The Question of Who (and why it matters)


A sermon on Mark 8:27-38

This week, Facebook took me to church.

On Monday, after doing my initial read of today’s gospel lesson, I thought it would be interesting to pose Jesus’s question to my Facebook universe.

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Since I am not Jesus, of course, I changed the language to ask “who is Jesus to you?”, and with a few other words to frame the question, I sent it out into the social media jungle.

In about two and a half days I had gathered 80 different responses. Some were simple; some more detailed. Some came from a place of skepticism about religion, while others were deeply personal. They came from atheists and fundamentalists and the spectrum in between. Some made me think. Some made me cry. They took me to church.

I briefly considered just reading those responses to you as my sermon today… but then my social science training kicked in and I thought it might actually be fun to analyze them like interview data. So, I developed a coding scheme, and broke the responses into thirteen different categories. Most people included more than one of these themes in their responses, and when gathered together they offer a profoundly nuanced answer to the question of Jesus’s identity:

Interestingly, in the context of today’s gospel, only one person directly echoed Peter’s words, saying that Jesus is: “The Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed by God.” But maybe that’s because I asked people to avoid theological language and talk about their own experience of Jesus. Several people talked more generally about Jesus as “savior”… as the one who “sets us free,” our “protector,” the one who sacrifices himself to “save us all from our mistakes.”

Others used the language of grace and forgiveness. Describing what it feels like to be shown such intimate mercy that can be grace-filled even as it shows us our failings. As one friend poetically explained “Jesus is the one who is so glowingly perfect, that the light reveals my imperfections, but loves me so much that I want nothing more than to reflect that shine!”

A few folks shared how Jesus gave them a sense of value and identity, teaching them to know not only God but also themselves. “Jesus is the focus of my life,” one person wrote. “It’s through Jesus that I learned to love myself, forgive readily, and open my eyes and my heart.”

A number of related ideas connected to the strength that people received from Jesus.

People talked about Jesus as their “hope,” their “anchor,” their “reassurance,” a “calming spirit,” “the hand that grasps ours when we reach out in the dark.”

Constancy and faithfulness are clearly core aspects of Jesus’s identity that allow people to find strength and hope in him. One of you shared about how Jesus is “always near” both in “the strength I find to carry on when feeling low or in the joy I feel at other times.”

One mother shared vulnerably about her experience of clinging to Jesus for the year since her teenage daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. “Jesus was my boat in the storm,” she describes. “The Jesus who cried over Lazarus cried with me. Jesus was my only option if I were going to continue to choose life and hold out hope for my family as we struggled through the trauma of cancer. Jesus is showing me how to live, how to love and how to persevere.”

A number of people used relational terms to describe Jesus: “a friend,” “a brother,” “a confidante,” a “companion and confessor.” “The only one who has ever loved me overwhelmingly, utterly, and unconditionally.”

For some this relationship exists with an invisible presence, but for others the incarnation is essential to who Jesus is. It is important that Jesus had a body. One woman described Jesus as “my Creator who took on a body and helps me learn that my disabled body was wonderfully made.” For another respondent, the particularity of Jesus’ body is vital, describing Jesus as “a fairly rough-looking, light-brown skinned Jewish man with a big nose and dark curly hair.” For another the specifics are flexible, describing Jesus as “she.”

And for many, Jesus shows up physically, touchably in other people. In “the human arms that hold me in God’s embrace;” In “a homeless person in a day shelter in Camden…” who “embraced me with simple, unconditional love;” In “the stranger I see,” and in “the people whom I really don’t like;” “He’s the person who gives me bread on Sunday…. The person who sits next to me as I cry in grief and just puts her arm around me and lets me cry. Jesus is the person on the street to whom I give some money who then blesses me.”

One of you, reflecting on your life experience wrote “Jesus looks like me most when I am in need of direction and guidance. I look within myself at what I know to be true about him, what he’s brought me through and revealed to me.”

