question in two parts. Who is Jesus? And who am I? Superstar focuses on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, but it is less about the events and more about the people. Each song we will hear over the next weeks will give us an inside look at what the people closest to Jesus might have been thinking in the week leading up to the crucifixion. Why did some choose to become disciples? Why would some give up everything to follow him? Why would Judas betray Jesus? Why was Mary so devoted? Why did Peter’s faith waver? Why did the priests want him dead? Why did Pilate cede his authority? Why? These are the questions I wonder about when I read the scriptures, and for me, this music we’ll hear helps me discover, wonder, imagine. Tonight’s song is just a glimpse, as we see Mary and Judas both have vastly different reactions to who Jesus is and what Jesus is about.

Tonight we skip back in the gospel of Mark to the scene I mentioned on Sunday that happens just before the Transfiguration. Jesus has been travelling and teaching and healing, with his disciples accompanying him. And on their way to Caesarea Philippi, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer “John the Baptist,” and “Elijah,” and “one of the prophets.” But Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers boldly, and for the first time, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus begins to tell them that the Son of Man will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before a resurrection three days later. Peter, who has just made such a bold proclamation, rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Peter could see who Jesus was – the Messiah. But he hadn’t yet learned what that meant – couldn’t see what being the Messiah would mean for Jesus – or perhaps, more accurately, couldn’t accept it.

Jesus calls the crowds together, along with the disciples, and makes things very clear: “If any want to become my followers, than let them deny themselves, and take up the cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Very simply, you can’t claim Jesus is the Messiah without knowing what that means, without consequences. For Jesus, it’s a simple if-then logic statement. If who Jesus is is the Messiah, then it follows that there will be a certain response from us. If we believe he is the Messiah, then we will deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. And in reverse, if we aren’t denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus, how can we claim him as the Messiah?

Who do you say that Jesus is? And what difference has that made in your life? Who are you? And how is who you are related to who Jesus is, or who you say he is? In the next weeks, we’ll look at Mary, and Peter, Judas and Simon, Pilate and the Priests. We’ll find out who they though they were. Did they change who they were because of who they thought Jesus was? Did who Jesus was change who they were? Some, we’ll see, try to make Jesus into who they wanted him to be. Some knew exactly who Jesus was, and feared him for it. Some were plagued by doubts and questions, and could never figure out who they were without understanding who Jesus was. Some knew who Jesus was, and learned how it had to change their lives, their very identities, knowing who Jesus was.

Who do you say that Jesus is? A prophet? A teacher? A healer? A miracle-worker? A work of fiction? A historical figure to admire? The Messiah? And who are you? A student? A skeptic? A believer? A questioner? An enemy? A child of God? A disciple? This Lent, this season, these forty days, the questions before us are the most important we can ask, about our very identity. Every day, we’re asked to define ourselves, to identify ourselves. We give proof in Driver’s Licenses and social security numbers and ID cards. We answer the question: I’m a mother. I’m a doctor. I’m his brother. I’m a banker. But this Lent, this season, these forty days, we only have one person to answer to. Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” And who do that make you?

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”

Amen.

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