Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC Bangor, Maine
September 16, 2018

Who Are You, Jesus? Mark 8:27-38

One of the great privileges of my visit to York, England, three years ago was worshiping at the Yorkminster, the cathedral seat of the Archbishop of York. My sister, Marte, is now a member of the cathedral staff, and the Minster is also her spiritual home as well as that of her husband. The cathedral is a place that is visited by nearly 300,000 pilgrims from around the world each year. Clearly it is the center of Christian life in the North of England.

As I approached this huge Gothic house of worship, I was surprised to see a large statue of the Emperor Constantine seated just outside the front entrance. Then I learned the history—how Constantine was selected from the Roman Army, whose barracks were located on the site of the present Minster. Constantine was crowned Emperor in York in 306 and declared that Christianity was to be the official religion of the realm. A Norman cathedral was subsequently built on the spot, and then on top of that the present Gothic cathedral. With its magnificent twin towers, the Yorkminster was constructed between 1291 and the 1350s. The diary entry of a Celia Fiennes recorded in 1685 that the minster is “a noble building, in view at least 30 miles before you come to it.”

Because York is where Christianity was first established in the western world, pilgrims have made their way to the cathedral for centuries. Today one of the primary attractions of the Minster is the great East window, long considered “one of the great masterpieces of Fifteenth Century glazing in Europe. Painted between 1405 and 1408, it is the size of a tennis court and is the largest expanse of medieval glass in Britain.” The good news is that a new groundbreaking ultraviolet resistant glass is replacing the old glass. The bad news for me was that the window was covered and was not unveiled until 2016!

Fortunately, the rest of the stained glass windows were not covered, and I was able to observe them to my heart’s content. One of the wonderful pleasures of visiting the Minster was having a guided tour by Marte and Doug’s good friend, Dr. Piers Percival, a retired eye surgeon and a devout Anglican.

As our group passed through the North Nave, the good doctor paused to describe a window devoted to the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. The saint depicted in stained glass is thought to have been born in the Aragon region of Rome. An encounter with the future Pope Sixtus 11 resulted in Lawrence entering the priesthood at a young age and becoming thearchdeacon of Rome, “a position of great trust that included the care of the treasury and the riches of the church and the distribution of alms among the poor” (Wikipedia).

According to lore, St. Lawrence spirited away the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Tradition has it that he gave the Holy Grail to his parents for safekeeping. Later the family sent it to a monastery in Hueseca, his birthplace, today the Holy Grail is venerated at the cathedral of Valencia, Spain (Catholic Online).

In 258, Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests and deacons should be immediately put to death. Pope Sixtus was captured while he was celebrating the liturgy. As they took the Pope away to be beheaded, Lawrence followed him weeping, “Father, where are you going without your Deacon?” Said the Pope, “I am not leaving you, my son, in three daysyou will follow me.”

The Prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the church, as he believed that a great fortune had been hidden away. Lawrence asked that he be given three days, and he worked swiftly to dispose of riches to the poor. On the third day, Lawrence submitted himself to the Prefect along with a group of the destitute, the blind, the crippled, and the suffering. Lawrence said to him, “These are the treasures of the church!” The Prefect was furious and ordered that Lawrence be killed slowly so that he would suffer more.

Dr. Percival pointed to the window which illustrates how St. Lawrence met his end. It depicts the saint tied on a gridiron being roasted over a slow fire. Before he died, Lawrence prayed that the City of Rome might be converted to Jesus. When Constantine became Emperor, St. Lawrence’s wish was granted. Constantine built a beautiful basilica in his memory (Holy Spirit Interactive Kids: A Saint a DaySt. Lawrence).

The life and martyrdom of St. Lawrence reminds us that every generation of Christians must ask two questions, “Who are you, Jesus?” And “What have you to do with me?”

That word takes us to our scripture for the morning from Mark’s Gospel. As the passage opens, we learn that Jesus and his disciples go to “the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” During my visits to Israel I have been to Caesarea, a beautiful area along the coast. The first thing you notice about the place are the Roman ruins. And so Caesarea Philippi was very much a place oppressed by the Roman Empire. It was the Romans who tried to subject the villagers to their values and worldview.