Not everyone described Jesus in such intimate terms. For a few Jesus is much more about mystery.

But for many more, Jesus is their way of accessing God and truth. “The window through which I see God.” Or “the glasses I put on to see the world with kinder eyes.”

One delighted parent described the way their 1.5 year old reaches for “more Jesus” at the communion rail, and reflected “may we all live our lives with that same enthusiasm for some ‘more Jesus’ in our hearts and lives.”

But there were two clear themes that showed up far more frequently than the rest, and which are also clearly related.

The first was the pervasive love and compassion that define how Jesus reaches out.

The second was that he was a teacher and an example for us.

These themes go together because of what Jesus taught and lived. One respondent summarized it this way: “he was the model of concern for the wellbeing of ALL humankind.”

These themes also connect to two more.

First, the recognition that his was is NOT the world’s way. And so his example calls us to be counter-cultural, as one person wrote: “Jesus is our standard of a life well lived as defined by God not culture.”

Second, the recognition that this rejection of the status quo has consequences:

A friend and fellow Lutheran pastor put it this way: “Jesus is the one who loved when the world hated, and they killed him for it.”

And that observation (finally) gets us back to the gospel. Back to this enigmatic exchange between Jesus and his disciples, when Peter names Jesus as the Messiah, but Jesus tells him not to say anything because Peter and the others need to first understand what that actually means. [1]

Because Jesus is not going to be the Messiah – the Savior – they expect. He is not going to save just them. He is not going to come with power to overthrow the evil Romans and restore political freedom for their one people group. He’s not going to be “their” Jesus who meets “their” needs.

He is here for EVERYONE.

And that radicality of love means that he is a threat. Jesus understood that, and he understood what it would mean; that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” And only after three days… only after the weight of that grief and loss has sunk in would he rise again. To show them what freedom really looks like.

To show them that freedom looks like following him on his road of radical love and knowing that loving like that has consequences.

Out of the 80 responses I collected to the question of Who Jesus Is, at least half of them talked about the love Jesus embodied and the way his example calls us to love the same way. But only a few focused on the cost Jesus paid for the boundary-crossing, rule-breaking, everyone-including radical love he showed; only a few mentioned the way that love challenged the powers that be in his world, and in ours.

And I get it. I get the responses that are all about connection, and peace; feeling valued and forgiven and never, never abandoned. Those things are ALL TRUE about Jesus.

But they aren’t the whole truth… not unless they are also true for the people we don’t want to have to love... not unless they are true enough that we can willingly undergo suffering in order to follow Jesus in loving EVERY other person the way Jesus did.

Jesus talked about taking up a cross, and we sometimes get hung up on thinking that can only mean martyrdom (which does not seem like a very real threat in our context), but the point isn’t the dying… the point is the following.

The point is actually following Jesus’s example and damn the consequences. It’s worth whatever it costs because Jesus IS all the things my Facebook people said he is:

He is Savior, and grace, and value, and hope, and constancy, and friend.

He is the touchable arms that hold us and a mystery that also gives us access to God.

But he is all of those things because he IS LOVE. And that means that when he calls us to follow, Jesus is calling us to love with NO EXCEPTIONS.

It means living like there are NO people who aren’t as important as we are – whose needs, and fears; whose dignity and traumas don’t matter, even if they might cost us something,

Cost us money, or imagined safety

cost us our comfort, or our self-concept,

cost us our political allegiances, or even cost us our way of life.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it.”

It sounds like an impossible challenge. I totally understand why Peter rebuked Jesus for even starting down this road. But in reality, Jesus was calling him… calling all of us to follow him into the beautiful promise of what God is doing in the world.

God is tearing away everything we think we need so that we can actually know God. So that we can actually know love.

Who Do you Say that I Am?” I say Jesus is Love. And it really is worth everything to follow Love.

Thanks be to God.

[1] For a much fuller explanation of this interpretation, see D. Mark Davis’ translation and exegesis of this story at: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-imperatives-of-discipleship.html.

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