August 19, 2012
Some of you have met our dog. She’s a little black mutt from the Lawrence Humane Society. Long body, short legs, floppy ears, energetic tail, loud bark . . . I’ve taken to calling her the Rorschach dog, because everyone has their own theory about what kinds of dogs she is descended from. Starting with the Shelter workers to her veterinarians to friends that come to our house to strangers we walk by on the street. “Oh, she must be part cocker spaniel, lab, corgi, dachshund, border collie, dalmatian, basset hound, pit bull.”
Early on I decided that the kind of dog people think she is has more to do with the person than with our dog.
This question of Jesus’ identity is, I think, a bit like that. When Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”, it’s not because he doesn’t know who he is. And I don’t think it’s a form of marketing research–Jesus doesn’t seem to be reconsidering his branding at all. I think Jesus wants to know who people say he is so that he can understand the people better.
Take King Herod for instance.
In chapter six of Mark’s gospel. We find out that Herod has heard of Jesus and his miracles. Regarding Jesus, “some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’”
Herod thinks Jesus is John raised from the dead. There are so many reasons this makes no sense! John wandered around the wilderness, Jesus went into the cities; John baptized people, Jesus did not; John fasted and abstained from alcohol, Jesus feasted with his friends and turned water into wine. Jesus and John the Baptist just don’t have that much in common. Not to mention the fact that Jesus was only six months younger than John–and had been alive long before John died. So why would King Herod think that Jesus was John raised from the dead?
Herod’s proclamation about Jesus’ identity is followed by the story of John’s beheading–at the command of Herod, because he had promised his daughter he would give her anything she wanted. What she wanted–with a nudge from her mother–was John’s head on a platter.
Herod didn’t want to kill John in the first place. So his belief that Jesus is John raised from the dead says a lot more about Herod’s guilt, fear, and paranoia than it does about the identity of Jesus.
Who do people say that I am?, Jesus wants to know.
“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” And the disciples here are obviously just talking about the people who more or less liked Jesus. Nobody wants to say, “Well, Lord, people are calling you a drunkard, a blasphemer, a prostitute-lover, even Satan.”
Who do people say that I am?
“John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.”
And that tells Jesus a lot about the people who are greeting him in cities, gathering to hear him on the hillsides, reaching out to touch him as he passes by. These people who think he is John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets–they are desperate people . . . with a bit of hope.
People–including Herod–who hope that the fickle promise of a King can’t destroy their opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. People who hope that powerful deeds will once again be done in the name of the God of Israel. People who hope that God will speak to them somehow–through someone.
These people who say John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets–they are people who know their pop culture, people who know their history and their scriptures, people with a bit of hope.
Who do people say that Jesus is?
It’s an interesting question today as well. Looking at the images on your bulletin, you can see Jesus as happy, compassionate, soulful, prayerful, suffering, and, just for some of you, a hippie.
Looking online you can find the classic pictures of Jesus as glowing king, Jesus as good shepherd, Jesus knocking on the door (c’mon, let me in before it rains). I found an image labeled “pissed off Jesus” and a “hipster Jesus” with goatee and sunglasses. And we can’t leave out “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma–the version of Jesus created to replace the depressing crucifix and renew the image of the Catholic church: Jesus winking, smiling, and giving the thumbs up!
Who do people say that Jesus is?
Some people complain about the “feminization” of Jesus. They say men aren’t going to church because Jesus is presented as a wussy girly man–so artists like Stephen Sawyer are painting images of Jesus with bulging biceps and tattoos.
Some people think the Jesus of the cross is messy, is ugly, is bad PR. It’s not a pleasant image for “seekers.” So no crosses in the church. And not much talk about the cross of Christ–or the violence and oppression suffered by anyone, for that matter. Jesus is the cool Son of God who wants you to reach your physical and financial potential.
Who do people say Jesus is?
Prominent Christians Barak Obama, Joe Biden, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan seem to have quite different views on the subject.
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
It’s a good question. A fascinating sociological study, really. Quite revealing about the politics and theology of the masses. “Some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.”
“Fine,” says Jesus. “Who do you say I am?”
Well, that’s a different question altogether, isn’t it? We can make astute observations about other people’s apparent beliefs, but when it comes to stating our own . . .
There are a surprising number of YouTube videos where people go around asking random strangers, “Who do you think Jesus is?” Some responders take on the role of skeptic or humanist or philosopher–
Probably more myth than reality
A Jewish rabbi who lived a couple thousand years ago
The visual image of the spirituality that dwells in all of us
But a lot of people are obviously trying to come up with the “right” answer:
Son of God
My personal Lord and Savior
Loving and a teacher and a healer and, umm, what else did we learn in Sunday school?
