What is your soul worth?
Sunday, September 16, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
A friend called me in a panic not long ago. He said, “Andrew, I have been asked to analyse my brand.” A friend of mine had called him and said, “What is your brand, and are you taking care of it?”
“Andrew, I didn’t have a clue what he was on about, and I’m wondering if you could shed any light on this?”
It became obvious that my friend wasn’t aware that branding has become one of the most popular catch phrases of our time. And not just the branding of corporate things, which historically we all know about, where corporations guard their brand very closely. From Nike to Coca Cola to General Motors, branding has been a corporate reality for a long time.
Ever since Tom Peters first coined the phrase, “personal branding” in 1997, people have become almost obsessed with the notion of their own brand. Two scholars, McNally and Speak, define personal branding as: “A perception or emotion maintained by somebody, other than you, that describes the total experience of having a relationship with you.” In other words, how people see and think of us. We’re in a world that’s obsessed with branding. It’s become an integral part of many people’s lives, along with the need to protect that brand and carefully monitor it. Particularly in the age of social media, people are concerned that they don’t hurt their brand when they put their image onto the web, or they put their personal details there for all to see, because it could influence the way that people see them and react to them emotionally and personally.
Who you associate with, what organisations you belong to, what things you’re known to stand for, what ideals you have, these are all part of how people see us. And while some people are consumed with it to the point of being, frankly, ridiculous, there is a truth to it, nonetheless.
I realised that just a few weeks ago, when publishers approached me asking if I would endorse two books, and write the cover notes, a common practice. But one of the publishers asked if they could have it in forty eight hours? I said, “Well, my preference is to read the book before I endorse it.” And he seemed surprised by this, as if being on a book cover was enough to keep me happy. I said, “I’m sorry, I always read every book that I endorse, because I’m always worried that they slip in the idea in chapter six, and there you find the advocacy of all things Aryan and the fact that grey haired people should not be allowed to live! And you know, I’m not going to endorse a book that has that in chapter six; I want to read the whole book.”
I thought to myself, “Why am I so concerned about this personal brand?” I don’t want to be associated or affiliated with something that I cannot write sincerely about. Now, to put you at ease, both of the books were very good, and our church is mentioned on the cover, so there’s good reason to look out for the brand of the church as well. But I thought, it’s true, we are concerned about what other people think of us, almost to the point of obsession. Yet it is important at times.
In today’s text, Jesus is coming to his disciples and he wants to know what his brand looks like. He says to the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” In other words, what’s out there about me? What is the perception out there? Now, it’s very important, because this was a moment of transition in Jesus’ life. Last week, for those of you who were here or listening, we had Jesus in Tyre and Sidon, performing healings in the gentile world. But now he is returned - and Mark tells us this - to the area of Caesarea and Philippi; he’s back in Israel, he’s back around Galilee, amongst his own people.
He continues to heal and to perform miracles, like the feeding of the five thousand, and he does all manner of things that are part and parcel of his ministry. He’s restoring people’s lives. But this transition is awkward, because he is now gaining opposition. He’s been to Tyre and Sidon, he’s performed these miracles somewhere else, but he’s back home and knows he’s going to face the music, so he asks his disciples what people think about him.
One of the reasons why he asked is that there were competing ideas about what the brand of the Messiah really was. There had been a traditional view that the Messiah was going to fulfil the wishes of Israel and restore the kingdom to Jerusalem. That the north and the south, Judah and Israel, would unite, that the Romans would be driven into the sea, that the King David’s throne would be restored, that there would be military rule and power on the part of Israel, maybe even Tyre and Sidon themselves would become part of Israel, like they were in Joshua’s day.
But Jesus was different. You see, there were pretenders to this thrown of the Messiah in the time of Jesus. There was a man called Bar Kohba, who was a revolutionary that many people thought was the Messiah. There was also Judas the Galilean, and Jesus Barabbas, who was there at the crucifixion. These were all revolutionary, cynical power leaders, who were going to meet the expectations of people and restore the kingdom to Israel. And they demanded loyalty to this brand of Messiah.
I was thinking this summer, when I was on vacation that hotel loyalty and rewards cards, are great marketing tools. I wondered, “Hmm, which brand am I going to follow while I’m on vacation? Should I be with this, should I be with that, should I be with the other?” And every time I used my card to go to one, I felt guilty that I wasn’t using the other two. Loyalty is a powerful hook.
And there was loyalty to the brand of what the Messiah was supposed to be, and this loyalty brand was dominant. Now, there are even those who, today, in scholarly writing, try to make the Jesus of Nazareth of the Bible into one of those revolutionary cynics. You can read a plethora of books that try to show Jesus as fitting into the mould of first century expectations of a revolutionary Messiah. Peter is troubled, because he sees that the brand of Messiah and what he sees in Jesus of Nazareth, moving further and further apart. He doesn’t know what to do about it. In fact, he’s worried about his own brand, and speaks on behalf of the disciples.
When Jesus says things like, “the Son of Man,” which is another phrase for the Messiah,” is going to suffer many things, and that he’s going to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and others,” this does not fit with the conception of what the Messiah should be. This broke the brand as far as Peter was concerned, and so he rebukes Jesus. Then in one of the most angry and vociferous statements that Jesus ever makes, on that very point, he says, “Get behind me, Satan!” You are not doing the will of God, you are not speaking on behalf of God. You are concerned about what people think, you are concerned about your conception of what a Messiah should be. Jesus shatters him, and says, “You see, the Son of Man must suffer many things, and if you want to follow me, then you must take up your cross,” which of course, is looking forward to what would happen weeks and months later. “You must take up your cross and follow me, and then, and only then, after that will I rise from the dead and you have eternal life.”
