September 13, 2015

Here at Grace Episcopal Church, we like to welcome people "wherever you are on your journey of faith." But this invitation doesn't mean that we're measuring everyone's faith journey in terms of a goal or destination—as in, "Whether you've just taken a few baby steps and can still barely keep up with the service bulletin," or "Whether you're diving headlong into the mystery of God revealed in Christ," you are welcome here. Instead, the "journey of faith" that we're talking about isn't really one we can measure in terms of progress from point A to point B. It's usually a journey that takes us all over the map—and, we say, wherever you are on that map, you're welcome to call Grace your home base.

          But even though it can be difficult to measure our faith journeys in terms of progress, there are important ways for us to orient ourselves. Where exactly are we on our journeys of faith? Today's gospel might really help us to get our bearings, to get a sense of where we've been, and to get a sense of where we could head next. In today's gospel, the disciples may not know exactly where their journey of faith is about to take them, but wherever they're going, they are, in a sense, about halfway there. And Jesus himself is, in a sense, about halfway toward fulfilling his purpose. Up until this point, Jesus has been living a half-truth about himself. He hasn't been living a lie, but he has been protecting a secret about himself, because it is only half of the story of who he is: the Messiah. In today's gospel, Jesus is ready to claim the whole truth of who he is: a Messiah who will suffer. But let's back up a little bit, because we're not there yet.

Wherever we find ourselves on our journeys of faith today, let's imagine that we're halfway to wherever we're going. Surely we're facing crossroads of some kind.

          When I say that the disciples are "halfway" through their journeys of faith, I'm not speaking geographically or chronologically. While Jesus spends most of his ministry in Galilee in the gospel of Mark and then heads to Jerusalem, today Jesus and the disciples have gone quite the opposite direction. They're in the settlements around Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, among Gentiles. They're a long way from home. After today, their journey will bend back, cross over to the familiar side of the Jordan, head through the Galilean territory they'd rambled through before, and make its way south through Judea and into Jerusalem. In terms of geography, the disciples are not halfway toward the cross and the empty tomb. They're even farther away than when they started.

          In terms of chronology in Mark's gospel, the disciples spend about a year journeying with Jesus before entering Jerusalem for the last week of his life. We're not exactly sure how soon after the conversation in today's gospel Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem, but a rough estimate would suggest that the disciples have fewer days left to spend with the incarnate Jesus than they had spent in his presence up to this point. The death of their teacher and friend was probably sooner than they would care to know.

          So, the next major station in the disciples' journeys of faith was far in terms of distance and probably close in terms of time. But in terms of grasping Jesus's identity, the disciples were halfway there. In fact, today's gospel passage occurs exactly halfway through the gospel of Mark. We're at the very end of the eighth chapter of a gospel that's been divided into sixteen chapters. With today's reading, we've hit the halfway point in this account of the good news. [Oh, and just so you know—I'm exactly halfway through this sermon.]

          It's here at the halfway point of the gospel that Jesus asks the disciples, "who do you say that I am?" The disciples get the answer half right. Peter does the talking, and he tells Jesus, "You are the Messiah." Not some reincarnation of Elijah or John the Baptist. Not the latest prophet. The Messiah—the Christ, the anointed. True. But only half-right.

          Peter's answer is technically correct, but crucially incomplete. While there were many different expectations of what being the "Messiah" actually meant, most often, the coming "anointed" one was thought to be a king—someone who would drive out oppressors and restore autonomous power and prosperity to God's people. Peter must have shared these expectations.

          But Jesus has a rather different prediction: Before this Messiah can come in glory, he and his disciples must suffer. Jesus teaches his disciples that he "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." And, the gospel tells us, "He said all this quite openly." That is, he tells the whole truth. No more half-truths. No more secrets.

          Today's passage is a hinge in a gospel. Jesus turns from closely guarding a half-truth about himself—that he is the Messiah—to speaking openly about the whole truth—that he will suffer. This passage has examples of two famous characteristics of Mark's gospel: the Messianic secret and a Passion prediction. There are lots of reasons why Jesus might have kept his identity as the Messiah a secret: maybe to limit the crowds coming to him for healing, or maybe to buy himself more time to teach and heal. Also, by keeping this secret, he protects himself from the enormous expectations that come with being a Messiah—expectations that he be inexhaustible and all-powerful.

          But at this point, the secret—or the half-truth—is too exhausting to keep, and so Jesus predicts his Passion, his suffering. Perhaps with some fear and some relief, he tells his disciples the whole truth. And in doing so, he opens himself to Peter's rebuke, to rejection by religious leaders, and even to death. Jesus has spent most of his ministry—maybe even most of his life—keeping a secret about himself, or living a half-truth. Now, he speaks to us openly.

          Jesus speaks openly not only about his own suffering, but about the suffering and cost that we'll have to face if we follow him. Yet Jesus also speaks openly about what we have to gain by following him: our "life," and our "soul." The word translated here sometimes as "life" and sometimes as "soul" is one word, psyche, which can mean our inmost being, our true self. When we follow Jesus away from half-truths, through rejection and loss, and into whole truths, we gain none other than our whole and truest selves. We gain the whole truth about us—that we are loved by God, and that we are made to love God and to serve our neighbors near and far.

And the promise that Jesus offers us in today's gospel is that when we reach the ultimate end of our journeys of faith—wherever and whenever that might be—he himself will greet us. We will see him after his suffering, and in his glory, and neither he nor we will be ashamed.

          Wherever we are on our journeys of faith, we very well might be at some kind of half-way point today. Like the disciples, we may be holding onto a half-truth about Jesus. We may also be protecting and projecting half-truths about ourselves. But Jesus invites us forward into a whole truth, into our truest selves, and into his shameless glory at the end of the age.