Who Does Jesus Say That You Are?
July 26, 2015
It was finals week. The professor checked her watch and then looked up at the seats filled with a couple hundred students, desperately writing their last thoughts in the blue exam booklets in front of them. “Time!” she called. “Put down your pencils; close your books; bring them to the front desk.”
One student refused to follow directions. As the others lined up to pile their books on the professor’s desk, he stayed in his seat, head down, continuing to scribble in the blue book. The line of students came to an end. The rebel and the professor were the only ones in the auditorium. The young man finally stopped writing and stepped forward.
“I’m sorry,” the professor said. “I can’t accept your exam. You should have stopped writing when the others did.”
The student’s face was a study in self-importance. “Do you know who I am?” he demanded.
“No, I don’t” the professor shot back.
“Good!” he exclaimed, shoved his exam book into the middle of the pile, and left.
Sometimes it’s best not to be known.
This week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark finds Jesus asking if people know who he is. The passage is the center of Mark’s Gospel, in both meanings of that term.
- Literally, it is almost exactly in the middle of Mark's work – the end of the eighth chapter in a sixteen chapter book.
- Narratively, it marks the major turning point from Jesus' ministry of healing, feeding, casting out demons and the rest, to Jesus' journey to the cross.
Jesus and his disciples have been all over Galilee and now are on the outskirts of the Roman town Caesarea Philippi. He asks them two important questions: who do people say that I am? And, more to the point, who do you say that I am? The disciples answer his first question with comparisons to important biblical figures: some say you are Elijah, or John the Baptist, or another prophet.
Peter answers his second question: “You are the Messiah, God’s anointed One.”
The NRSV translation uses the Hebrew word “Messiah,” even though Mark wrote the word in Greek, “Christos.” “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” and “Messiah” means “anointed”… and, literally, “anointed” doesn’t mean much beyond having a head damp with water or oil. The significance of being anointed in the 1st C AD had to do with who anointed you and for what.
Even saying that Jesus was anointed by God could mean several things:
- Some in Israel were hoping God would anoint a king to reclaim David’s throne and rule as David did, when he was remembered at his best.
- Others were hoping God would anoint a priest who would reform the Temple hierarchy.
- And still others were anticipating that God would anoint someone to be a special prophet, speaking bold truth to the governing powers.
All this is to say that when Peter says that Jesus is “the Christ,” we don’t really know what he means. It’s possible that Peter didn’t exactly know what he meant either.
Jesus’ response indicates that he’s not pleased with whatever Peter meant. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” And then he starts talking about suffering, rejection, and death before a rising again.
Peter may be catching on to who Jesus is, but he objects to what Jesus is saying is going to be required of those who follow him. The text says Peter “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” And who can blame him? Don’t we also hope and expect God to come in strength, not weakness? Don’t we hope and expect to live better lives, not more miserable ones, by following Jesus?
Jesus’ statements about suffering and rejection was puzzling to early Christians, too. Matthew’s gospel –written probably 2 to 4 decades after Mark’s – adds a long apology for it. In Matthew, Jesus basically says to Peter, “You’re right to say that I’m the Christ, and I think it’s fantastic that you know the truth about me, but just don’t tell anyone. Really, I mean it.”
But in Mark, Jesus doesn’t soften his words. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
When we call Jesus “the Christ,” what do we mean? Who do we say Jesus is?
Sarah Dylan Breuer, who has taught New Testament and early Christian history in a number of places, says she can’t count the number of times she’s seen the word “Christ” as if it were a surname -- as if Jesus' parents were "Joseph and Mary Christ." She even had a student write about “Mr. Christ”!
Defining exactly what “Christ” means, accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior,” and convincing others to do the same is, for some Christians, a litmus test of faith. But in the Gospel of Mark, especially, Jesus doesn’t make many statements about his identity. Instead, he focuses on engaging people in relationship with him as they encounter him.
In fact, Peter’s naming of Jesus as “the Messiah” is the first time in this gospel that any human voice has called him that. His divine identity is not the heart of Jesus’ message in Mark’s Gospel. He doesn’t teach doctrine or exhort his followers to believe a set of statements about him. Instead he proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom by teaching, healing, feeding, telling stories and inviting others to follow him on the way.
What we have heard from others and what we have been taught by others about Jesus Christ is important, but so is the encounter we have with Jesus in our own lives and in the life of the church. In a culture where so many claim to be followers of Christ – but few give up everything in order to follow him, or practice turning the other cheek –“Who do you say that Jesus is?” is not the only important question.
Perhaps there are other, equally important, questions –
- Who does Jesus say that you are?
- Who does he say that we – 21st C American Christians - are?
- What would Jesus mean if he called you one of his followers?
- What would Jesus mean if he said about us “These are my disciples”?
When we say that we are Jesus’ followers, we are saying that we are his body in the world. For the world, Jesus is the sum of what we say he is with our lives. It’s a matter of behavior as much – or maybe more – as it is about words.