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter, God bless him, speaks up. He’s got this. “You are the Messiah.”
That’s the right answer. Jesus is no mere prophet. He is the Messiah, the anointed One, the Christ. Peter’s hope is grander than that of the masses. He doesn’t look to Jesus merely for a few healings, for a word from God. Jesus is not one in a line of messengers from God. Jesus is The One. The promised Messiah.
And for about two seconds, Peter basks in the glory of being the star pupil. Then Jesus warns them sternly not to tell anyone about him.
No pat on the back for Peter. Jesus doesn’t say anything to Peter directly about his momentous proclamation. Jesus addresses the entire group of disciples and tells them to hush up about him already–before they’ve even had a chance to say anything.
This seems an odd command on Jesus’ part. We’re more used to hearing the Great Commission–”go and make disciples of all nations.” But in reality, Jesus’ words here are par for the course in Mark’s Gospel. Scholars call it the “messianic secret.” We’re in chapter 8 here, and this is at least the sixth time that Jesus has commanded people (or spirits) to not talk about him.
So Peter really shouldn’t be surprised by Jesus’ response to his brilliant answer. Not surprised. But disappointed. And the disappointment turns to dismay as Jesus keeps talking: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Peter has just named Jesus as the Messiah, and now Jesus is talking about rejection and death.
Friday night Ryan and I watched the movie 50/50. Twenty-seven year old Adam sits in the doctor’s office, waiting for the results of some medical tests. When he realizes that the doctor is telling him his chronic back pain is caused by cancer, he can’t believe it. “I can’t have cancer,” says Adam. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I recycle.”
The good guy is not supposed to suffer. The Messiah is certainly not supposed to suffer.
So Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. And you know already that this isn’t going to go well. Because students do not take their teacher aside. And disciples certainly do not rebuke their master.
But Peter just can’t take it. Because it isn’t right. It doesn’t make sense. The Anointed One of God is not supposed to die. That’s not the deal. That’s not how it works.
Peter has just named Jesus as Messiah, and now he takes it upon himself to explain to Jesus what being the Messiah means: “Listen, Jesus, you told us to hush up about the Messiah thing, but you’ve got to quit talking about this whole rejection and death gig. You are the Messiah, man, the Anointed. You’ve got power to defeat your enemies, take those Pharisees and Sadducees down a few notches, lead an army to reclaim our land from Rome. Stop talking about suffering and death. You can’t suffer and die, you’re the Messiah.”
And suddenly the star pupil is the class troublemaker as Jesus turns his back on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”
The satan, the stumbling block. This idea that the Son of God should get a few breaks, should have some special treatment, should surely not have to suffer and die–that’s the stumbling block that Jesus faces all along the road. That’s the temptation in the wilderness. That’s the agonizing prayer in Gethsemane. That’s the voice inside Jesus’ own head that threatens to trip him up at every turn: “You shouldn’t have to suffer. You are special.”
See, even though Peter got the right label for Jesus–maybe because he got the right label for Jesus–he didn’t really get it right. That’s the problem, still, with theological language, and political language. (Because Messiah was as much a political as a theological term.) We can all go around saying the same words and meaning completely different things. We don’t use the words because they aid in clear communication, but because they make us sound like we are right. Even when we might be completely off base.
The true Messiah must suffer and die. But that’s not what Peter has in mind for his Messiah. He wants the Buddy Messiah, and maybe a bit of the pissed off Messiah, certainly the action hero manly Messiah, and then, ultimately, the Messiah with a crown on his head and light radiating all around.
Jesus holds up the mirror to his life–the true, real picture. Because of what I have done, who I have touched, what I have taught, the future will include suffering and death before the resurrection life to come.
Peter smashes the mirror and presents his own picture to Jesus. This, says Peter, is what the Messiah should look like. The muscles, the crown, the light . . .
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, and Peter doesn’t get to define the terms of that any more than we do.
On Facebook this week, Andrea posted an article about a certain (unnamed) political candidate. She wrote, “Just because you want something not to be true does not make it untrue.” Right?
Peter can rebuke Jesus–say that the Messiah would never suffer and die. But Jesus is still going to suffer and die. Later on, Peter will deny Jesus, pretend he doesn’t know Jesus, doesn’t care about him. But Peter’s heart will still break and his life will still be transformed.
We can pick and choose our Bible verses, pick our favorite image of Jesus. But Jesus is still who he is. We can try to set our own rules and fit Jesus into our schedules, but if we really are disciples, our hearts will still break and our lives will still be transformed.
Because when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am,” it’s not so that he can know who he is; it’s because he desperately wants to know who we are, so he can meet us and lead us and love us. Amen.