On October 2nd 2006 Charles Carl Roberts VI walked into an Amish school house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He bound and shot ten girls aged 6-13 and then shot and killed himself. Five of the girls would later die. In her book Forgiven, published last year, Terri Roberts, Charles mother, speaks of the amazing demonstration of compassion and forgiveness her family received from the Amish community around her, a community she felt had every reason to hate them.
On the day of the massacre the Robert’s Amish neighbour came over dressed in his formal black visiting clothes to console the family and let them know that it was not their fault and that the community still loved the Roberts family. He spent over an hour holding and comforting Charles’s devastated father. Terri refers to this man as her ‘black hat angel’.
The next day a group of Amish leader’s all who had lost a family member in the shooting walked into yard of the parents of Charles’ widow Marie, not to raise fists or vent their anger, but to embrace Marie’s father and family. Together they wept and prayed.
It was more than words. The Amish insisted that part of the funds donated to help the victim’s families go to Marie and her children, as they too were victims and had lost a husband and a father. One of the fathers of a dead child visited Terri and when he learned that Terri’s son Zach would not come to the funeral because he could not forgive his brother, offered to phone him and ask him to come. For the Amish this meant a long walk to make the call as they do not have phones in their homes. Zach came to the funeral and said the turning point had been receiving that message.
AS the Robert’s family gathered at the graveside to bury their son, they found themselves confronted by a barrage of press, flashbulbs and camera lens. Suddenly a group of about thirty Amish appeared ‘the men in their black wide brimmed hats and the women in their white bonnets’ and formed a wall between the press and the family, their backs shielding the family from view, giving them the gift and dignity of privacy. Amongst the first of these visitors to offer their condolences to the Robert’s were Chris and Rachel Miller, whose daughters Lena and Mary Liz had died in their arms, they lent forwards and said softly ‘we are sorry for your loss’.
When the press asked the Amish why they were so quick to forgive their response was ‘ how are we going to be forgiven unless we forgive, forgiveness is a choice, we chose to forgive’.
We may struggle to relate to the Amish with their choice to live a life devoid of modern technology, there seeming otherness. But in this instance we see them living out their belief in Jesus Christ in real concrete ways; in taking up their cross and following Jesus daily… laying aside the self and being wholehearted about the purposes of God.
‘What about you…asks Jesus, ‘who do you say that I am?’… its the central turning point in the gospel story. On one level a very easy question to answer, but, as we see in the passage we had read out to us today, it is an answer which calls for us to totally change the focus of our lives. It’s a pivotal and central question for all of us. Be it the start of our faith journey or even after years and years of the Christian life… ‘what about you. Who do you say that I am?’. If you would come after me take up your cross daily.
Jesus had started with a safer question… One that has been running through the whole gospel narrative… ‘who do the crowds say that I am”… The disciples had responded by telling Jesus that the crowd knew that Jesus was someone sent by God… they saw him in terms of the prophets, either old, like Elijah who the scriptures looked to return, or new like john the Baptist, you may remember last week we saw that even king Herod was wrestling with these thoughts.
We live in a world today where the answer to the question who does the crowd say Jesus is.. is equally varied as it was in Jesus day. Just a good teacher, a legend, a historical figure that we can’t know because of all the stuff that has been built around him…Jesus is both honoured and an object of derision, for many they just don’t know much about Jesus any more. We encounter a plethora of thoughts and reactions to Jesus.
But Jesus then turns to his disciples and asks them ‘But what about you? Who do you say that I am?’ and we have peter’s amazing confession. You are “God’s Messiah”… That is an answer that is drenched in the scriptures of the Old Testament, Messiah from which we get the Greek word Christ means the anointed one and it looks back to the prophets in the Old Testament looking forward to the day when God would establish his rule, put a righteous descendant of King David on the throne of Israel. It’s an expression of the uniqueness of Jesus in terms of God’s purposes, it is not the full blown affirmation of the divinity of Jesus that the church gained after the resurrection. But Peter sees the uniqueness of Jesus.
