Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

Imagine that everyone who has ever known you gathers together to try to describe you. Who do you say this person is? What might your parents say about you? [Input.] What might your kids say about you? [Input.] Your teachers? [Input.] Your friends? [Input.] Each of them have labels to describe you. None of those labels captures the whole you, but each is a piece of who you are. They come with a mosaic that begins to describe you but is still not the whole you.


The same thing is going on in this reading from the gospel of Mark. Jesus asks his disciples who others say that he is. They reply that some think he is Elijah, others John the Baptist, and others say a prophet. People are trying to figure Jesus out, lump him together with historical figures they already know. When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” 


Perhaps you are thinking, “Bingo! Peter gets a gold star.” Because we call Jesus the Messiah—or the Christ—all the time. In fact, we call him Jesus Christ so often that some people think “Christ” is Jesus’ last name. (Jesus Christ, and his mother was Mary Christ, and his dad was Joseph Christ. Right? The Christ family.) Christ, or Christos, is the Greek word for Messiah, which comes from Hebrew. Christ and Messiah mean “anointed one,” or one who is set apart for a special divine purpose, one who is called by God to lead the people. David was anointed when he became king of Israel. Saul was anointed before him. This anointing signified that they were set apart, called by God to lead the people of Israel. They were, in some manner, messiahs.  


When Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, he is likely drawing on Hebrew scripture (Old Testament) ideas of the Messiah as the anointed one who would be a mighty warrior, defeating the oppressors and liberating the Jews through military might. Maybe Peter thinks that at some point Jesus is going to kick some Roman butt. He does not have in mind that Jesus would be put to death on a cross without any fight. That’s not Peter’s concept of Messiah.


Jesus says he will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. If he fit the model of the Messiah that they expected, they would not reject him but rather would welcome him. He doesn’t fit the label, the stereotype of the Messiah. So don’t tell people that he is the Messiah, and don’t put him in that box. In fact, he so does not fit the box that the Jewish elders will not only reject him, they will work with Rome to have him executed. He is a threat to their entire infrastructure and theology.


When Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. Why?

  1. Paparazzi effect—people won’t leave him alone. He’s already dealing with that as a healer. He can’t walk into any village in Galilee without everyone bringing all their sick relatives for him to heal.
  2. Their concept of a Messiah is not who he is. It’s a Messiah-shaped box. He’s not going to deliver on their expectations. When they discover that this Messiah doesn’t fit into the Messiah box, they’re going to be ticked off.


Jesus starts explaining to the disciples how his version of being a Messiah is going to work out: rejection from the Jewish leaders, suffering, and execution. I doubt this is what the disciples signed up for. Peter pulls Jesus aside and says, “Knock it off, Jesus; you’re freaking everybody out.” And Jesus pushes back very strongly. “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”


This feels like an extreme reaction. Satan? Come on, Jesus!


But if Jesus is reacting that strongly, let’s unpack that a bit. What might some of the human things be that Peter is putting his mind on? Is he held back by fear? If he thinks Jesus will swoop in on a white horse, is Peter hoping for fame and glory? Revenge? Power? Oh. Yeah, those are human things, not divine things.


If we understand the Messiah as a warrior who will liberate his people through military might, that will influence our views of the military, of how to resolve conflicts, of how to live our lives. If we understand God as vengeful and judgmental, we will have a very different relationship with God than if we imagine God as forgiving, merciful, loving.


We want to put Jesus and God in boxes. Here’s the Jesus box. Here’s the God box. As if we could fully understand what they are about. Yep: God. Got it. All packaged up.


As if.


We do the same with ourselves. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, what we can and cannot do, what we believe. These stories help us navigate our lives. Sometimes we don’t even remember they’re there. They become invisible, like the air we breathe. They become blind spots, shaping our decisions without us even remembering them. For example, maybe a parent or teacher once said, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Or “You are so irresponsible.” Or “You’ll never go to college.” We may have incorporated that judgment into our description of ourselves. Maybe we say, “I’m not creative.” Or “I’m not good at handling money.” These are stories that hem us in, that allow us to live small, that keep us down on ourselves.


So how we understand Jesus, how we understand God, how we understand ourselves, and how we try to put all those understandings into neatly labeled boxes—that all matters. It’s part of the stories from the past that guide us into the future.


Jesus invites us to step out of the boxes we have created that hem us in. Step out of all those limitations, all those judgments, all those stories we tell ourselves. Step out as well from all the human things, like fear, greed, a lust for power, a desire for revenge, a striving for fame and glory—all the things that take us away from God.


Jesus says, in today’s reading, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In order to follow someone, we have to have some idea of who we think he is. If you want to follow Jesus, give up your life—which is full of all those human limitations and judgments and shortcomings—give up that life and find a new life free from all of those things.


I found this quote from Scott McKnight, and I liked it so well I put it in the sidebar on the front of the bulletin today: “Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it.”


If any want to follow Jesus, we must put aside our human plans and goals, our human thoughts of fear and revenge and power, and work instead for the realm of God. If any are ashamed of Jesus, then they are ashamed of one who stands with the marginalized and outcast, the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick. And the main reason to be ashamed of such a one is that they are actively working in the opposite direction, that is, to exclude or ignore or oppress those most in need. To put people in boxes labeled “undocumented immigrant” or “LGBT” or “people of color” or “uneducated” or pretty much anything that is not straight white male. To put people in these boxes and then kick those boxes out of the way. To be ashamed of Jesus means to be thinking on human things, not divine things. That is not how we work for the realm of God.


Who do we say Jesus is? It depends on our theology, and we don’t all have to agree. Some say he is their savior and redeemer from sin, that through his death and resurrection he has atoned for all of our sins. Others are less interested in this atonement theology and focus instead on his teachings and model of how to be in the world. Some say he is divine, born of a virgin mother and raised from the dead. Others say he was a human being who was born in the usual way and died on a cross. The level of divinity of Jesus has been a debate since the beginning of Christianity, and there were whole councils of church leaders devoted to this issue. For example, the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 stated that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.


I’m going to jump now from the year 451 to last Friday. Glennon Doyle, who spoke on Friday at University Congregational UCC, talks openly about her life of addiction, bulimia, and self-loathing. At age 25 she found herself hung over on a bathroom floor and holding in her hand a pregnancy test that said she was pregnant. She got sober, went looking for a church, and happened to find a UCC congregation that welcomed her just as she was. She felt that God must have pretty low standards to love even her, as messed up as she was. But no one told her God hated her and she was going to hell. In that UCC congregation, she gave up her old life and started to follow Jesus. And she has been inviting others to do the same ever since.


Take Jesus out of the box, and see what happens. Take God out of the box, and see what happens. Take yourself out of the box, and see what happens. Jesus invites us to set our minds on divine things, to work for “a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything.” Let’s follow that Jesus. Amen.


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