The story goes this way: Back in the 1960s, a church placed a large sign up on the way into town that read: “Jesus is the answer!” The sign was written in capital letters with BOLD FACE text. Within a few days, some prankster had spray painted an additional text: “What is the question?”
I love the story as it pokes a bit at the over-familiarity churches can have with their religious concepts and words. We are a people who speak a code language that takes a newcomer awhile to get used to. Part of my calling as minister is to figure out how to open these wonderful words of faith, developed over centuries (cherished even) and help the newcomer and the long-time member connect and reconnect with words that are part of our belief and tradition. How does one get her mind around, and then more to the point, one’s heart around words that matter so to the Christian faith?
Take “baptism” for example. We could describe baptism with the textbook definitions drawn from a theology book or a Baptist manual for worship serving as handy tools alongside our Bibles, yet there’s the playful twist we can bring with it. Take for example the United Methodist bishop and popular preacher Will Willimon who likens one’s baptism in a congregation as little like becoming part of the Rotary Club. You are encouraged to be civic-minded. Both Rotarians and Christians know how to do business over a good meal and sit politely through a speech every week while discretely dozing. The big difference is that we church folks don’t settle for shaking your hand when you join. We aim to drown you good!
At that time of “drowning you good”, we ask a big question: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Historically, this question reflects the earliest Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord!” The Baptist tradition stresses the question as one to be answered by the person to be baptized. “Is Jesus YOUR Lord and Savior?” is our way of asking a big question with a Baptist accent. The challenge for the believer is the same, whether young or old. Standing there (hopefully not shivering), you are asked a question that matters greatly. Is Jesus worth you believing in?
To get to the “yes” (and admittedly the “no” for some folks), one has to sort out what that language means to them. When I go through discipleship classes with a person interested in becoming a baptized Christian, this question is not to be simply asked and agreed to. This question is indeed “the” question for Christians over the last two millennia for good reason. Other than the “yes” being said and more to the point taken seriously by the person being baptized, it’s just a very public way of taking a dip in a pool with a crowd watching on.
When Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?” the disciples answer with a variety of answers common to the day. The responses of “John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet of old” were to be expected, as they were figures hoped for in the beliefs of the day. Peter tops all of them and declares Jesus “Messiah”. And to all of this, Jesus says very firmly, “Shhhhh!”
Admittedly, that would make for quite the spectacle: you’re at the great moment of baptism, you ask the question and camera phones are getting primed to record the moment for Youtube posterity. The person says, “Yes”, the people lean forward in the pews, awaiting the sound and sight of water splashing and conversion symbolized by “drowning you good”. And then the minister stops everything and says, “Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!”
One would think such a moment was quite the letdown. The camera phones might still be recording, as their owners think, “I’ve got to record this. The minister’s gone loopy!”
Why would Jesus get the answer the reader expects (i.e. “You’re the Messiah!”) and tell everybody to hush? Further, what is Jesus up to when he spends time teaching his inner circle “that the Son of Man 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”? What type of great moment is this when “the answer” is not only shushed and downplayed; it is complicated by further instruction describing “great suffering, rejection, and death”?
On the average Sunday morning, Christians sing and pray to Jesus, ascribing the titles of “Lord” “Savior” and “Messiah” faithfully. Every once and awhile, it may be helpful to consider the great irony of such language at the heart of our faith. Each of these titles is understood through the prism of Jesus not being like the type of “Lord” “Savior” and “Messiah” that the disciples and crowds expected. Our faith celebrates one who suffers greatly, gets rejected, and dies. We understand the story does not end there (the great ending of the gospels has an empty tomb awaiting on the third day. Nonetheless, to get to Easter alleluias, we have to go by way of the cross!
A cross, the occupying empire’s cruel mode of execution and tool of control and intimidation answers belief in Jesus as the hoped-for Messiah, the one who will bring Israel’s fortunes back after long disappointment. “Who do you say that I am?” is a big question, yet what Jesus teaches as his answer is befuddling, a strange witness to God’s intention to bring the people and the world out of the chaos and into this Kingdom/Reign of God Jesus is always going on about. What sort of Messiah winds up dead? Certainly not the one expected by the disciples and the crowds to be the answer they want to their prayers!
Careful readers of Mark’s gospel will notice a small clue in the narration. Mark claims Jesus speaks plainly of the suffering, rejection and death. For once, Jesus is not teaching in parables/riddles. In what should be a great moment of authority and power being hailed by Jesus’ followers, we get instead a word that is not meant to be a brainteaser or a paradigm challenger. Jesus is telling it plain. Hence his angry retort when Peter takes him to the side and takes him to task. If you are going to follow Jesus as Lord/Savior/Messiah, you have to keep your eyes and heart on what matters.
Jesus warns again being too “earthly minded”, caught up in the politics of the day or the easy answers, offered to us by the “powers that be”. The Messiah was considered a mighty political force to be reckoned with, sent by God to take over by force. Instead, we will celebrate Jesus’ way by creating a victory parade for our Messiah who rides a donkey and gets befuddled stares as he answers the hope of the people, though in ways that the people did not expect the Messiah to appear, let alone act out his peculiar way of saving them by dying after enduring great hardship and mockery. The scholar Dorothy Lee-Pollard observes, “The cross reveals where God’s kingdom is to be found—not among the powerful or even the religious, but in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death” (as quoted by James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis, 2011, p. 157). Jesus dies in a place where he is symbolically written off by the Temple and Empire. His cross is in a forgotten place called Golgotha, or “the place of the skull”.
The big questions proliferate: What sort of Messiah reveals himself in dying and rising on the third day? Where does the messianic hope for a great and mighty reversal of Israel’s fortunes appear in such a messiah? What inspiration does a cross give, if we understand the cross less as symbol of ecclesial power and more as the sign and symbol of a Kingdom/Reign most certainly not in the running to be the next influential Temple or mighty Empire?
Jesus turns to the crowds to add to his teaching to his disciples. He claims that a cross not only awaits the Messiah, there is one for everybody who follows. Again, the tool of Rome’s domination is well known for its effective communication of who’s really in charge, at least according to Rome and their local lackeys. The cross awaits anybody who claims they follow Jesus.
I suggest you think back to your own baptism. Did you realize what you were saying while awaiting baptism? You just signed up for a long, strange journey called discipleship and your only provision is the faith that you keep that says, “By the way, don’t forget that cross as you go out ready to follow Jesus!”
Faith in Christ is more than saying the right words and getting “drowned good”. It is a journey that asks you to follow a way not mapped out by the world and its ways. Christianity presumes you are willing to shape your life by the pattern of the gospel: following Jesus, taking up the cross, going where faith takes you, and as other parts of the New Testament tradition put it, dying to self. The life you gain is not necessarily the life others might encourage you to look for. Indeed, following Jesus asks us a big question, and our faithful answer in the form of following the gospel in word and deed will be absolutely befuddling to the rest of the world.