Who Do You Say That I Am?
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Sunday 16 September 2012
Lessons - Proverbs 2:1-15; Mark 8:27-38
Prayer: 'Make our ways attentive to wisdom and incline our hearts to
understanding . . . that we may be delivered from the ways of evil.'
(from Proverbs 2:2,12)
'But who do you say that I am?' asked Jesus (Mark 8:29)
'Who do you say that I am?' What do you make of me? What do you see in me?
The opinion polls showed that Jesus was thought to be a remarkable person.
His high public profile was reminiscent of the boldest prophets (v28). He bedazzled and puzzled the masses, infuriated the upholders of religious purity and moral virtue and frustrated his family and closest friends. Who is this person? How are we to understand him?
It becomes clear that Jesus cannot be pigeon-holed according to our ideas about God or humanity.
* He is critical of pompous religion and smug moralism, but insists on true worship and right living.
* He speaks of 'self denial' and 'losing one's life' (v34ff) but delights in the beauty of nature and human company.
* He berates the rich for neglecting the poor but enjoys feasting, using the banquet as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
* He was crucified as if he were irreligious and immoral, but showed mercy to his murderers. Incredibly, he defeated the dreadful power of evil and death.
He embodied a 'humanity' and 'Godlikeness' that did not square with any person they had met before. In him was wisdom not previously encountered.
Jesus was a person 'who fitted no formula' (E Schweizer). Whenever they tried to describe him in terms of other experiences of God or human figures, they were compelled to understand him in completely new ways.
Jesus reshaped what they believed about both God and humanity!
Charles Schulz, creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts, was asked what he felt there was in Christianity that speaks most clearly to the modern world. 'Always Jesus,' he answered firmly. 'I think the minute we begin to get away from Jesus himself we begin to cloud our faith and thinking. ...
A person should be converted, not because of what others say about Jesus, but because they have seen the figure of Jesus and been inspired and
transformed by him' (para Parable of Peanuts p159).
What do we see in Jesus? What do we make of him? Who do we say that he is?
Many answers are given. Often, Jesus seems to be a mirror image of our own biases and ideals. We can make of him what we will. Take your pick!
* For some, his 'Godlikeness' is so important that his 'humanity' is
denied: Jesus is a heavenly figure who floats above the 'real world'. This is a danger for spiritualists, new-agers and charismatics.
* For others, his 'humanity' is so important that his 'Godlikeness' is
denied: Jesus is simply an earthly figure who teaches us about God. This is a danger for those who think Christianity is primarily about the golden rule and forget that he embodies the very Being of God.
Both try to squeeze Jesus into their preconceived ideas about what it is to be 'God-like' and what it is to be 'human'. They pigeon-hole him according to their ideas of what is reasonable for them to believe.
Anything that does not fit must be discarded!
Today, as always, controversy rages over the identity of Jesus. Sadly, much of it, in the community as well as in the church, is deeply hostile to the Bible's splendid affirmation that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them and entrusting
to us the message of reconciliation' (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Nevertheless, the question about who Jesus is continues to gnaw at us. It cannot be so easily fobbed-off. 'But who do you say that I am?' The short answer is that Jesus is incomparable. He is not to be mistaken for other figures, no matter how brave, good or godly.
Peter seems to understand this when he boldly affirms that 'You are the Christ'. Great answer, we might think! What wisdom to see Jesus as being much, much more than a prophet.
Yet Peter, too, seriously misunderstands! He, too, has Jesus pigeon-holed.
In line with traditional expectations he thinks of Jesus as the Messiah who will conquer evil, save Israel from suffering and bring righteousness on earth. He simply does not understand! He insists that messianic figures cannot possibly undergo suffering, rejection, crucifixion and resurrection (v31). No formula could have prepared him to anticipate such a fate for 'the Christ'. No wonder he was upset on Jesus' behalf - 'this will never happen to you'!
But not half as upset as by Jesus' withering reply. Jesus does not say, 'You've almost got it' or 'That's an interesting perspective.' He says, 'You're working for the dark-side.' 'You have not seen the light.' 'Get behind me, Evil One!' (v33)
This is not the 'gentle Jesus meek and mild' we have become accustomed to!
Jesus confronts Peter - and each one of us - with the disturbing but transforming fact that the One who brings hope into the world - the Messiah of God - overturns our usual thoughts about 'God' and 'humanity'.
In the suffering, crucified and victorious life of Christ we are confronted by the fullness of God's self-giving love for us and the fullness of the humanity for which we have been created, so that we might
worship God and love our neighbours.
'But who do you say that I am?' This pivotal story in Jesus' ministry is an invitation to think differently about God and humanity: to understand that, in Jesus, God's costly love 'for us' and our obedient response 'to God' are illuminated. It is also a stern warning against forcing Jesus into a mould of our own making and refusing to let him shape our understanding of both God and humanity. That is why Jesus charged the disciples not to tell others that he is the Christ. Who he is can be known only after his crucifixion and resurrection.
This crucial story should so stir our curiosity about the One 'who fits no formula' that we are propelled into a life of radical self-denial (v35ff).
Not all will be sweetness and light. Tough times await those called to withstand evil and proclaim the word of hope that has come into our midst.
Yet it is a most wonderful freedom to see who Jesus truly is: the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord of all who restores sinful people like us to fellowship with God. That thereby enables us to see who we truly
are: loved, forgiven children of God who are called to participate in his costly and victorious mission in the midst of a broken and often hostile world.
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.