In other words, he shattered the conception of the brand of messiahship that was dominant at the time, and Peter had to choose. He had to make up his mind, is he simply going with what everyone wants the Messiah to be, or is he going to follow the way that Jesus was revealing his messianic purpose, which was radically different? Sure, it would restore the throne of David, but it would do it as a resurrected Lord. Sure, it would put Israel and Jerusalem at the centre of things, but only because it’s from there that the whole world would be saved. It is from there that streams of healing would take place. Rather than the war-monger revolutionary, there would be healing on the wings of the Messiah. Rather than the judgement that would crush other nations, there was the forgiveness of sins. Rather than the power of power, there was the power of love. What Jesus was doing was not just for the nation, it was from the nation for the whole of the world.
Why? Because this was not what people were looking for, it’s what God was actively doing. Peter faced a crisis, and in facing this crisis, he had to decide if he is going to follow this Jesus. Is he going to follow him all the way as he is, or is he going to leave the camp and follow the pretenders, simply go with what everyone expects the brand of the Messiah to be? It was a powerful moment and text, because I ask, what is our brand, what is your brand? And by that I mean, what is your brand in the light of Jesus of Nazareth? Where does Christ fit into your identity, and to what people see in you? How central is Christ to your life, your witness, and who you are? “For indeed, it is right, you can gain the whole world,” says Jesus, you can have the adulation of everyone, you can be Mister and Missus Popular. But if you discard what is really at the core of your life, then you forfeit your soul. It goes not only for individuals, it goes for churches. What is the point of having a great brand if you’re a church or a denomination or a congregation, willing to forfeit your own soul to preserve it?
In fact, if you don’t think that’s real, some years ago I met one of Canada’s leading billionaires, who lives far away from Toronto, but in Canada. When I told him that I was the minister of Timothy Memorial Church, he said, you’re not just the congregation that you serve, you’re a brand.” The first time I’d ever heard it said. Now, he was thinking, of course, of the name by which this church derives its identity, but more than that, it’s what we stand for, it’s what we believe in, it’s what we hold dear. So it matters what our answer is. And part of our answer as individuals or as a church, could simply be indifference. “We really don’t care, we’re not bothered about how we are seen. Or we don’t care” – when in reality and faith the key is – “How does God see us.”
We can be like that farmer in the American Civil War that I read of some years ago, who lived in Tennessee, which was one of those states that seemed both North and South, depending on where your point of view was during the Civil War. The farmer, realising that the battles between the North and the South were getting ever closer to his farm, decided that the only way that he could survive, was to wear uniforms from both the North and the South. So he wore a grey hat, but a blue jacket and grey pants. He thought the unionists and the confederates would see something that they could identify with and leave him alone. The confederates came along, saw the blue jacket and shot him, then unionists came along, saw the grey hat and shot him too. This true story of a farmer who was trying to appease everyone, be everything to everyone, ended up being neither. It’s a powerful lesson.
This week we have just said farewell to the great Kofi Annan, who himself was a devout Christian. Annan wrote this: “To live is to choose, but to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.” In other words, indifference is simply not an option in life. It isn’t in terms of the way that we reach out to others, and it isn’t in the way that we are understood by God.
There’s another alternative, and that’s accommodation. In other words, we will go with what people expect us to be. We will accommodate ourselves to the zeitgeist, to the spirit of the age. Constantine did this with the Roman Empire and Christianity becoming as one. Charlemagne did this when the two became one. In the fourteenth century, Pope Boniface VIII in his famous Unam sanctam bull, talked about what the world is and what the power of the papacy is as synonymous.
In the Second World War the German church came on board, that whatever Hitler and the German country and nation wanted, must be in accordance with what Jesus wants, so Jesus is accommodated to the culture.
And really, for the last twenty and thirty years, in many ways, even within the Christian community we have tried to accommodate everything about ourselves in order to be acceptable to the spirit of our age, whether it’s right or wrong.
We all do it, we’re like Peter saying, “Come on, Jesus, we’ll follow you wherever you go, but you know, people expect you to be something.”
Then there is the final option, and it’s the committed option. It’s ultimately the one that Peter chose, thank God. It’s the one that says, “Wherever you go, we will follow. What you think of us is more important than what other people think of us. Then never mind what culture may say, or the perception is, we will be followers of you, no matter what.”
This last week we’ve seen a great deal written about – and I’ve mentioned him before – the American athlete Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is now being used by a brand to promote the brand, it’s kind of ironic, because he, in a sense, shattered the brand in the first place. We all know the controversial NFL player, who protested by kneeling during the national anthem. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with Kaepernick on that point; what motivated him was his faith in Christ. And he says that right up front, at the beginning of all of this, the Lord was calling him and he was responding to the call of Christ, and to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Jesus was the man for others.” No matter what might have come his way – and a lot of suffering came his way – he at least had the courage of his faith and his convictions.
It’s important to have that in our lives, and not just to put Christ as the accommodation to whatever others think, or to be indifferent, but to have him at the centre. He becomes, in effect, the focal point of our very brand, our very existence, and our very being. He becomes the centre, not the periphery.
In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, there was a telling moment when Wolsey, the great cardinal, who had supported the king for all those years and had sacrificed and made decisions that were contrary to what he wanted, had stood by him. Shakespeare, I think, captures the essence of him when, in Henry VIII, Wolsey says: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal that I served my king, he would not in my age, have left me naked to mine enemies.” Wolsey had tried to accommodate his convictions to what was the will of the king, and is now facing his accusers.
There’s a lesson here, a lesson that Jesus had for the disciples about branding, our identity and who we are. Lest we be overly concerned what others think of us, and think not enough about what God thinks of us. To place Christ not at the centre, but at the periphery, which is often what we do. And then those words that we should all heed: “What profiteth a person if they gain the whole world, but forfeit their soul?” Amen.