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? And thy answered him, John the Baptist, and others say, Elijah; and still others think you’re one of the prophets.â€ Jesus asked them, but you, who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, You are the Messiah.â€ And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Mark 8
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The Christian faith really comes down to one question: Who is Jesus? Who is this guy whose name and title we tag to our own identity, when we say we’re Christians? Who is Jesus?
That’s the question at the center of the Gospel of Mark.
That’s the question Jesus asks his friends and followers. Who am I? Who am I to you? Am I your friend, your rabbi, your teacher, your drinking buddy, all of the above? Who am I?
Actually, the question is more troublesome than that. The question is more searching than that. Jesus asks those disciples, Who do you say that I am?â€ When somebody asks you, who is that guy you’re following around, who is that guy you left your fishing boat for, you left your career for, you left your family for, you left your life for, when they ask you that, who do you say that I am?
What do you tell them? Jesus wants to know.
Of course, Jesus starts with a different question. He has a lead-up question. He and his followers are walking along a dry dusty road north of the Sea of Galilee, heading to the region of Caesarea Philippi. It’s a long walk, about 25 miles, so to pass the time, Jesus starts a conversation.
And he opens the conversation with an opinion poll.
If you’re like me, and you’ve made the mistake of answering your phone over the past couple of months, you may have participated in an opinion poll. The last time, somebody wanted to know whether or not I was in favor of a ban on the sale of large sugary drinks. I told her the reasons why it’s a good idea and I told her the reasons why it’s a bad idea, I told her the things I thought she should be asking me about instead.
What she needed was just a yes or no answer. But I had plenty of time; I thought it posed an interesting problem. And, um, she hung up.
Sometimes the pollster’s questions are more open ended. Somehow I got on the Republican National Committee list, and so late last year I was asked who I favored in the primaries. I explained that I had left the Republican Party at the age of twelve, though I wished them all well, but even that didn’t get me off the hook. That time, I had to hang up.
The polling question Jesus starts with that day on the road is open-ended. Who do people say that I am? I know people are talking about me. What do they say? What do you hear?
The question, what do you hear, is easier than the question, what do you say. It involves no commitment, it exposes no vulnerability. And so the disciples come up with a bunch of answers.
They say, Some say John the Baptist. John must have been on everyone’s mind, since Caesarea Philippi is the new capital built by Herod Philip, and the Herod family had some issues with John the Baptist as you may recall. So some people thought that Jesus was John come back to life. Come back to haunt the Herods.
But there were other possibilities. Elijah, the prophet who didn’t die, but was just carried off to the heavens on that sweet chariot.
Other people guessed that Jesus was some other prophet come back to life. Maybe Isaiah, the most popular prophet, who had such catchy phrases.
Maybe Jeremiah, who was always in trouble with somebody.
Maybe Amos, whose compassion for the poor won him no friends among the rich.
And Jesus says, Hmm, you don’t say? He’s got to be at least a little amused by all this.
I’m sure Jesus finds these poll results interesting! In the way our ears might still perk up at the latest presidential polling numbers. But they don’t really matter. They don’t matter to Jesus. He’s not running for anything. No popularity contest ever ended the way he’s going to end.
But then Jesus turns the question around. But you, who do you say that I am?
And that prompts Peter’s confession: You are the Messiah. You are the Christ, the anointed one. The one chosen by God.
Interesting thing. Peter answers him. Peter answers him right away. He’s got a quick answer, and it’s a good answer.
But fast forward to when it really matters. When questioned by a servant girl outside the hall where Jesus is on trial for his life. When asked by another bystander.
What’s his confession then? I do not know this man you are talking about.â€
You don’t say, Peter. You don’t say.
Your best friend, your teacher, your rabbi, your messiah is bullied. Falsely accused. Set up. Slandered. Threatened. And you don’t say.
Who do you say that Jesus is? If you’re like most Christians, you don’t say. We’re like Peter, the somewhat wobbly rock on which Christ choose to build the church. We don’t say.
We don’t bring it up! When people ask us about ourselves, we say a lot of things. We’re students, we’re attorneys, we’re actors, we’re unemployed, we’re unemployed actors, we’re progressive, we’re conservative, we’re vegetarian. I’m Christian doesn’t usually come up right away.
That’s understandable. It’s embarrassing. It’s confusing for people. It may mean something to people that we don’t mean to mean when we say it. So we don’t say.
One of the more persistent of the trendy self-designations is Spiritual But Not Religious, SBNR. And there’s nothing wrong with having deep, profound spiritual thoughts all by yourself and pretending you came up with them in a vacuum. I do it all the time. It’s safer than having to identify with a tradition that can be misunderstood and taken the wrong way.
And even when it’s properly understood, it may not be all that popular. We may not want to identify with someone whose idea of success was to die for people he didn’t even know. We may not want to focus on a tradition that asks us to put other people’s interests ahead of our own. We may not want to follow someone whose path leads to torture and sacrifice. We may not want to claim as our symbol the cross, that instrument of pain and death?
Ayn Rand, the Russian Jewish atheist so beloved of Christian conservatives, was once quoted as saying: The cross is a symbol of torture; I prefer the dollar sign, the symbol of free trade and therefore of the free mind.â€ (Time, 1960). That is the first and last time you’ll hear me quote Rand in a sermon.
But if you compare the amount of time we spend chasing dollars with the time we spend carrying the cross of Christ, it’s not like we completely disagree!
Who do you say that I am? In Greek the word you is emphasized. And you, who do you say that I am?â€
I can’t answer that for you, any more than you can for me. I just want to leave you with the thought that it’s a question that has to be answered.
And here are three things to think about:
First, following Jesus can be costly.
We’ve witnessed the horror this week of people in north Africa and elsewhere willing to kill and to die to defend the prophet Muhammad. In Christian tradition, as in true Islam, there is nothing worth killing for, but there’s plenty worth dying for.
The call to the Christian faith is the call to be willing to die. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it succinctly, When Christ calls a person, he bids them to come and die.â€ Jesus says it like this, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.â€
It’s not easy. It’s not meant to be. It’s not convenient, it’s not meant to be. It’s not sexy. It’s not self-fulfilling. It’s life-changing.
Yes, a relationship with Jesus can fix your life. It can also mess up your day!
Second, following Jesus can involve a lifetime of explaining. Frankly, Jesus needs some defenders right now. The things being said about Jesus by his friends are worse that the things said by his enemies.
If you need Jesus in your life, Jesus needs you just as much.
And finally, Jesus is nothing to be ashamed at.
By following Jesus, you follow a guy who spent his every waking moment healing the sick, feeding the hungry, sticking up for the poor, and connecting people to the source of their being. I don’t do all that on my best day.
And Jesus held to his path, no matter how unpopular that path became; even when it led to torture and death.
Jesus may have a good reason to be ashamed of me. But I have every reason to be proud of him.
And you, who do you say that he is?