THE DIVIDING LINE
Sept. 13, 2015
Ladies, can you remember where you were when your husband first proposed to you? Men, where were you when you first found out that you and your wife were going to be parents? What were you doing on the day that Dr. King was assassinated, or Elvis died, or the Challenger shuttle blew up? What about when you heard that you’d gotten that job promotion? Can you recall where you were when you got the best news of your life? Or the worst?
The most ordinary surroundings can seem suddenly memorable at a time like that. They get seared into your memory, so that 20 years later we hear ourselves saying to our children, “I remember exactly what I was doing the day I heard …”
I wonder if Jesus’ disciples said that to each other whenever they passed through the village of Caesarea Philippi. I wonder if, for the rest of their lives, that particular town was seared into their memory.
You see, it was at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asked his disciples that most crucial of all question’s, “Who do you say I am?” This is the central question of the Gospels, the central question of human history really. This is the dividing line that separates authentic faith from passing enchantment. The answer to this question will determine, to a certain extent, the level of our commitment as followers of Jesus. Christ asked his disciples, as he asks us today, “Who do you say that I am?”
Focus your attention for a few moments on that crucial question while we provide the context in which it was asked.
Where a question is asked can make a big difference in how it is received. For instance, suppose a man asks a woman to marry him. Let’s put the situation into two different locations. He asks her to marry him while he’s in the middle of changing the oil in his car. Not the most romantic of situations, wouldn’t you say? Now imagine he asks her the same question in a hot air balloon over Paris. Which would you regard as the better setting? I know, some of you men see nothing wrong with the changing-the-oil scenario.
It’s no accident that Jesus asked his disciples this momentous question in the region of Caesarea Philippi. On the hills overlooking the city was a magnificent white Temple built in honor of the Roman Emperor, Caesar. Like all rulers of his day, Caesar was worshiped as a god. This area was also the center of worship for the Phoenician God, Baal, and the Greek God, Pan. History, religion, politics all came together in this one region to exult many different gods. Each one of these “gods” was known for having special powers, for being able to grant special favors to their followers.
Everywhere the citizens looked, there were massive monuments to pagan gods, like the goddess of vengeance or the god of nature. In fact, there was a certain cave in this region that was thought to be the entrance to the underworld, where pagan believers imagined that dark powers reigned. Pigs sacrificed on the pagan altars were often thrown into the lake at the mouth of this cave.
Now imagine the disciples’discomfort as they pass through this area. These men are devout Jews who were warned all their lives to stay away from the uncleanliness, the condemnation of the pagan lifestyle. They are surrounded on all sides by evidence that many of their neighbors worship sensuous and craven god’s other than Yahweh. And in this setting Jesus asks them a provocative question, “Who do people say I am?”
They have no idea what he is getting at, but they respond, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.”
Okay, they’re going in the right direction. But it’s time to lay it all on the line. It’s time to get right to the heart of the matter.
“But what about you?” he asks. “Who do you say that I am?”
I imagine that all the hosts of heaven are holding their breath. For just a moment, time stands still. The fate of humanity rests on this answer. And who should answer, but the headstrong young fisherman named, Peter.
“You are the Christ,” he announces.
And the angels in heaven shout, “Hooray!” Okay, the Bible doesn’t actually say that they shouted “Hooray!” But what else would they do? The plan of God, the one that was set in motion before the world even began, is now coming to fulfillment.
But Jesus doesn’t stop with Peter’s affirmation. Here’s something you might notice about gods, particularly pagan gods. Every god requires a sacrifice. That was obvious in a place like Caesarea Philippi. If Jesus really is the Christ, what kind of sacrifice does he ask?
Verse 31 reads, “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.” Surprise! Christ is not asking for a sacrifice. Christ is giving a sacrifice and that sacrifice is himself. He announces to them that he will be killed, but on the third day, he will be raised from the dead. His disciples were not ready in any shape, form, or fashion for such an announcement.
William Barclay reminds us that “Christ” is not a name, it is a title. It is Greek for “Anointed One,” which is “Messiah” in Hebrew. When we say Jesus Christ, we are saying, Jesus the Anointed One or Jesus the Messiah.
The Jewish idea of Christ was of a superhuman, conquering figure who would come to call all the children of Israel from all over the world, bring them back to their nation, destroy the Gentiles, and restore Israel to perfect peace, power, and prosperity. Imagine the shock and pain of the disciples when Jesus teaches them what it really means that the Messiah has come. “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.”
