Pentecost 16 

St. Alban’s Church                                                                           Proverbs 1: 20 – 33

Pentecost 16                                                                                      Psalm 19: 7 – 14

September 12, 2021                                                                          James 3: 5 – 12

Pastor Jim Stickney                                                                          Mark 8: 27 – 38


Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]


Yesterday we observed the 20th anniversary of the attack on our country.

At that time, two decades ago, we wondered how we would change in response.

I’m going to resist the temptation to join the chorus of pundits and politicians

giving their own spin on how this terrorist attack affected our national discourse.


I will remind you of how churches filled up the Sunday after 9/11. Some people

who came to this church that day stayed and became active church members.

A week later, at our regularly scheduled Clergy Conference, my colleagues

and I wondered how lasting this surge in attendance would prove to be.


A month later, a neighbor who sometimes came to Sunday worship here

met with me to explain his withdrawal from regular attendance. He was a member

of the Baha’i faith, an outgrowth of Islam which believes in the essential worth

of all religions and the unity of all people. It began in Iran, where it was persecuted.

This man realized that after 9/11, members of the Baha’i faith might again

face hostility. He resolved to stand up and be counted — to defend his faith after 9/11.


For all of us, the months and years after the attacks of 9/11 have tested our faith.

I heard of the last words of people trapped in burning towers. What did they say?

Were their last works “go and find those terrorists and make sure you kill them?”

Not at all. Their last words, as they faced their deaths, were words of endearment

to those they loved. “I love you. And tell our children how much I love them.”


This realignment and reassessment of what really counts is mirrored in today’s Gospel.

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]

Jesus has been asking his followers about what outsiders are making of him.

It’s like an informal poll of public opinion. But his question is a kind of set-up

for what Jesus really wants to know: do his own disciples understand who he is?


And at first, impulsive Peter aces this test with the perfect answer: You’re the Messiah!

You’re the one that all us Jews have been waiting for! You’re going to liberate us!

We can detect a further set-up when Jesus immediately starts talking about suffering,

rejection, humiliation, and even death — before rising again on the third day.


Dear impulsive Peter falls right into the trap Jesus sets when he becomes so bold

as to rebuke Jesus — that’s not how the Messiah is supposed to talk.

It becomes a mutual rebuke, this time Jesus calling Peter a little devil, a Satan.


In fact, this dialogue represents a hinge, a turning point in the Gospel story.

Up to this point, Jesus is preaching to crowds, healing the sick, teaching his disciples.

After this heated exchange of views about the real role of the Messiah,

the Gospel story has one destination — an ultimate showdown in Jerusalem.

And it all comes about with this deceptively simple question:

Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]


When I was a child, being taught about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit,

I had a child’s understanding of Jesus. In adolescence, that understanding

was challenged, and in a painful process, it deepened. As a young adult, of course,

my younger understandings were too confining, and then replaced in turn

by a more mature vision. In middle age, and now at the old age of 75, I’ve come

almost to welcome the challenges to my previous ways of thinking.


Now — as I briefly outlined this personal progression — you also may have recalled

some of your personal spiritual progress over the years and decades.

The spiritual life will not be stuck in a formulation of words or old concepts.

These challenges — about who Jesus is for us — are actually vibrant messages

from a God who is not content with letting us paste last year’s leaves on a branch

and then calling that “spring.” The new growth follows the death of the old.


Jesus illustrates this process towards the end of the passage we heard today:

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 live will lose it,

and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.


To sum it up: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed us personally and as a country.

But more importantly, Jesus gives a continuous challenge to us —

to hold out spiritual concepts lightly — to be open to new growth and fresh change

as we consider, often from day to day, the reply we would make to his challenge:

But you — who do you say that I am?” [Mark 8: 29]