Who Do You Say That I Am?

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Text: Mark 8:27-38

Preacher: Ven. Dr. Timothy Connor

St. George’s Anglican Church, London, ON

15th Sunday after Pentecost (13 September 2009)

  1. Does it really matter who Jesus is? Can’t we all entertain our own ideas about his identity, our own sense of who he is and move on in the life of the church? I mean, isn’t that what really happens anyway? At Bible study, for instance, the group is struggling with one of the hard sayings of Jesus, something that goes against the grain or sets our teeth on edge when, inevitably, someone says, ‘Well, my Jesus would never have said anything like that!” And don’t preachers fall prey to this temptation also, wanting to smooth over the rough spots, tone down the extremes, produce a picture of a Jesus we can actually live with – someone accommodated to our lives in today’s church and today’s world? I remember well hearing just such a sermon in the chapel of the monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. It was right after Easter and a familiar gospel text was read at the Eucharist. The preacher, a visiting New Testament scholar from a neighbouring Episcopal Seminary, announced with great confidence that the one thing we could know for sure about this text was that Jesus of Nazareth could never ever have said anything like that. The text was exclusive, he suggested, and since Jesus was obviously the poster boy for radical inclusivity, out went the text and that was that. And doesn’t this also seem to be the case with the spate of Jesus books produced by the academy, each with its diverse picture of the apocalyptic prophet (Schweitzer), or the movement initiator (Borg), or the wandering Jewish cynic (Crossan), and so on and so forth? Can’t we just revel in all this wonderful diversity and concede that Jesus can be for you whatever you want him to be?

  2. Well, we could do that, I suppose. In fact, as I said, it may well be the current state of affairs. And, to be sure, there is much about the identity of Jesus that strikes us as so highly elusive, so difficult to come to terms with, that maybe much of this identity confusion has a kind of inevitability about it. But it might just be the case that all of these attempts to nail down the identity of Jesus may in the end reveal more about us than about him. Jesus may end up serving as a blank screen on which we project our best thoughts or deepest desires or hidden fears. We may come to think of him as the icing on the cake of the life we are busily confecting, the genie in the bottle who grants our every wish, the valet who helps us around the difficult patches in life’s road. In other words, Jesus may become merely a cipher, a piece of the puzzle, someone who is religiously useful.

  3. For Mark the gospel writer, however, the question of the identity of Jesus is everything. He begins his gospel by announcing that he writes about a subject who is both Christ and Son of God. Yet the way he proceeds to tell the story of Jesus subverts and modifies what those terms would then and there have been taken to mean. In fact, Mark shows that we can only come to know what it means to say that the man Jesus of Nazareth is Christ and Son of God by attending to what he says and what he does, by looking intently at the shape and direction of his life as his telling of the Jesus story unfolds. And part of Mark’s artistry is to illustrate the way in which Jesus gradually opens the eyes of his disciples and of the crowds who listen to him concerning who he is. A key text in that whole process is the gospel which we have just heard.

  4. Mark recounts a visit of Jesus and his disciples to the ‘villages of Caesarea Philippi’, the area surrounding the city of that name way up by the headwaters of the Jordan river on the southern slope of Mt. Hermon. The name of the place resonates with political power, having been dedicated to the Roman emperor and enshrining the name of Philip, son of Herod the Great, who had received the city as a gift and rebuilt it. In fact, before the emperor had given the city to Herod, it was called Panion in honour of the Greek god Pan. So in this place redolent with imperial power and exotic religion, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. Who do they think he is? The answers are similar if also diverse. Some say that Jesus is really John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Some say that he is Elijah, an ancient prophet of Israel taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and associated by some with the decisive coming of God’s reign. Others were less precise about all this but still located Jesus in the category of prophet. At any rate, it would seem that some people connected Jesus with what God had been up to recently in the work of John and some saw him as having to do with what God had been up to more remotely in ancient times. That is, they looked to him as one who might realize in his teaching and healing something decisive about the will of God for the people of God.

  5. Jesus then asks his disciples for their opinion – who do you say that I am? Peter, as usual, steps forward and answers, ‘You are the Messiah’. And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Let’s say that Peter got it right. After all, this is one of the terms of the identity of Jesus that Mark wants to drive home in the entire sweep of his gospel. Peter is identifying Jesus as God’s agent who will bring to fulfilment the promises made to Israel and the realization of Israel’s hopes. And that may be right but what are Israel’s hopes? To overthrow imperial domination and banish the Romans from their land? To see the restoration of David’s dynasty and have again their own king, their own power and prosperity and place in the world? To allow God’s people to worship in freedom once again? All these and more?

