Week of February 6: Jesus is the Messiah


Rev. Teresa Edwards
Lesson scripture: Mark 8:27-9:1
Have you ever played the game 20 Questions?  One person chooses a person, place or thing. The other players act as questioners, asking up to 20 questions before making a guess as to the identity of said person, place or thing. At the end of the round of questions, the player with the correct guess wins the round.
Jesus asks some tough questions of the disciples in today’s text from the gospel of Mark. His questions challenge them to stop guessing and seek a deeper spiritual understanding. Not intended for fun and games, He intends these important questions to shine light on their understanding of His identity and purpose.   Jesus points those same questions at us. His queries force us to ask ourselves some tough questions about who Jesus is in our life today.
In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, Jesus and the disciples stood at the dividing point in Mark’s gospel. This important conversation and teaching happened between the fast-paced ministry of healing and teaching that had come before in Galilee and the escalating movement toward Jerusalem. Up to this point, the disciples saw with their own eyes the healings and exorcisms. They heard with their own ears the preaching and the teaching.  They experienced the changes in the lives of all who came in contact with Jesus. Therefore the reader assumes Jesus’ closest friends and most faithful followers knew Him well. 
As our text opens, Jesus takes the disciples into Caesarea Philippi, a Gentile region which overlooks Rome to the north and Jerusalem to the south.   Sitting on this hilltop, this boundary line so to speak, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27b)   The disciples quickly fill in the blank: John the Baptist, Elijah or another great prophet. “‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” (Mark 8:29a) Peter stands up and speaks on behalf of all the disciples: “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29b) 
 Jesus the teacher needs to know what His students really know and understand about His identity. His questions push the disciples to reflect not only on who He is to the world but to them personally. “It mattered to Jesus for his disciples to know who he was, and it mattered to the disciples, whether they realized it or not, to have made up their mind about who Jesus was to them.” (“My Devotional Companion,” Rasche) They must understand who Jesus is in order to decide if they are willing to follow him to the unknown places that faith leads.
“Who do you say that I am?” You and I cannot escape His question, standing on the boundary line between following our own way or following Jesus. “Part of spiritual health and well-being is knowing who we are and knowing who is the Lord of our life.” (“My Devotional Companion,” Rasche) Deciding who Jesus is to us personally changes the direction and focus of our life.  As a class, take a moment to reflect on the deep and important question: Who is Jesus to you? In pairs, share your responses and pray for one another as you strive to grow in your understanding of who Jesus is and who He is calling you to be.
Self denial
There is no question that Jesus clearly understood His identity as the messiah. He wanted the disciples to understand this too. His initial questions lead to a lesson on self denial, a key component in discipleship then and now. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) Peter takes offense and calls Jesus out on these words of suffering only to be rebuked in turn by this Son of Man who will not be led astray from God’s holy purpose. Willing to deny Himself unto death, Jesus needs to explain what this self denial and suffering would mean for those who would choose to follow Him.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) In other words, I am not the only one who will know suffering. If you plan to follow me, self denial and suffering come with the job. This passage is frequently misunderstood. Our culture often interprets “taking up our cross” as bearing our personal burdens and challenges. The common misunderstanding plays out in a great scene from the movie “Straight Talk.” In this film, Dolly Parton plays Dr. Shirley, a down-home girl who gives advice on a radio call in show.  To a caller who endlessly whines about her personal problems, Dr. Shirley aptly responds, “Get off the cross honey, somebody needs the wood!” 
To take up our cross and deny ourselves means something deeper than our attempts at Lenten disciplines or promises to do better tomorrow. “The call is not to deny oneself something, but to deny self.” (“Mark,” Lamar Williamson, Jr.) Our teacher guide states this idea so well: “To take up the cross is not something that is thrust upon us; to take up the cross is willingly and of our own initiative to inconvenience ourselves perhaps to the point of suffering for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Taking up the cross is not about us. It is about Jesus. This is the life Jesus offers to those who call Him Messiah. His invitation stretches over the years to you and me. Our yes or no determines everything. 
Knowing who Jesus is leads us to the point of decision. If we say yes to His invitation, we join our prayer with the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola who humbly offered these words in a spirit of true self denial: 
“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will – all that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”
                                                                        -The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Rev. Teresa Edwards is the associate pastor at Forest Hills UMC in Macon. E-mail her at teresaedwards@foresthillsmacon.com.