Who do you say that I am?

Mark 8:27-38

Who do you say that I am? That Jesus question is one that we confront over

and over in life. It’s a question of identity. Not self-identity. Perceived identity by

another. This question strikes at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, at the heart of his

relationship with his disciples. It doesn’t start that way. Jesus is gathered with his

disciples at Caeserea Phillipi. That should give us a clue right away. This place is

one where the great Roman Caesars, Julius and Augustus, are both deified as

gods. Or as god. Or as Messiah.

It seems fitting that this would be the place where Jesus is asked this

question. Who do you say that I am? That’s not the first question he asks,

however. He begins with a more generic approach. Who do people say that I am?

It’s a strange question in some respects – it almost reminds me teenagers acting

catty and wanting to know what others think of them. Who do people say that I

am, especially as we gather in this place where Caesar is proclaimed in Christlike

ways. It may have been particularly dangerous to even ask that question in that

place, but the Bible is filled with symbolism, with location playing a huge role.

So, who do people say that Jesus is? John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the

prophets? People don’t know. Which is in keeping with Mark’s gospel to this

point. The importance of this text is especially clear for Mark’s version of the

Jesus story. Prior to this story, the Markan Jesus is masked in secrecy. Peter’s

declaration of Jesus as the Messiah marks a shift in the narrative. After this text,

Jesus becomes bolder and clearer in his identity. He’s more open in who he

proclaims himself to be.

Given the next part of this text, it’s interesting that Peter is the one who

answers Jesus’ identity. Author Eugene Peterson notes, ‘Among the apostles, the

one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling

failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: He was

successful both financially and politically. … And Peter was a failure in ways that

we most dread: He was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of

Jesus, he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of

his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision

on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate

things.

“Time, of course, has reversed our judgments on the two men. Judas is now

a byword for betrayal, and Peter is one of the most honored names in the church

and in the world. Judas is a villain; Peter is a saint. Yet the world continues to

chase after the successes of Judas, financial wealth and political power, and to

defend itself against the failures of Peter, incompetence and ineptness.”

Peterson’s observation reminds us that the disciples have their own

identities. Beyond Judas and Peter, there’s doubting Thomas, there’s Nathanael

who believes nothing good can come from Jesus’ hometown, and there’s James

and John, the sons of Zebedee, who tried to be the top dogs among the disciples.

We develop these identities for this biblical figures, because there’s little more we

know about them.

If Mary Magdalene were to ask us the question, ‘who do you say that I am?’

we would often hear the answer of prostitute. But the Bible never specifically

names her as such. If Nicodemus were to ask us the question, “who do you say

that I am?’ we might say he was a typical Pharisee who was skeptical of Jesus.

And we would forget that he was believed to be one who provided the tomb for

Jesus’ burial and resurrection. If the Apostle Paul were to ask the question, ‘who

do you say that I am?’, depending on when it was asked, much of the Jewish

Christian world would call him a persecutor of Christians, while the Gentile world

later might call him the founder of the church.

This question becomes even more potent when turned to us. What if Jesus

were here and asked it? Who do we say that he is? I attended a conference

several years ago where it was noted that there were countless terms and

phrases for Jesus in the Bible. The person leading the discussion was going to start

naming many of those phrases and asked us to raise hands or stand for the one

that was most meaningful for us.

He started with the usual suspects – Messiah, Lord, Savior, Son of God. But

quickly he moved to others – Light of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of Man, the

Living Water, Bread of Life, just to name a few. I could see on the faces of other

participants that many wished they could raise their hands more than once. We

so easily get stuck on these common notions of Jesus’ identity that we miss out

on the deeper reflection of what these titles say about Jesus…and about us. What

does it mean to us for Jesus to be the ‘light of the world’ or the ‘living water?’

What does it mean to us for Jesus to be ‘Lord’ or ‘Savior?’ What does it means to

us for Jesus to be ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of man?’ And how do we define the

difference between those two?

Too often, in a complex world, we may answer Jesus’ question in a fashion

more complicated than we need. In a tongue in cheek turn, author Timothy

Merrill sarcastically writes, ‘And Jesus said unto them, “But who do you say that I

am?” They replied, “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the

split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the

theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the

ground of all possibilities. You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your

children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming roughness in the

midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness, in the contiguity

and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships. You are my Oppressed

One, my soul’s shalom, the One who was, who is and who shall be, who has never

left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed

struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.” And

Jesus replied, “Huh?”

As the text continues, Jesus calls together the crowd with his disciples and

says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and

take up their cross and follow me.” That’s key to understanding who Jesus is: to

follow him. And this, unfortunately, is something the church hasn’t done a very

good job of teaching people to do. “A good church upbringing will do many

marvelous things for you,” write Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their

book ReJesus. But one of the unfortunate things it does is “convince you that

Jesus is to be worshiped but not followed.”

Think about that. The church does a better job teaching us to worship Jesus

than to follow him. But when you read the gospel of Mark, you discover that Jesus

is less concerned about people pledging allegiance to him than he is about people

following him. Frost and Hirsch continue, “Jesus never once said, ‘Worship me.’

He said, ‘Follow me.’ One of the cleverest ways to avoid following someone is to

worship him. It really works; it’s very clever. You just put him on a pedestal, you

make God out of him and you pay all kinds of homage to this God figure, and then

you don’t have to do what he did.”

Who do you say that I am? In this text, we are trained to think of that

question in the context of Jesus. But what if we turn the tables and ask that of

ourselves? Who would ‘people’ say that we are? Who would Jesus say that we

are? I have thought about those questions a lot these past weeks, as the saga of

the Supreme Court justice vote has unfolded. There’s so much that has been said,

and everyone has their own opinion of whose account is most credible or

trustworthy, between Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh, myself included.

Yet I also wonder what Jesus would think in this situation? Who would

Jesus say that we are, in light of this tragic episode of civic discourse? Would Jesus

say that we are a people who treat women with dignity, respect, or empathy?

Would Jesus say that we are a people who even know how to publicly disagree

without severing families or friendships? Would Jesus say that we are even able

to discern truth anymore, among the proliferation of alternative facts and fake

news? Who would Jesus say that we are?

That’s the basic question Jesus confronts us with daily. Who do you say that

I am? It’s not directed solely towards Jesus. It’s also directed towards us. When

we act rudely, who does Jesus say that we are? When we respond with

compassion, who does Jesus say that we are? When we follow our worst instincts,

who does Jesus say that we are? When we choose love, not hate, and gratitude,

not fear, then who does Jesus say that we are?