Here If You Need Me is a memoir by Kate Braestrup, a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. Originally it was Braestrup’s husband, Drew, who was planning to be the minister after he retired from the Maine State Police. But he was killed on the job in an auto accident, and eventually Kate decided God was calling her to take up where death had stopped her husband.
In her book, she describes the day of her husband’s death:
“Perhaps forty minutes after I had heard the news, I was sitting in the living room with my friend Monica when the doorbell rang. Monica sprang to answer it.
A young man stood on the front steps, clad in a spiffy dark suit, his hair neatly combed, exuding a scent of soap and virtue. Holding out a pamphlet, he beamed at Monica. ‘Have you heard the Good News?’
For a long second, Monica glared at him, not sure whether to punch him or laugh hysterically. She compromised by slamming the door.
A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time I answered it. It was my neighbor, an elderly woman I had exchanged no more than a dozen words with in the ten years I’d lived in town. She had pot holders on her hands, which held a pan of brownies still hot from the oven, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. ‘I just heard,’ she said.
That pan of brownies was, it later turned out, the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death.
- I didn’t know that my family and I would be fed three meals a day for weeks and weeks.
- I did not anticipate that neighborhood men would come to drywall the playroom, build bookshelves, mow the lawn, get the oil changed in my car.
- I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done,
- that I would have embraces and listening ears,
- that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone.
All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News.
‘I wish I could do more,’ she said, and all I could think as I gazed at her, shining before me in the electric air, was What more need there be on earth than this?
Our words can say that Jesus is the Christ, and that he is our Lord and Savior, but if our lives say that Jesus excuse us from the responsibility of caring for our neighbors in East Lansing, or Louisiana, or Syria, then our confession is a distraction at best. Jesus himself would say to us, “Get behind me! You are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their 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.
Many of us hear those words as a call to a spartan (little “s”) lifestyle, a call to ascetic living. In our culture it’s hard to know what that means or how to manage it and still be responsible employees or parents or citizens.
The same words have been used to convince oppressed people to accept their suffering –
- slaves were told by the “good Christian” owners that obedience to white domination was their cross to carry.
- Women whose full personhood was long denied were encouraged to think of that denial as “good news.”
And surely we’ve heard an annoyance or inconvenience referred to as “a cross to bear.”
But carrying the cross of Christ isn’t the same as inviting suffering or accepting injustice, and it’s certainly not the same as putting up with an annoying co-worker. The life of discipleship that Jesus is describing is deeper than that, it goes down to the very roots of who we are and what we value most in our lives. Carrying the cross is putting identity and our loyalty as followers of Jesus before all other loyalties.
There’s no question that faithfulness to the gospel is costly. Brennan Manning, who wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel, said “[Jesus] had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.” Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase “the cost of discipleship,” and it was a cost he surely paid, even with his own life.
But as he, as so many others, have testified there is a radical sense of fulfillment and deep joy when one lives in accordance with one’s faith. Even when it is accompanied by, or is the result of, that faith. The point of Christian faith is not “hero worship,” Bonhoeffer said, “but intimacy with Christ.”
So perhaps another question we should be asking ourselves is not “What burden, large or small, should I be bearing?” but “Would I be willing to be embarrassed, or even shamed, because of my relationship with Jesus?”
- In polite company, where religion is not to be discussed, am I willing to claim my faith publicly?
- What cost am I willing to pay?
- Where does the path of faith lead me?
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks. “Who do you say that I am?”
- Elijah, Prophet, Rabbi, we answer.
- Son of God, Messiah, Christ.
- The Way, The Truth, The Life.
- Savior, Shepherd, Friend.
- The last, the least, the lost.
The late William Sloane Coffin said “Jesus is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity, a window revealing as much of God as is given mortal eyes to see. When Christians see Christ empowering the weak, scorning the powerful, healing the wounded, and judging their tormentors, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. What is finally important is that that Christ is Godlike, but that God is Christ-like. God is like Christ. That’s what we need to know, isn’t it?”
To say that God is Christ-like is to say that God is a suffering God…and that, in turn, means that the whole universe is borne on a heart infinite in compassion.
The more we accept the cost of our own discipleship, the more our lives reflect Christ’s suffering compassion, the closer we come to him. And the closer we come, the more we find that we are loved with a love far more dependable than our own; we find we are prized more highly than we could ever prize ourselves.
For Jesus does indeed know who we are. He knows your name; he calls you to follow.
William Sloane Coffin. Credo. Westminster John Knox Press. 2004.
Kate Braestrup. Here If You Need Me: A True Story. Back Bay Books. 2007.
David Lose. “Preaching the Anti-King.” Posted September 09, 2012 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1626
Sarah Dylan Breuer. “Proper 19, Year B: Mark 8:27-38.” Posted on September 16, 2006 on SarahLaughed.net. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/09/proper_19_year_.html
Daniel Hazard and Kate Huey. “Who Are You, Jesus?” posted September 15, 2012 on Weekly Seed at UCC.org. http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit_weekly-seeds_who-are-you- September 15, 2012. Quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Brennan Manning also found at this site.