But who do YOU say that I am? – Sermon for September 16, 2012

Mark 8:27-30

8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

8:28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

8:29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

8:30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. You sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass. It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

One question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way before they could try to convert me.

One time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction and rejecting everything that she had been taught. We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus have one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.

But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books, and then the teacher asks it again and says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

This week I engaged social media a little to see how people would answer that question. I posted on Facebook and on Twitter, and I asked my friends (some clergy, some not, some Christian, some not) how they would respond, in eight words or less, to Jesus’s question, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Some ignored the eight word limit and wrote something closer to that essay I was talking about. But others wrote things like this: the face of God. A man of inclusive love and compassion. God incarnate in human form embodying perfect love. Brilliant social reformer modeling radical love and inclusiveness. Child of God, lover of the world, saviour. The reason I believe in forgiveness. God with us. A prophetic reformer of his religion. Be all, end of, of love, justice equality. Embodied grace in a broken world. My way of life, the way to life. Something different to us all. The light of the world, in the flesh. Just a man. The son of God. Something different to us all. And, perhaps my favorite: Not me.

I was really moved by all the different answers, and how so many could answer with such brevity, and so precisely, and yet also so personally. You may have heard an answer or two in there that you personally like a lot. One that made you go, “yeah, that…that’s what I would say.” There were a few of them in there that made me do that.

But as good as they were, Jesus doesn’t want us to answer based on what we read in books. And he doesn’t even want us to answer based on what our friends say. He wants us to answer for ourselves, from our own hearts.

There’s no right answer here. You’re not going to get graded. You’re not going to gain or lose the title of Christian based on what you say. But it’s still daunting. How would you answer: Who do you say that Jesus is?

Anyone want to take a shot right here in the sanctuary? I didn’t think anyone would actually take me up on that. But let the question sit. Let it stay with you. Think about what you would say. It’s such a simple question. One we will feel like we should be able to answer so easily. And yet, it is so hard.

I think back to those folks down South. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty. If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to do just that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your own understanding of who Jesus is to you.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all friends of Jesus, all people who have, or who are trying to have, a relationship with him. All people who are journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has always bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you, even when it’s rocky. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, we begin to understand who we say that Jesus is. Amen.

3 thoughts on “But who do YOU say that I am? – Sermon for September 16, 2012

  1. So many… maybe because I’m also a lectionary preacher. But mainly this:

    It strikes me that not having answers – that the UCC’s tradition of grappling with the texts and the traditions, can be a scary proposition. It makes us think, it makes us wonder, it doesn’t give us much to cling to. Living in the gray area, where there is precious little black-and-white, is akin to living in perpetual uncertainty, which we humans don’t do well. And this story, at some level, is an illustration of that.

    Peter, who is not always portrayed as the brightest bulb on the tree, gets a sudden flash of real insight. (My Oxford Annotated Bible reminds me that “Messiah” was not a common concept in Judaism of that era – Peter’s use of the word is an anomaly.) In one moment, entire worlds open up to this poor disciple – whole realms of understanding. It’s beyond an Aha moment – it’s a fully-realized encounter with the divine. Enough to leave you reeling; and enough to scare the pants off of poor Peter. Jesus warns the disciples to silence, and then begins the most frank talk about his ministry – and its end – that he has with them in the Gospel. And Peter, who has finally understood, begs him to stop. Begs him to say it’s all a joke. Rebukes him, and gets rebuked in return.

    You’re right, there is no right answer, and Jesus is many things to many people. But the fact that “Messiah” seems to be, at some level, the “right” answer, we also need to grapple with, not just who Jesus is, but what it means to have the Christ walking among us. What it means to have God incarnate in human flesh, understanding us all the way down to the parts we’d love to keep hidden… here again, there’s nothing left to cling to. Were we to come face-to-face with the same understanding that Peter had, how on earth would we react? Could we stand it?

  2. I am just beginning to ask myself that question. I kind of had a similar reaction to those whom I’ll just call the “getting saved people”. Everything was so formulaic. And when I finally really read the Gospels, Jesus is anything BUT formulaic. He asks difficult questions. And he doesn’t expect an answer right away. I guess I get pretty scared sometimes, because I feel I should be further along my path. Right now, I attend services and participate in a United Methodist Church. Imperfect people, but a loving congregation as are we all. I want to know all I can find out about other people’s relationships with God, because I’m not sure what mine is like. I know I get nudged by Him/Her sometimes. And I also know God has richly blessed me with four wonderful children, musical talent that gives me and others joy, a job that pays the bills, my mother still going steady if not always strong at 82, and a wonderful husband who ALSO is willing to ask the difficult questions. If that doesn’t tell me God loves me, I don’t know what does. Thanks for your sharing and your ministry, Rev. Heath.

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