Sermon: “Who Do You Say that I Am?”

September 19, 2009

Sermon Text: Mark 8:27-9:1

[Preached 09/13/09]

Do you know who this is?

The_Head_of_Christ_by_Warner_Sallman_1941

Painted by American artist Warner Sallman in 1941, it quickly became the iconic image of Jesus. Soldiers in World War II carried it around in their pockets. Missionaries brought it to indigenous people in countries all over the world. We’ve seen it hanging in Sunday school classes. Perhaps it hung on the wall in one of our grandparents’ houses. We’ve seen it on calendars and greeting cards. We’ve seen it tucked inside dusty family Bibles. I even saw it in a men’s room at this church, hanging above the sink. Someone—and it wasn’t me, I promise—taped a word balloon coming out of Jesus’ mouth, saying, “Remember to wash your hands!” Some of you are like, “That’s not funny. You can’t do that! That’s Jesus!” It’s become kitschy, but for many it’s a very soothing, very comforting image of Christ. Many Christians see this image and say, “That’s Jesus!” But do you know who this is?

The Angry ChristWhoa! Who’s that? That’s Jesus, too? It can’t be! That’s not my Jesus! Well, it is Jesus to Filipino artist Lino Pontebon.

In today’s scripture, Jesus asks the disciples, in so many words, “Do you know who I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” And that’s the right answer! But what does it mean that Jesus is the Messiah? I think it’s no accident that Jesus had this conversation at Caesarea Philippi—a Gentile city in the northern part of what used to be Ancient Israel, which was named in honor of Caesar Augustus. Alongside various pagan temples stood a new temple, recently erected, for the worship of Caesar Augustus himself. When Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus affirmed that identity, you better believe he was making a powerful political statement: “Caesar thinks he’s the king; he thinks he’s the Lord; he thinks he’s worthy of worship? He is a pretender to the throne that rightly belongs to me alone.” It was an act of sedition against the Roman Empire. The Messiah was a king of Jewish expectation who would rise up and defeat the forces of evil and injustice in the world, restore Israel, and establish righteousness in all the world. This understanding of the Messiah is one thread that emerges from the Old Testament.

But there’s another thread in Hebrew scripture, another meaning to Jesus’ being the Messiah, which Peter and the disciples hadn’t yet picked up on: that the Messiah would also be the Suffering Servant. The suffering servant idea emerges from Isaiah chapters 40-55; we hear some of these verses in Handel’s Messiah each year: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities… the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all” [from Isaiah 53:5-6]. So this Old Testament idea of a victorious king and a Suffering Servant became one in the person of Jesus. No one had ever thought to weave those two threads together. That’s why Peter can’t stand for Jesus’ troubling words about how this Messiah would suffer and die in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. It was a little like a football coach telling his team, “Men, we’re going to win this game. I have a plan. But in order to win, we’re going to have to let the other team score on every possession.” That would be hard to swallow. Peter must have been thinking, “What kind of Messiah gets killed in the process of winning a victory?” Who do you say that I am? “You’re the Messiah, but surely not that kind of Messiah!”

Why is it important that we get this answer right? This week I was talking to my friend Leslie, who is also preaching this text this morning. She said she kept turning over in her mind something that her own father had said to her when she was a teenager every time she left the house to go out with friends or out on a date. He would say, “Remember who you are.” I said, “Well, that’s sweet. Remember who you are. Remember how much your mother and I love you. Remember that you are a person of great worth. Remember these values that have been instilled within you. Remember that you are your own person. Remember that you are a strong and confident young woman who can stand up for herself and resist harmful peer pressure.” And Leslie said, “No that’s not really what he meant at all. When he said, ‘Remember who you are,’ it was my dad’s way of saying, ‘Remember who I am and who your mother is.’ Remember where you come from. In other words, don’t do anything to embarrass us or bring shame upon our family or you’ll be in trouble, young lady!” As Christians, our understanding of who Jesus is has a direct impact on who we are and how we live our lives.

“Who do we say Jesus is?”

For some of us, Jesus is the one who lays down the law, gives us the rules to live by: What are some of the rules? [Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; love your enemies; do not worry; love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself; take up your cross.] These are good rules! The problem with a faith that emphasizes following the rules, however, is that like good Pharisees we can so easily miss the point of the rules; we can become smug and self-righteous; we can become judgmental. And we can feel very bad about ourselves when we fall short.

For some of us, Jesus is the one who saves us. We are like the thief on the cross next to Jesus who says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” There’s nothing we can do to earn it. Saving faith requires so little of us: it’s all about what Jesus does for us. This was the image of Jesus that influenced me most when I was a kid. “Getting saved” was almost identically equal with “being a Christian.” The problem with this emphasis is that getting saved can be thought of as a past event, with no bearing on who we are now. What are we saved for? How do we live our lives now? What difference does being a Christian make in the world today, not just in the sweet by and by?

Some of us emphasize Jesus as our friend. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” and he “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own,” etc. Like a friend, he accepts us just as we are. He’s quick to forgive us and loves us unconditionally. And that’s good. But the problem is that he also judges us; corrects us; disciplines us. Submitting ourselves to his Lordship is in fact very difficult, very demanding… “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” All of these ways of understanding Jesus are good. Jesus is a friend, savior, and law-giver—and at times in our lives we need to be reminded that he’s each of these. Yet there’s something incomplete about each of these images.

Here’s something kind of cool: The story Mark tells immediately before this one is of Jesus’ healing a blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes. “Can you see anything?” “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” If you’re blind and then you can see people but they look indistinct, like trees, that’s better than nothing. He could see partially. But it’s a long way from perfect eyesight. So Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes a second time, after which “he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” Like Peter and like the blind man in Bethsaida, when we’re touched by Jesus, we see and understand better than we did before, but we still a long way to go. We have a lot of learning and growing to do. We need Jesus to touch us again. This is the way discipleship is supposed to work.

Has your understanding of Jesus is changed during your life? It will, and it will change us, too.

We may not understand why we’re going through what we’re going through; we may not understand all the details of God’s plan for our lives. We may not understand what God wants for us. We may be really suffering, really hurting, really confused. We may, like Peter and the other disciples, be very unsure of what our future holds. That’s O.K. Let’s be patient with ourselves. Let’s love and forgive ourselves. And by all means let’s keep taking up our cross and following.

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