Character Study

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 16
Mark 8:27-38

For some strange reason, Americans are fascinated by murder. Murder mystery TV shows, board games, books, and movies are pillars in our country’s pop culture. The allure of the murder mystery is so strong that there are even role-playing murder mystery games.

I’m sure some of you have played these games. A group of people are invited into someone’s home. Each person is then assigned to play a character who is somehow connected to a fictional murder. Throughout the evening, the characters poke, prod, accuse, and investigate their way into solving the crime and discovering who the fictional murderer really is.

In these murder mystery games, the characters are always stereotypical, over the top, and quite memorable. There’s always a dumb jock, who’s named something like, “Mr. Deltoid” and an academic who goes by “Professor Egghead.” There has to be a butler named “Jeeves” and an alluring young woman named, “Ms. Sassy.” And to top it off, of course, the fictional victim of this murder plot is usually some rich billionaire and everybody is trying to figure out who killed him to get the inheritance.

So as the evening progresses, everybody has to play their part. Mr. Deltoid shows off by lifting a coffee table above his head. Professor Egghead thinks he can solve the mystery with a calculator. Jeeves the Butler has to answer the door and Ms. Sassy is, well, sassy.

Murder mystery games like this are great fun until somebody steps out of character; then the whole aura of the fictional setting is destroyed. It’s no fun when Mr. Deltoid conjugates his verbs correctly or when Ms. Sassy stops flirting. When you break the rules and drop out of character, everybody else gets mad at you.

And this is precisely what happens between Jesus and Peter. Peter is like the host for one of these murder mystery games. Jesus comes over for the party and asks Peter, “What role are am I going to play?” Peter puts a name tag on Jesus that says, “Christ comma Messiah.” Peter’s name tag says “Outstanding Disciple,” while the others play more mundane characters, like “Follower.”

As the dinner party wears on, Jesus commits a ghastly faux pas. He steps out of character. Jesus says, “You know what, as the Christ comma Messiah, I am going to suffer. And get rejected by the religious leaders. And then I’m going to get killed. And to top it off, I’m going to rise again from the dead.”

Well, this is just nonsense. See, the rulebook for this game says that the Christ isn’t supposed to suffer. The Messiah isn’t supposed to be killed. And who has ever heard of anybody rising from the dead? For Peter and for the rest of the disciples, the Christ was supposed to be someone who would accomplish great things for Israel. The Messiah was supposed to be a deliverer, someone who would purify the people and maybe even get rid of the Romans. And the Christ comma Messiah would die peacefully in his sleep at a ripe old age after a long life of spiritual blessing. This is not who Jesus has just described. Jesus has just forgotten the rules of the party. He has stepped out of character.

A little upset that Jesus was ruining his party, Peter takes Jesus by the elbow and leads him onto the back patio. With the rule book for the murder mystery game in hand, Peter begins to tell Jesus just how he’s supposed to behave. “See,” Peter says, “the rulebook says that your character is supposed to be nice to everybody, that you should do some miracles, but that you shouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Your character, the Christ comma Messiah, is going to live to a ripe old age and die peacefully and everybody is going to love you.”

Jesus won’t have any of that. He tells Peter off, Jesus rips off Peter’s name tag that says, “Outstanding Disciple” and puts a new one on – “Satan comma Accuser.” Jesus rips the rulebook from Peter’s hand and storms back into the house with all the other guests. He starts yelling, “This rulebook is a piece of junk. All the rules are changed. If you want to win this game, you have to lose. If you want to have a lot of things in this life, then you are going to give up everything. If you want to be my follower, then you will be crucified. If you want to love me, then sacrifice for me.” And with fire in his eyes Jesus tears up that old rulebook.

The one and only rule that a Christian has to remember is this: love. Not a warm fuzzy kind of love, not a romantic sort of love, not even a brotherly sort of love. But a love that means you are willing to sacrifice everything you have and everything you are. In our minds, a powerful God is one who is above suffering, who isn’t subject to our woes and troubles. But the rule is love: Jesus loves and suffers and dies along with us. In our minds, a successful life is having a big house and a big car and a fat investment portfolio. But Jesus tells us to live by the rule of sacrificial love: in order to save your life, you must give your life away. All too often we hear that following Jesus will ensure that we are blessed and happy forever. But that’s not love: if we want to follow Jesus, that means that we follow him all the way to his torturous execution and death.

In this passage, not only are all the old rules broken, but there are a lot of names and identities being thrown around. You’re the Messiah, you’re the Christ, you’re Satan, you’re my disciples! It seems that no one can keep track of who they are any more. No one can remember what part they are supposed to be playing at the murder mystery dinner. Imagine our very own Faith Almond there (she’s the one who gives you your name tags on Sunday morning). Poor Faith, she would be printing up new name tags every five minutes.

Now I want you to think on something – if you were in this passage, if you were invited over for dinner and a murder with Jesus and Peter – what character would you be? What rules would you play by? What name tag would you wear for the evening?

You could wear the name tag for the “Apathetic Disciple.” It’s an easy role to play. There’s not much to it. You show up to church, but only when it doesn’t interfere with your Saturday night festivities. Sure, you have a Bible at home, but right now it’s collecting dust as a glorified paper weight. You pray, but only when you find yourself in a bind and you want God to help you out.

Or you could wear the name tag for the “Shy Disciple.” This character loves God in deep and profound ways, but never lets it show. The “Shy Disciple” is deeply devout, but is too timid to let anybody know how much they love God.

Or at the murder mystery dinner with Jesus and Peter you could play the part of the “Pray-er.” This character is devoted to prayer and meditation for the rest of the church. You could ask for the name tag for the “Singer,” the one who makes melody to God with your voice, no matter how good or bad you think you may be. The character of the “Apostle” is available. When you wear that name tag you go about this hurting world of ours telling them how much God loves them. There are countless characters to play, some good, some bad. Which one are you playing: “Healer,” “Gossiper,” “Trouble Maker,” “Saint,” “Leader,” “Welcomer,” “Confused?”

But remember, there is only one rule, the rule of sacrificial love. We try to make up lots of other rules to justify our gossiping, trouble making, and apathy. But when we live by the rule of love, you find that you play the “Gossipers” and “Trouble Makers” and “Apathetic Disciples” less often. When you play by the rule of sacrificial love, you find that you start playing the character of the “Disciple comma Follower” more and more.

And there is no name tag for playing that role. No stickie to slap on your chest that says you follow Jesus. The only thing that tells the world that we are followers of Jesus, is that we pick up the cross, and follow him.

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