Lasting Monuments

A Sermon Preached by
Rev. Osy Nuesch at
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2018

Mark 8:27-38

When overseas guests come to visit us, we often take them to the essential Philadelphia tour: they have to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, eat a cheesesteak at Jim’s on South Street and take a drive down Benjamin Franklin Boulevard to end up by the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and, of course, the obligatory picture by the Rocky statue.NYC is a more impressive trip: the Empire State building, Freedom Tower, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan Opera. People always want to take the ferry to Liberty Island to see the Statue of Liberty. That’s what you are expected to see on your first visit to these great American cities.

My wife and I love visiting ornate or ordinary churches. Last year, we managed to spend one night in Paris, so we visited Notre Dame de Paris – the cathedral started in the 12th century. Truly impressive. The summer before last, we got to see St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Enormous! This past summer we saw the tiny Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, NM, with its famous miraculous stairs to the choir loft, the spiral staircase. 20 feet without a central pole, built by the mystery carpenter. I loved the baptismal font at the Cathedral Basilica St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. We also saw some beautiful churches in Munich and Dublin this past Summer.

One of the most interesting structures I saw this summer was the most photographed Neuschwanstein Castle in southwest Bavaria. Along with the daily 6,000 visitors, I took a bus that left me in the small town and then hiked the 40 minute path this rugged hill to take the tour of this 19th century Romanesque Revival palace built by Ludwig II who was obsessed with the magical world of Richard Wagner’s operas.

Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, St. Francis of Assisi — those should be on your bucket list. Neuschwanstein Castle not so much. If you’ve seen Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland, or the movie Beauty and the Beast, you’ve seen it.

In today’s text Jesus is passing by one of the most significant villages of his time. And you couldn’t pass by Caesarea Philippi and not take in the amazing buildings there. For this was a very special sight. Here was a city of great monuments – past and present. At that time, there still could be seen around the city ruined temples and shrines from long ago commemorating the reverence of an ancient people to the fertility god, Baal, and the Greek god of nature, Pan. Other structures had taken center stage more recently, and people flocked to see those also. Rising up out of the center of the city was a translucent temple of white marble built by Herod the Great in honor of the Caesars, the mighty rulers of the Roman Empire.

“Around it were magnificent villas and palaces added by Herod’s son, Philip, who had renamed the city to honor Caesar, and to impress his own name in History!” (see Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Life without Limits: “The Message of Mark’s Gospel”, p. 168)

This was now Philip’s city to commemorate the all-important Caesars: Caesarea Philippi (Phillip’s city to the Caesars). Jesus’ keen eye did not fail to capture the potential for reflection of any moment – after all – any picture, any monument – not even a flower or a bird was missed. Certainly he would have been opened to the impact that a place like Caesarea Philippi inspired. Surrounded by all these monuments to great and influential people, it should not surprise us that Jesus reflected on how he might be remembered. What would mark his life and achievements? What was he leaving behind? Had he had any lasting effect at all? And how would it be measured? What will people say after he’s gone? “Who do people say that I am?” is a question that gets to the heart of all these questions.

What impact has the carpenter and self-appointed rabbi from Galilee had? Is that what Jesus was asking? It’s a very natural question after all. Perhaps you have given it some thought yourself – about your life. Does it matter how I am perceived and how I will be remembered?

At the last church there were two large plaques by the front door of the sanctuary. They contained the names of the previous 17 installed pastors since 1703 in beautiful script. Unfortunately, all the space was already taken with all these names. I don’t think mine will ever be there (unless they order a third plaque to be displayed). I hope that my legacy at that church will be bigger than just having my name at the bottom of a long list of long-forgotten names. Is that the best we can hope for? That people will at least remember our name? Every September 11 for the last 16 years we have recited almost 3,000 names of people we do not want to be forgotten. As long as their names are heard, their lives will not have been terminated prematurely for no reason. They are remembered. Do you wonder how you will be remembered?

I still remember the odd look on this person’s face when I attended the funeral for her father. Mr. Cobb had been a wonderful Christian gentleman. My wife and I served the congregation in Philadelphia for two years (1982-84) where he had become something of a legend. This particular daughter of the man who had died used to stop by the church office every week to talk to the secretary. I often saw her and made it a point to greet her and say a few words. This went on for two years – every Monday morning! After the funeral I went to pay my respects to the family and I introduced myself. There was no hint of recognition. “What’s your name again?” she asked. So I told her. “No. I don’t remember you at all.” After stroking my wounded ego for a moment, I realized that here was yet another person I had failed to impress in life. And that’s ok.

But a more pertinent question for you to ask during the next 18 to 24 months is: How will Pastor Carlos Wilton be remembered? Or is it just Carl? Or is it the Rev. Dr. Wilton? Who do people say that he was while he was with you? It makes a difference. And the Mission Study team next year will have to wrestle with how people remember him. Some will liken him to a John the Baptist. To others he was a prophet. Some will value one characteristic; others will remember different ones. And it will all impact the types of pastoral resumes that the Pastor Nominating Committee will dismiss and those they will study carefully. Will we want someone with Pastor Carl’s gifts and skills? Of do we need someone different? Do we go with the same or different? Whichever way you go, you run the risk of upsetting those who like the same? Or disappoint those who want different? And, of course, everyone wants the Savior. Oh, please, God help us! (Let me assure you that God knows what/who you need.)