This was more than Simon Peter could take. “What’s he saying?” Peter asks himself. “That he’s going to lay down his life? That he’s going to be the sacrifice? It was absurd. What kind of God would do such a thing?”
And that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s the truth that sets us apart from every other religion on this planet. We serve a God who does not ask for a sacrifice, but who IS the sacrifice.
A few years ago, Rabbi Jan Goldstein had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Jihan Sadat, widow of the former Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. In the beginning of Sadat’s presidency, he had championed war against Israel. He was part of the destructive cycle of hatred and bloodshed that has stalked the Middle East for decades. But then one day, Sadat determined to become a peacemaker. He wanted to break down the walls of violence and misunderstanding between the Egyptians and Israelis. He knew that members of his own political party would try to kill him to stop the peace process.
Mrs. Sadat recalled the day that Anwar told her he was going to Jerusalem to negotiate a peace settlement. She protested that his enemies would kill him. He replied, “Then I would have died for peace.”
His trip to Jerusalem was an historic moment, and it opened President Sadat’s eyes to the possibilities of a peaceful future between the two countries. Mrs. Sadat reports that he came back from the trip energized, full of joy. Not long afterwards, he was assassinated.
The work of reconciliation requires sacrifice. That is true when we are speaking of reconciliation between nations; that is true when we speak of reconciliation between humanity and God. A sacrifice must be made, and it is God who made the sacrifice. If you do not understand this, you do not grasp the heart of the Christian faith. Without the cross, Christianity is just another pleasant philosophy urging people to be nicer to one another. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” This is the Good News. This is the dividing line between an insipid Christianity that motivates no real devotion, and a life-changing Christianity that causes people to give their lives in the work of reconciliation. Christ lay down his life in our behalf.
Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for saying this. “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’”
Pretty strong words, but this is where the line is drawn. There are many Christians today who are trying to live the Christian life without believing in the saving power of the cross. They’re nice folks, but I have to tell you that their faith is ineffective–not life-changing.
“Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.’”
See what I mean by the dividing line? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that wonderful saint who was martyred for opposing Adolf Hitler wrote in his book, Cost of Discipleship, about what he called, “Cheap Grace.” “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church,” he wrote. “We are fighting today for costly grace … Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline … Cheap grace is a grace without discipleship, grace without the cross … Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field … The pearl of great price … It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived the level of discipleship that he taught. As did Christ. Such commitment puts to shame the puny discipleship of many of us who dared to bear the name Christian.
What does it mean to take up a cross and follow Jesus? What does it mean to live a life of costly grace?
During World War II, Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes served as Portugal’s consul general in France. He was a very wealthy man. The Mendes family, which consisted of Aristides, his wife, and 14 children, lived in a fine mansion. All the children received a good education and music training. Because Portugal remained neutral during the war, Mendes’ job could have been relatively comfortable. But as the Germans advanced across Europe, Jewish refugees from Holland, Belgium, and France begin converging on Portugal’s consulate, begging for travel visas that would allow them to escape the country. The Portuguese government officially forbade Mendes from issuing visas to the refugees, even though their lives were in jeopardy in France. But one day, a refugee rabbi and his family confronted Mendes. Mendes was willing to offer them help, but they reminded him that thousands more Jews were in danger.
After his conversation with the Rabbi, Mendes retreated to his bedroom, where he lay in bed for three days and nights. During this time, he refused to eat or to talk with his family. When he emerged from his bedroom, Mendes claimed that he had heard God telling him what to do. He began writing exit visas by the hundreds, then by the thousands, offering them to the refugees who crowded his residence day and night. By month’s end, Aristides de Sousa Mendes had written some 10,000 exit visas. The Portuguese government ordered him to return home. He was dismissed from his job, sued by his government. Over the next few years, the Mendes family lost their fortune and became destitute. By the early 1950s, they were being fed at a public soup kitchen in Lisbon–run by the local Jewish community.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes heard the voice of God and he took up a cross and did what he had to do.
There is a dividing line in life. We are recipients of God’s amazing, abundant, luxuriant grace. But it is not a cheap grace. Christ lay down his own life to obtain it for us. We, in turn, are called to live lives that honor that sacrifice. We are to live responsible, accountable lives that bring honor to Christ. If that means we sacrifice many things that are dear to us, so be it. That is what Christ did in our behalf.