Reconnect: Who Do You Say I Am?
Confession time: how many of you who are on our mailing list got to read my newsletter column yet? In case you didn’t get to it, let me give you a quick summary. I shared with you about a video I saw at a conference some years ago. People in white shirts and black shirts are tossing a ball while moving around in a circle. You’re supposed to count how many times the people in white catch the ball. You watch intently, and get an answer, right or wrong. But then, the narrator asks, “Did you notice the gorilla?” You watch the clip again, and sure enough, a man in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the group. At least 50% of viewers, including me, don’t notice the gorilla. It’s called “selective attention,” meaning when we are focused on one thing, we can miss other things, even very obvious things, because our attention is elsewhere. It’s why you might walk by someone you know in the supermarket and not even notice them. It’s why texting and driving is so dangerous. When we’re really focused, we don’t always see what else is going on. That’s why it is really important to make sure what we’re focused on is the right thing, the most essential thing. This month, our worship will be focused on helping us reconnect with our purpose. We need to make sure that of all the important things that happen here, we don’t miss the point – we don’t miss the gorilla walking through the middle of picture!
Today we start thinking about our purpose with a text from Mark that we looked at back in February. At the beginning of our text, we find Jesus travelling with the disciples, and on the way, he asks them about how people see him. Who are they saying he is? The disciples tell him: some are saying he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, or another of the prophets. But then Jesus is more direct. And who do you say that I am? Peter answers boldly, rightly: You are the Messiah. But then Jesus begins to talk about what that means, his being the Messiah. He tells them about the suffering he’s about to go through, his death, and his ultimate resurrection. Somehow, though, Peter, who just called him Messiah, didn’t understand what that title would mean. He rebukes Jesus, and in turn, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Then Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “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?”
Last week, I spoke to you about what I hear in the words, “I never knew you,” words that Jesus told us in Matthew’s gospel he might say to those pretending to be something they weren’t. “I never knew you.” This week, Jesus seems to be asking, “Do you really know me?” What strikes me in this passage is that it takes place in the eighth chapter of Mark. Mark’s gospel is short, so chapter 8 is actually half way through. By the time we get to today’s passage, Jesus has already called the disciples, cast out several demons, cured the blind, deaf, and sick, raised a girl from the dead, taught many parables, broken laws about fasting and Sabbath, calmed a storm, fed 4000 and 5000, traveled and taught among Gentiles, called out the scribes and elders about loving their traditions more than they love God, grieved over the death of John the Baptist, and sent disciples out to do some preaching, exorcising, and healing themselves. It seems a little late, doesn’t it, to be asking the disciples if they know who he is? If they don’t know who he is, you have to wonder, why on earth are they following him? Why would they go through all that they go through if they didn’t already have an answer worked out to Jesus’ question? “Do you really know who I am?” Would seeing some cool miracles and healings be worth leaving everything normal about their lives behind if they didn’t have a clear picture, or at least a becoming-clearer-each-moment-picture of who Jesus was? I hear, behind Jesus’ question to the disciples, that he wonders if they really know who he is, if they really know why they are following, if they really understand what it is all about. The road ahead is going to be very difficult, Jesus says. He talks about taking up crosses – instruments of execution – and he uses this as an illustration of what life is like when you choose to follow Jesus. It is putting your life on the line. Being willing to risk it all in order to follow. If you want to follow, be ready to carry a cross. Do you really know who I am, Jesus asks us? Do you really know what it means to follow me? Is this your purpose?
Children are great at asking questions, and most of the time, the core question they ask is: “Why.” Children are curious, they wonder, they imagine, and when they see the stuff that we do without even thinking about it, things that are brand new to them, they want to know why. Why does green mean go and red mean stop? Why is the sky blue? Why does it rain? Why do I have to eat vegetables? Why can’t a lay on the floor during dinner? Why do I have to sleep at night? In fact, children often go through a phase of asking why, why, why, until adults find themselves uttering phrases they swore they would never use: Because! Because I said so! Just because! We know that the answers are complicated sometimes. Or sometimes we know we can’t give a good explanation – like the reason the sky is blue that we learned in science once upon a time but then forgot. And we know that sometimes the answer is not very satisfying: Because somewhere along the way we decided that laying on the floor for dinner would be called “rude,” while other things would be called “polite.”
One of the unfortunate side effects of becoming an adult is that we often forget to ask why. We’ve stopped being curious, because we’re too busy, or rushed, or tired to wonder why. I think when we stop asking why, it becomes very easy to focus on the wrong things, to focus on the people passing the ball, instead of the gorilla walking by. We start paying attention to the interior decorating instead of the foundation. We start focusing on our plans instead of God’s plans. We start listening only to our own voice instead of God’s words. When we stop asking about our purpose, sometimes, we stop having one.
Why are we doing this thing called church? Why are we doing it here, at Liverpool First UMC? Is it because we want to follow Jesus? Why are we following him? One of the books I read for my most recent class suggested that every day, you remind yourself of what your primary purpose or purposes are in life. What’s the major belief that you are trying to live out, the major task you say you are all about? Then, at the end of each day, reflect on this question: What did I do today that helped me carry out our purpose? If your purpose is following Jesus, what did you do today that helped you to follow Jesus more closely? If at the end of each day, you find yourself unable to answer the question, the authors suggest it is time to start living differently, or at least time to admit your purpose isn’t really your purpose.
I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t wait for each of the disciples to answer his question about who they thought he was. And when Peter demonstrated getting the answer right, but still missing out on true understanding, I’m sure Jesus wasn’t surprised. He didn’t kick the disciples out for getting confused over and over. Instead, he relentlessly tried to call peoples’ attention to the things they were overlooking – the important things. And so Jesus told the Pharisees to stop focusing on the minutia of the law while missing the heart. He told people to stop focusing on the people at the center of social circles, and start looking at the fringes. He told the disciples to stop vying for a place at the front of the line, and start trying to come in last, carrying a cross. Jesus asks us, again and again, to remember who we’re following, why we’re following, and what might happen when we sign up to walk with Christ.
Why are you here today? Why here and not sleeping in? Why here, and not at the park? For some reason, on this day, at this time, in this place, we’ve all decided to come together, to talk about God, to sing songs about God, to talk about following Jesus. Do we know who we’re following? Do we know why?