Back to our text: How will the Son of Man be remembered? “Who do people say that I am?” “Some are really impressed by you, Jesus. They think you might be a reincarnation of John, the Baptist,” one disciple responds. “Others say you must be the Elijah that was prophesied would come back before the great Messiah arrives,” chimes in another. “At the very least, some take you for one of the greatest prophets our nation has ever seen.” Not too shabby, right? Not bad at all, if that is what you’re after.

“But what about you? Those people out there only have a very limited view of me. But you who know me best: Who do you say that I am? How do you perceive what I am trying to do? How will you remember me? What difference do I, and will I, make in your lives?” If that was Jesus’ question, that also resonates in our hearts as a very important question to ask. How will the ones closer to us remember us? Those of us who will not become world famous would at least like to know that someone’s life has been different because we lived and loved them. What memory will be triggered by the sight of a picture, or a sound, or a smell? “Who do you say that I am?”

That was all the prompting that Peter needed to come forward with his answer: “You are the Messiah” that is to say “the Christ.” It sounds like Peter had it all worked out. Readers of the Gospels have always admired this confession. Can there be a greater title than “the Christ” “The Messiah” “The Anointed”? In Jewish minds, the Messiah would be the greatest hero, the restorer of David’s throne, the one to bring back fortunes and influence, the One to establish the idyllic age. The Christ would free Israel from Gentile oppression. He would destroy all these pagan temples and build a Jerusalem that would be the envy of the world. It will put all these famous structures to shame. Jesus you are that guy!

And yet, Jesus does not seem taken by that title. In fact, throughout the Gospel of Mark there seems to be “a certain reticence in the use of the term Christ” (Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark, in the Interpretation Series, p. 9). Have you noticed that after the first verse introducing this as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this title has not been used at all until we find it here – in Peter’s confession – half way through the story of Jesus? “Jesus never refers to himself as the Christ in the entire Gospel” (ibid.). And even now, immediately after this great confession, Jesus sternly ordered his disciples “not to tell anyone about him” (8: 30).

The term has stuck none-the-less. Christians have for centuries referred to Jesus as the Christ: Jesus Christ. (Most children think that Jesus’ last name was Christ.) But Jesus used a different term for himself. Son of Man seemed to better describe how Jesus understood his identity and ministry. But Son of Man has proven an elusive title as well. And Jesus never defined either term for us. We learn of the meaning of the concept Son of Man (or Son of the Sovereign) by Jesus’ actions and teaching. Notice what Jesus began to teach people immediately after Peter’s confession: that the Son of Man is one who has authority; AND one who must suffer, die, and rise again, and who will come back to judge and to reign. Jesus is that kind of Messiah. (Spivey/Smith in Anatomy of the New Testament assert that in this Gospel the question is not whether Jesus was Messiah, “But why he was the kind of Messiah he was” in p. 80).

From this point on in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to correct his disciples’ mistaken preconceptions and starts to announce what will happen to him – what people will one day remember about him. This is the first of 3 crucial moments in which Jesus predicts what will happen – what the future holds for him – the sufferings he must undergo.

That did not fit well in Peter’s view of the legacy of the Messiah and he said so, in no uncertain terms. A Messiah doesn’t suffer. A Christ conquers. The Anointed One does not take any crap. The Messiah takes charge, dictates, rules, subjugates. The Christ makes no sacrifice. Messiah leads to conquest. The Anointed One leads his army to victory over the enemy.

So here we have a clash of opinions – a battle of visions. Jesus uses very strong language to show the difference that the two concepts make in the way we approach life. Each concept leads to different values, behaviors and implications. That’s why the question is still important today. The struggle to understand the real significance of Jesus is as vital for us as it was for the first disciples. Mark’s Gospel is very concerned about how Jesus is viewed, because that understanding will define the nature of discipleship. Who are you following? Who is this Christ you claim as your own? Is your Christ one who wins by force or one who wins through sacrifice and suffering? Is your Messiah one that imposes his way or one who respects you and is patient with you? Is your idea of the Anointed One one who is full of himself or one who looks out for others? Which one are you willing to follow? Are we willing to follow this Son of Man by following his methods? Are we willing to suffer for others? To sacrifice for what really counts?

And that is why Mark piles up all of Jesus’ sayings together here at the end of this incident – Mark unloads them on us – so that there should be no doubt as to what Jesus meant. And so we hear “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 will save it. For what will it profit anyone to gain the whole world and lose the meaning of life in the process? Indeed, what is your life all about? After you have lived a lifetime, what lasting monument will you have built?

William James is credited with the phrase: “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” Maybe a question for our reflection today ought to be: What does my life say about Jesus? How does the way I live reflect the values and intentions of Jesus of Nazareth?

The Gospel of Mark leaves us with an ideal for a follower of Jesus: The follower of the Son of Man conquers through suffering, sacrifice and conflict. The followers of the Son of Man look like they are wasting their lives, but somehow they are finding it. The followers of the Son of Man are not ashamed of Jesus’ values and methods.

It is not monuments or memorials that Jesus desires, but lives that are lived according to the will of the God Jesus came to reveal. Who do you say that Jesus is? Let me look at your life, how you live after you leave this service today and how you act in compassion and justice tomorrow and the next day. For in this way we are building something that will outlast us while pointing to the One who deserves all honor, praise and glory.

May God grant us all to follow defiantly in the steps of the one who was willing to carry a cross and die that others may live. And not only to us, but also to all peoples and nations of the earth. Amen.