Crossing the Greatest Divide

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/12/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 8:27-38. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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During the decade or so when Faith and I lived in Washington, DC, we made regular trips back across the Appalachian Mountains to the west, sometimes to visit Faith’s family in Ohio, but even more often to attend Quaker events hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting or the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

I got to know the routes from DC through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia really well. I didn’t need GPS. And certain landmarks became so familiar, that calling them out became a kind of game. (For some reason, we would always celebrate when we saw the sign for Mount Morris – don’t ask me why; we’re weird.)

Anyway, one of the interesting features of this trip was that we would always cross the Eastern Continental Divide. This divide is an imaginary line drawn north/south across the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. On the eastern side of this line, any rain that falls will ultimately flow down into the Atlantic Seaboard watershed, and out into the ocean. Rain that falls on the western side, on the other side of the line, will eventually make its way down into the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s something amazing to me about that. That I can stand on a spot up in the Appalachian mountains and know that if I pour a bottle of water to my left, it will end up in the Gulf, and to my right it will end up in the Atlantic.

It reminds me of other great divides. Human divides. Choices we make that alter everything that comes after. These can be big, obvious decisions, like getting married, having a child, moving to a new country, or joining the military. They can be small things that don’t even seem significant at the time – ignoring that unknown phone number or deciding to take vacation one week rather than another. Life is full of choices, divides that separate what is from what could have been.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the greatest divide, the most impactful decision that they, or we, will ever have to make. This decision hinges on a question that Jesus asks his disciples – and implicitly, asks us: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus was, and is, a very mysterious character. Then, as now, there were many different theories floating around about his identity. John the Baptist. Elijah. One of the prophets. These were some of the options back then. Today, there are some other ideas floating around. Some say that Jesus is a great moral teacher, following in the Jewish prophetic tradition. For others, he is a mystical guru, teaching the hidden ways of the spirit. Still others find in him a political revolutionary, pointing us towards a new society.

And now, as then, Jesus asks us the question: “But you. You. Who do you say that I am?”

It’s easy to misunderstand this question. We live in a culture that is constantly asking us to “speak our truth”; to express ourselves; to give a status update; to define the world in terms of our own perspective rather than seek objective reality.

You can see this in the way the meaning of the phrase “that speaks to my condition” has changed over the centuries. For the early Quakers, if something spoke to their condition, it convicted them of sin and called them to repentance. It was a revelation of their own brokenness and a call to change. Today, the phrase has a very different meaning. If something speaks to our condition, it is something that affirms what we already thought or felt.

So when we hear Jesus say to us, “Who do you say that I am?” it is tempting to interpret this as an invitation to define Jesus in a way that best suits our own needs, our own feelings, our own worldview. But that’s not what Jesus is asking. He’s not asking, “What do I mean to you?” He’s asking, “Do you have any idea who I am, really?”

And it turns out that Peter does. He gives Jesus the correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus seems satisfied with this.

But in the next few verses, we discover that being able to give the right answer isn’t quite enough. Even the correct answer is subject to our own ego, to our endless capacity to define things in terms that “speak to our condition,” in the modern sense, rather than speaking to the possibly uncomfortable reality of the situation.

Just after naming Jesus as the messiah, Peter immediately reveals that he has the wrong idea about the right answer. When he said Jesus is the messiah, he thought that meant that Jesus would be a revolutionary who would defeat the Romans and establish a kingdom based on the righteous use of force.

So when Jesus starts telling everyone that he is going to suffer, be rejected by everyone important, and die – and three days later, rise again. Well, that’s weird. So Peter tries to set Jesus straight. “Jesus,” he says, “we just agreed that you are the messiah, right? So what’s all this talk of dying? The messiah is supposed to beat the Romans and establish a new kingdom of David!”

It’s here that Jesus, having just acknowledged Peter as someone who “gets it” turns around and calls Peter “Satan”, someone who is not only on the totally wrong path, but is trying to tempt Jesus into straying from the way of God.

Peter didn’t know that he was Satan. Peter thought he was trying to help. He was speaking his truth. He even had the right answer to the “Who do you say that I am?” question. But it turned out that his right answer was not enough.

Peter was standing right on the line of the continental divide, so to speak. His toes were touching the line, but his heels were still dug into the wrong side. His whole life was still flowing into the watershed of the fallen human experiment. Jesus was calling him into a new life, a new watershed, a new destination. 

Jesus is inviting us into a choice that alters everything afterward: the choice to not just believe about him, but to believe in him – to trust him and follow where he is going – even if it doesn’t “speak to our condition” quite yet.

This was one of the core insights of the early Quaker movement: Belief is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We can believe that Jesus is the incarnate word of God, born of the virgin Mary, crucified by Pontius Pilate, descended to the dead, and risen by the hand of God to glory on the third day. We can believe these things, and we will be right. Yet we will still be at risk of missing the point altogether, as so many Christians throughout the ages have.

Believing is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We have to cross the line from believing to obeying. We have to allow Jesus to shift our lives into an unknown watershed, one that may lead us down into suffering and death on our way to resurrection. It’s a valley that strips away our ideas of what should be, and grounds us in the reality of what God is doing.

For many of us, especially religious people who are happy to have the right answer to the questions, the temptation is to stand at the peak, with our toes touching the line. It’s easy to stand there, with a great view and a correct answer. To dwell in that mountaintop experience and refuse to come down. To be exalted, but unchanged. But if we truly believe in the answer that Peter gives, we know that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one whom God has anointed to be not only our object of worship, but our leader. Knowing who he is is not enough; we must listen to him.

This morning, let’s pray for the courage to cross the line into the other side of the divide. To step out of the pat answers that “speak to our condition,” and into the challenging discipleship that disrupts our lives and sets us on a new course forever. Let’s abandon the mountaintop of being right and imitate Jesus in his descent into humility and faithful risk. Following him down the mountain, we may find ourselves lifted up with him.