Do you have a disciple from the Bible that you feel like you relate to the most? Maybe you appreciate the ambition of Peter? Or you are drawn to the questioning of Thomas? Or maybe you are drawn to the willingness of James and John to drop everything to follow Christ? Or maybe you like the way Bartholomew faithfully follows Christ while staying out of the limelight?
As we ponder what it means to follow Christ it is so helpful to hear these disciples’ stories, and hear that those who followed Jesus every step of his ministry are not much different than today’s followers of Christ.
As we hear their stories we might connect with the fact that they strived to be so faithful in following Christ, yet they were clueless and anxious at times in what to do next. There were moments when they were so certain in their knowledge of Christ’s purpose in the world, yet they they find themselves at times still so confused. The disciples are found and called by Jesus to follow him, yet as they follow him there are many moments along the way when they find themselves distracted and lost by their own agendas or focusing on worldly things.
Jesus’ disciples seem so faithful and put together one minute, and so lost and confused the next. Maybe that is why we relate to them so much. On the surface they think they have this whole faith and following Christ thing down, but deep down they are struggling to keep up with what it means to follow Christ. The same disciples who did not hesitate to leave everything behind as they followed Christ with certainty, still so often find themselves anxious, confused, and lost as they strive to follow Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading is right in the middle of the disciples journey with Jesus. Just 6 days earlier before this special mountaintop experience we get to witness and relate to the disciples struggling to understand Christ’s purpose for the world. They were told by Jesus that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected and be killed and after three days rise again.” They were listening, they just could not comprehend what they were hearing. Peter rebukes Jesus for what he was saying. It can not be true. Jesus gives Peter his assessment of his listening skills… “get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This is an important text to remember as we explore today’s gospel reading.
While on a journey with three of the disciples who have been with Jesus since the days right after his baptism, Jesus becomes “transfigured before them” and “his clothes dazzling white”. If this holy moment was not enough to get the their attention, Elijah and Moses appear and start talking with Jesus.
Struck in awe by this mountaintop moment, and yet still confused by it all, Peter proclaims to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Those words earlier spoken by Jesus that he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death must have now been far from Peter’s mind. Peter wanted to build three dwellings, and forget those words and create a new purpose for Christ in his life. He seems to want to live in this moment forever.
You would think that a transfigured Jesus with dazzling white clothes talking with Elijah and Moses would be the significant moment of this experience. But those details are just the build up to the key moment of this grand epiphany experience for the followers of Jesus. The moment reaches it full significance when a voice cries out a statement and a command to these three disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
A powerful statement and imperative that proclaims the truth of Christ’s purpose for the world. This is my Son, the Beloved, he has told you that the Son Man must undergo great suffering, be killed, and after three days rise again…listen to him!
For the Gospel of Mark, the moment and experience of Christ on the cross rejected by humankind and suffering for humankind is the moment that God’s unconditional love is revealed to the world. In the days ahead the disciples will have lots of listening to do. By listening to the story of Jesus, the cross, and empty tomb they will witness God’s love through Christ that overcomes all sin and brokenness in this world. By listening to the story of Jesus, the cross, and the empty tomb they will know the truth that God’s love reigns over all confusion, anxiety, and worldly powers and agendas.
The disciples will soon learn that their calling to follow Christ will look different than how it started. When they dropped their nets to follow Christ they were able to walk behind Christ and follow his footsteps. The experience of the cross and empty tomb will change their calling. Now they are to go out into the world, and share this good news of God’s redemptive love revealed at the cross and the tomb.
The Good News of the cross and the empty tomb has added a new dimension to listening for Christ’s disciples. They must now listen and also remember. They must listen and remember that the cross and the empty tomb proclaims to us that God’s love through Christ endures all things. Sadly the moments of confusion, anxiety and the world’s agendas will not go away, and Christ is no longer physically next them to teach, comfort, and keep them focused on the their purpose. So they must now listen and remember and let Christ’s words and story of redemptive love guide them in their calling to keep following Christ.
A few months ago I was anonymously sent a book in which the author argues the importance of the new alternative facts and conspiracy theory movement called Qanon. I was a little shocked some one would send me a book like this with a note attached thanking me in advance for helping them reach Americans with its message. What shocked me more was when I told fellow pastors about it in our community and in the Birmingham area, they shared with me that they also received the same book and the same note, and we were all shocked wondering how many pastors and churches received this book. The gift givers intent seemed clear, to reach out to as many pastors as possible and let this book of alternative facts and conspiracies influence or even worse take over their Gospel message on Sunday mornings. For me it was a sad reminder of the many agendas in our world that want to attach themselves to the gospel in attempt to manipulate others. They attach their agenda to the Gospel not to love the world but to control the world.
This experience reminded me of a quote I have shared with some of you before, but I find it worth sharing again. It is a quote by Duke Divinity School preaching professor Richard Lischer in his book The End of Words that raises a great question about listening to Christ in a world full of so much confusion, anxiety, and worldly agendas. He writes, “The average American is subjected to approximately six thousand messages per day. Why should one of them called Gospel stand out? What is one message among so many?”
He brings up a great point. How can one message called gospel stand out among the many messages that we hear and experience with our listening eyes and our ears. How can one message stand out among messages that bring us anxiety? How can one message called Gospel stand out among the many messages that cause confusion to our faith and to our well being? How can one message called Gospel stand out among the many messages of agendas focused on power and control? In these 6000 messages that want to grab our attention and make us veer from faithfully following Christ by loving God and loving neighbor, how can we let the Gospel stand out and re center our purpose for this world?
One way we can let the gospel stand out is remember today’s significant verse of instruction. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!
I personally believe that not all messages and agendas are trying to control us or create an alternative gospel story. However like the disciples in the Bible it may be confusing for our faith journey as all these messages come at us. May we listen to Christ and allow Christ’s message of love to center us as we process all the other messages we consume in a day. May we listen to Christ’s message and may it guide us in our calling to let God’s love define our purpose. May we listen to Christ and let God’s love through Christ help us navigate which of life’s many messages are pointing towards love and which messages are not. May we listen to Christ and let God’s love through Christ revealed to us through the cross and the empty tomb define our hope.
In a few days we will begin the season of lent and we will find ourselves reflecting on our life following Christ. As we discern our own discipleship in the midst of a confusing and anxious world, maybe we find ourselves at times like those first disciples. Maybe some of us are striving so hard to be a faithful follower of Christ, yet we still find ourselves at times clueless and anxious about what to do next. Maybe we are seeking to faithfully follow Christ, yet those other messages are distracting us or clouding our purpose to love God and to love God’s creation.
Where ever we all might be in our journey of following Christ may God’s command today on that mountaintop resound through our hearts and minds, and be our guide as we encounter those confusing, anxious, and lost moments of this world. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”
By listening to Christ we experience love. By listening to Christ we experience hope. By listening to Christ we let God’s love define our purpose in this world. When the confusion, and anxiety, and power grabbing agendas feel overwhelming may we turn to Christ’s message for guidance and assurance. May we remember Christ’s message, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” May we remember Jesus’ message about humility and serving others, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” May we remember Jesus’ message that defines our calling, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” May we listen and remember. Alleluia Amen.