It would be easy to ask what had happened in the lives of the disciples for them to come to this great discovery. As we see during the gospel they too stand with the crowd and wonder and ponder. We had seen that on the boat in the lake when Jesus had stilled the storm they are asking ‘who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?’ The context of Peter’s confession helps here, the passage starts with Jesus and his disciples praying, it’s only as they turn to God that it’s revealed to them who Jesus is. In Matthew’s account of this event, Jesus actually affirms that it had been revealed to Peter by the Father. I remember Jim Wallace, sharing with me how he became a Christian, he was at University studying physics and a friend of his was a Christian and challenged him to apply his scientific methodology to Christianity, by reading the bible to see if it was true. Jim said he would take up that challenge, but his friend said, that to fully understand the bible you needed to have the Holy Spirit and he should become a Christian first. Jim agreed and his friend led him in a prayer of salvation. It may seem rather a strange way of coming to faith, but in our reformed tradition we believe strongly in the sovereignty of God, that it is God who enables us to see who Jesus is and to respond. Yes there is still human free will and our choice involved, but we focus on the work of God in that process.
The figure of God’s messiah has so much attached to it from scripture, there is the hope of the Jewish people, that they would be delivered from foreign rule and be first amongst the nations. It has expectations of victory and triumph. But after peter’s confession Jesus now turns to explain his understanding of what it means for him to be God’s messiah. That he will be betrayed and rejected, by the elders, high priests and scribes, and killed and that he would rise again in three days.
The gospel narrative now starts to turn towards the cross and the empty grave. In the scriptures of the Old Testament there are passages that talk of gGod’s servant suffering and through that bringing salvation: We see the servant songs in Isaiah and in particular Isaiah 53, that Christians now readily sees pointing to Jesus, and various places in the psalms focus on this. Jesus applies those to himself. We see that Jesus death is not a mistake or an accident but central to God’s plans.
Jesus then turns and says to his disciples, and in the words ‘if anyone would come and follow me” to all who come after them and directly to us. That if we would follow Jesus we too are called to walk the way of the cross. To carry ones cross in Jesus day was a metaphor full of vivid meaning. To carry ones cross was to be condemned to death, those condemned to die would have to carry the wooden beam of their cross through the city to their place of execution. It was a display that showed the total power of the romans over the condemned. You could say it was a dead man walking. Jesus is calling his disciples to live in a way that shows they are totally given over to the purposes of God, to the kingdom of God, even though it may mean the same rejection and suffering and death that Jesus went through. To follow Jesus is to lay down our own personal agendas and ambitions and expectations and even things we take as our rights to be totally about the purposes of God.
If we want to keep our lives, says Jesus we will lose them, but if we give up our lives for Christ we will find life. What Good does it do to gain the whole world but lose ourselves? You know I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t somehow tried to domesticate our Christian faith and played down what it means to follow Jesus, so we can kind of have it both ways. Jesus challenges us in a way we are not comfortable with when he says if we are ashamed of Jesus in this life, you have to remember that carrying the cross was a walk of shame, but in Jesus eyes it is identifying fully with him and God’s purposes. If we do that at the end Jesus will identify us. AS we share his suffering we will share his glory.
What about you?... Who do you say that I am? It’s a theological question. We have two thousand years of Christian reflection and thought that goes into how we each answer that question. E have historical creeds and answers that have been drilled into us… But it is question we all have to address again and again.
What about you?... who do you say that I am?
It’s a daily choice of how we live, what we focus on, how we treat other people, the priorities we hold and the choices we make.. We cannot separate Christian thinking from Christ like action. There are no half measures in the Kingdom of God.
What about you… who do you say that I am?
Some have wanted to portray faith in Christ as a ‘one step’ guaranteed ticket to heaven… but here Jesus says it is an invitation to deny the self, to walk the road of service. To Pick up the cross is to walk against the current of our current cultural values. It is to walk in the face of materialism, independence and security. Leonard Sweet says we have focused on Jesus as the answer, but rather Jesu is the question… life’s great question… the quest I(m) on…The everyday quest of following Jesus by dying to ourselves and becoming more and more wholehearted about the purposes of God.
What about you… who do you say I am?