And so in the middle of this occupied place, Jesus has the temerity to ask the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They give various answers, “John the Baptist” and “Elijah” and “one of the prophets.” When Jesus asks the disciples directly the question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”

The late Marcus Borg observed that this is the first time that any “human voice” has called Jesus the Messiah (Kathryn Matthew Huey, “Who Are You, Jesus?”). And then Mark 8 speaks about Jesus telling the disciples about his death. That is a distressing word to Peter. “If Jesus was the Messiah, good things should be happening, not bad ones” (Huey). But Jesus reacts harshly to Peter’s rebuke and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Through this interchange and what follows, we sense that it begins to dawn on Peter what will be required of him as a follower of the Messiah.

In his next speech to the crowd and the disciples, Jesus becomes very specific about the cost of that discipleship. There can be no question about his meaning: “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?”

So here we have Jesus, in the midst of an evil empire, telling the people that they need to pick up their crosses, the most shameful way to die, and follow him! Mark’s Gospel has been called “a summons of discipleship” (Megan McKenna), for that is clearly what it is. Jesus lays out for them and for each of us what the road of faith can require.

Those sobering words of Jesus were a harbinger of things to come for Peter and for the earliest followers. During the reign of Nero, Peter and Paul established the church at Rome. Peter was crucified head downward, as he had requested. Paul was beheaded under the same Emperor. Bartholomew, who preached to the people of India, was also crucified head downward. Andrew brought the Gospel to the Scythians and Thracians and was crucified, suspended on an olive tree. James, son of Alphaeus, was preaching in Jerusalem when he was stoned to death. The sword of Herod beheaded James, son of Zebedee, as he was preaching in Judea. Philip preached in Phrygia during the time of Domitian and was crucified head downward. Thomas was an active missionary in India and his limbs were thrust through by a pine spear. We all know the fate of Judas. The few remaining disciples, mercifully, died of old age.

“Who are you, Jesus, and what have you to do with me?” While the world has changed dramatically from the barbarian treatment of the ancient world, still we cannot know for certain the cost of discipleship for any one of us. We don’t need to run into a future Pope to be reminded that Jesus can suddenly enter our lives in surprising ways.

“Who is Jesus and what does he have to do with me?” For St. Lawrence and for many of us, the answer would be “Everything.” For numerous Christians, following the way of the cross begins with an invitation. That is the way it was for a young woman nearly 200 years ago, a story that some of you will remember:

She was an embittered woman, Charlotte Elliott of Brighton, England. Her health was broken, and her disability had hardened her. “If God loved me,” she muttered, “he would not have treated me this way.”

Hoping to help her, a Swiss minister, Dr. Cesar Malan, visited the Elliotts on May 9, 1822. Over dinner, Charlotte lost her temper and railed against God and family in a violent outburst. Her embarrassed family left the room, and Dr. Malan was left alone with her.

“You are tired of yourself, aren’t you?” He asked. “You are holding to your hate and anger because you have nothing else in the world to cling to. Consequently, you have become sour, bitter, and resentful.”

“What is your cure?” asked charlotte.

“The faith you are trying to despise.”

As they talked, Charlotte softened. “If I wanted to become a Christian and to share the peace and joy you possess,” she finally asked, “what would I do?”

“You would give yourself to God just as you are now, with your fightings and fears, hates and loves, pride and shame.”

“I would come to God just as I am? Is that right?”

Charlotte did come just as she was, and her heart was changed that day, May 9th–a day Charlotte Elliott celebrated until she died as her spiritual birthday. In 1836, when her pastor brother was trying to raise funds for a school for the children of poor preachers, Charlotte wrote a poem that was sold across England and set to music. Upon her death at the age of 82, Charlotte’s family discovered that she had written about 150 hymns, but none was more famous than “Just As I Am” (Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul).

When Billy Graham walked the aisle years later, it was to the singing of “Just As I Am.” From that day on, the young evangelist had that hymn sung at the close of every crusade (Rev. Dr. Rodney Wilmoth).

“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me.
And that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And then he asked, “But who do you say that I am?” That is the question for us this morning. Who do you say that he is?

Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty