Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 16, 2012

2012.09.16 “No Plastic Jesus” – Mark 8: 27 – 38

Central United Methodist Church

No Plastic Jesus

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 8: 27 – 38

September 16, 2012


 “Jesus and his disciples headed out for the villages around Caesarea Philippi. As they walked, he asked, “Who do the people say I am?”

“Some say ‘John the Baptizer,'” they said. “Others say ‘Elijah.’ Still others say ‘one of the prophets.'”

He then asked, “And you — what are you saying about me? Who am I?”

Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.

But Peter grabbed him in protest. Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, wondering what to believe, Jesus confronted Peter. “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”

Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

 “If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.”– Mark 8: 27 – 38, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.


        One of the few good things about getting old is that your mind becomes a collection of things the young don’t even know.

For example, one of my favorite movies came out in 1967, when I was 16 years old, Cool Hand Luke. Anybody remember Cool Hand Luke? It starred the late great Paul Newman; nobody else could have played it like Paul Newman did. We first meet Cool Hand Luke as a town rowdy, cutting the tops off the parking meters, for fun. He is sent to prison, and put on a chain gang, where the warden of the prison intends to break him? Let me just say, it doesn’t happen.

In the movie, after hearing about the death of his mother from cancer, Cool Hand Luke resorts to what little religion he has, to sing what may be the only religious song he knows, Plastic Jesus.  It goes something like this:

I don’t care if it rains or freezes

‘Long as I got my Plastic Jesus

Riding on the dashboard of my car.

Through my trials and tribulations

And my travels through the nations

With my Plastic Jesus I’ll go far.

         Whether or not we have a plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of our car (and I could have used one on the dashboard of my first car, a 1965 Mustang), I think we know what it means. The truth is, we all have a plastic Jesus. He is not constructed out of plastic, but the bits and pieces of what we have learned, some of which we’ve learned for ourselves, but mostly what others have told us. What we believe about him determines how we feel about ourselves, and about others. It may also determine how we live, and how we die.

But perhaps the most unsettling question is this: is there any correlation between our plastic Jesus, the one in whom we believe, and the real Jesus, who he was and what he believed.

Even Jesus’ own disciples had a plastic Jesus. It consisted not only of the Jesus they walked with and worked with, but the hopes and dreams that they – rightly or wrongly – placed in him. What a disillusionment it must have been in today’s gospel, when they learned that the plastic Jesus they had constructed was false. Let’s see if our plastic Jesus is anything like the Jesus of the Gospels.  Because that is that only one we are called to follow.

In almost every way, today’s reading stands at the center of Mark’s Gospel. It is literally near the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel. It marks a major transition from Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and freeing all who were oppressed, to the beginning of his journey toward the cross. But perhaps most importantly, it vividly portrays Jesus and the kingdom of God he sought to bring, revealing at the same time why it is so hard for us to accept and follow.

The conversation between Jesus and his disciples occurred when they were walking. Can’t you see that, feel that? You know how it is when we walk and talk at the same time, slightly breathless, the pace of our conversation matching the pace of our walk?  And so as they walked, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

Well, Master: according to the latest polls, 33% say you are Elijah, 33% say you are John the Baptist come back, and 33% say that you are another of the prophets.

Through the centuries, the polls have continued to diversify. Great teacher, revolutionary, hater/lover of gays, lover of the poor and marginalized, All American, gentle Jesus, meek and mild – all such opinions – often completely contradictory – are out there, we have heard them.  Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Obviously, what others thought was not enough to satisfy Jesus, any more than it should satisfy us, and so he asked what might be one of the most penetrating and important questions ever asked: “What about you – what do you say?” I can’t help but wonder if there was a silence for a few minutes. And then – God bless Peter – always rushing in where angels fear to tread, not always the smartest, but definitely the most impulsive – Peter answered: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.” Way to go, Peter.  Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What would you have said?  Do you have a confession of who Jesus is?

In my teaser for today on Constant Contact and Facebook, I shared Christopher Henry’s comment from the Christian Century blog, how he and a friend were talking about how disturbed and saddened they were by the hateful and decidedly unchristian words spoken by self-proclaimed Christian leaders in recent years. Said Henry, “I complained that it was so deeply unfair that such intolerant and offensive perspectives were being allowed to speak for me and all other Christians.” His friend offered a profound and simple response: “Chris, they only speak for you if you don’t speak for yourself.”  So who do we say Jesus is?  Because if we don’t speak up, others will speak for us, in ways with which we may not agree and which we may not like.

At least, Peter nailed it, as we have understood it in the affirmation of the church. Except that, he didn’t. As all Jesus’ subsequent words and actions illustrate.

First, Jesus told them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. Does that strike you as odd, perhaps as odd as it seemed to his first disciples? After all he had said and done, after all that they had seen and heard, wasn’t it supposed to be good news he was proclaiming? Isn’t this an odd way indeed to found a new religion: “Don’t tell any one?”

Secondly, Jesus then began to describe where the journey was going to lead. Let’s just say it wasn’t the triumphal course they expected.

“It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said   this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.”

How would we have felt if we had been Jesus disciples, having given up everything to follow? Would you have heard anything after the word “killed?” Would that have broken your stride in mid-step? “Killed? Did he say killed?”

No wonder Peter did what he did and said what he said; if I’d been there I would have done the same thing.  Peter grabbed Jesus in protest.  Did the rest of the disciples look aghast, or were they ready to follow Peter, and do the same thing?

Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, not knowing what to believe, Jesus pulled away from Peter and – eyes flashing – said: “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”  Yikes. From star student to class dunce, just like that.

Here’s the problem: the Jews, including Jesus Jewish disciples, were looking for Messiah, but they envisioned him a warrior King like David, riding on a war horse, not a donkey. Thus, now they find out that they too have a plastic Jesus, one of their own making.

Aren’t we the same?  While we may not look for a warrior king (although some do), more often than not we do look for God to come in strength, and therefore miss God coming to us in weakness, which God does. While we may not get the God we want, in Jesus we get the God we need, one who does not overwhelm us but meets us in our brokenness, to heal, and restore, and redeem.

But Jesus didn’t stop with his rebuke of Peter. As if to make it clear that more than mere confession is needed, he challenged everyone who seeks to follow him, now and then, saying:

“If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself and take up his cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit to gain the whole world and lose your life? Indeed, what can we give in return for our life?”

These are some of the clearest, and yet most difficult words in the gospel, about what it means to follow Jesus. Asking us to give up our lives for a life that matters, when, in fact, we know we can’t save our life anyway.

When Jesus asks us to give up our life to be his follower, that doesn’t necessarily mean literally, although it may. The deaths of J. Christopher Stevens and the three others who died with him this week in Libya reminds us that there are times when what we believe in and the work we choose to do, even work on behalf of others – can cost us our life.

But how we give up our lives can change through the ages and stages of life, as well. Those here who are students, God has given you this precious life which is before you, and you must consider how you will use the gifts God has given you, how and in what way? Even now, there may be times you must stand up, against cheating, against the bullying of others.

Those considering marriage, or those of us married with children, we have immediately before us those for whom we give our lives: our spouses, the children God has given us.  It’s a way of giving up our lives that is often not dramatic, but daily, in multiple small ways and in the small things that we do for our spouse and for our children. The care some of you have shown to your spouses has been exemplary to all of us.

Some – though not all of us – have been fortunate in giving away our lives in jobs or professions we have chosen, where we believe we can make the best use of gifts and skills God gave us. For others of us our real vocation may not be our job, what we do to earn money, but how we choose to volunteer, in the causes we support with our time, energy, and money.  All of these are ways of giving our lives, that may not involve dying, except to ourselves, which is what Jesus calls us to do.

So how’s that plastic Jesus holding up? Is it one of our own construction, out of the bits and pieces others have told us?  Is it the Jesus we have molded out of our own aspirations, hopes, and dreams?  Or is it the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, who calls us to die to self, give our lives away, and follow on the journey on which he leads?

I didn’t know it at the time, after all I was at the tender age of 16, when I had other things to think about, but Cool Hand Luke was waking me up to the story of Jesus. He was the anti-hero who goes against the establishment, with courage and resolve that couldn’t be broken. He gives himself for his fellow prisoners, in multiple ways, as when he wins a contest by eating fifty eggs, one for each of the prisoners. Here, pictured after that contest, does this look familiar?

Finally, in the end, just after a Gethsemane scene, in a church, he has his final talk with God, and loses his life, executed by the powers that be. Even afterwards, he lived again in the stories told by his followers. As when his buddy Dragline, who was with him, described Luke’s death to the rest of the prisoners:

“He was smiling . . . That’s right.  You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end.  Hell, if they didn’t know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy.          Cool Hand Luke.  Hell, he’s a natural-born world shaker.”

“If any of you want to become my followers,” said Jesus, “you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”


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