  6. It would seem that Peter confessed rightly but also that he confessed more than he knew. Whatever his own hopes for the messiahship of Jesus may have been, it soon becomes clear that Jesus has a different take on the matter. Jesus teaches them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the leaders of Israel, be killed and rise again after three days. Jesus said all this openly, explicitly and repeatedly. Whatever terms are to be used of him, whether prophet or Messiah, they will be defined along this way – the way of suffering and rejection, the way of death and resurrection. If Jesus really is about the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel and the realization of Israel’s hopes, that fulfilment and realization will take place through what happens along this pathway.

  7. It is at this point that Peter balks. What he means by messiah goes in another direction altogether. He takes Jesus aside and offers a stiff correction. But Jesus in turn publicly rebukes Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan’. Peter is getting in the way with his human aspirations, getting in the way of God’s will for Jesus. The ‘messiah’ he sees in Jesus isn’t really there at all. There is instead this one who teaches about God’s coming reign and calls people to repent. There is this one who mends and heals the broken with the justice of God. There is this one who must go the way of suffering and rejection and death and rising again. Peter will just have to get out of the way if he is to see this and know fully what it means to say of Jesus, “You are the Christ.”

  8. It is a way open also to the followers of Jesus and to the crowds. We too are invited to get out of the way of Jesus, to lay aside our own most cherished ideas about his identity, our own most prized agendas for his life. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What an unsettling invitation! Not only is Jesus intent on going the way of suffering, rejection and death and rising again but he calls his disciples, his followers, his friends to travel with him along that way, a way of self-denial and of cross-carrying, of sticking close to the heels of Jesus along his way towards suffering and a horrific death. The invitation has something to do with saving our lives by losing them for the sake of Jesus and of the gospel. It is an invitation, a summons really, to gain our lives when the Son of Man comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. It is an invitation ultimately to find our lives in the kingdom, the coming reign, of God.

  9. So just how unsettling is this summons? Devastating, I’d say. Why? Well, at the very least it means that we can only begin to understand who Jesus is along the way of self-denial and suffering, of being killed and rising again. We can only find the answer to his persistent questioning of us — Who do you say that I am? — along the way of the cross and resurrection. All our attentiveness is to be focused only there. Second, this summons means that the life of the follower of Jesus can never be a routine or settled existence. Over against all claims to power and to divinity, to have settled all political and religious questions once and for all, Jesus with his cross and empty tomb places an indelible question mark. So we can’t just settle down and go with the flow and surf the leading edge of the waves of church and culture and fashion our own life under the reign of satisfied self-indulgence. No, we are undone in terms of any routine patterns of progressive self-making if we claim both to follow Christ and to take seriously his question, Who do you say that I am? His summons to follow him along his way interrogates and intercepts all the other ways we have set for ourselves. Third, a summons to forfeit our lives in order to find them in the coming reign of God means that we do not now possess the Kingdom of God. It is not within our grasp nor subject to our power. We cannot simply roll it out by our own efforts. We can only long for it, desire it with all our heart, point to it by what we say and what we do. We can only pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’. We can only cling to the promises made to us in baptism where we died with Jesus and were raised in him to eternal life. That is, we can only live in sheer dependence on the mercy of God. Cross-carrying, the call to unsettled existence, dependence upon the mercy of God – these are not things we rush to embrace.

  10. Then how can something be so unsettling and still be good news? Be gospel? Remember this: Jesus’ summons to take up our cross and follow him is a summons to follow him into the kingdom of God. It is an invitation to live our lives fully and abundantly under the reign of life and not, finally, of death. To be sure, it is a summons to live against the grain of the world of power, our power and that of the gods, and to live with the grain of God’s creation, God’s justice, and God’s love.

  11. So we are once again offered a question: Who do you say that I am? The good news is that this morning it is the risen Lord, the living Lord Jesus, who puts that question to us as once again he graciously invites us to his table. He asks us to answer it by entering into his way of dying and rising, the baptismal way which he calls us to live. He asks us to answer it in a life of self-denial and suffering for his name and for the gospel – in a word, in martyrdom. Martyrs are simply witnesses whose discipleship, whose following Jesus is displayed for all to see in their words, their actions, the shape of their lives. So the Risen One puts to us his question, persistently yet lovingly, so that we might simply repent and believe the gospel. He asks us, Who do you say that I am?, so that we might answer rightly and really live.

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