When I was a senior in high school, I traveled to Duke to interview for a scholarship. I needed that scholarship. That night, after the interview, I settled into a pallet of blankets in a dorm room with two other girls, my hosts. Just as I was falling asleep, one of them said “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? And do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and in the Virgin birth?”
Nothing in my briefing materials for the weekend had prepared me for those questions. And yet, to her, these were the most important questions you could ask a person. The question of Jesus: who he is, why he matters, what he desires for us, what he asks of us, what he carries in himself of God, what he carries in himself of us—became my life’s vocation.
Will you marry me? Is it cancer? Don’t you love me anymore? Answering some questions will change our lives forever.
Jesus asks his disciples, asks all who follow him, these two: “Who do people say that I am? And you, who do you say that I am?” A mere word changes, and yet that small change invites an entirely different response. Someone has said it is the difference between delivering a lecture about Jesus and writing him a love letter.
“Who do people say that I am?” We answer this question with ease: do a little research, talk to some friends, google Jesus of Nazareth, and we can construct a sociological, historical, quotation-filled response that offends no one and does not violate the first amendment. And yet notice: to answer this question asks nothing of our hearts. We need make no commitment, profess no loyalty.
The second question differs. “But who do you say that I am?” Suddenly, we feel like school children, studying our shoes, avoiding eye contact, palms sweaty, mouth dry, praying that the teacher won’t call on us by name. (Copenhaver) To answer this question will change our lives, for answering calls forth devotion; it asks for fidelity and faithfulness to something and someone bigger and beyond ourselves.
Accompanying Jesus all around Galilee, the disciples have heard him proclaim the immediacy of God. They have seen him feed the hungry, heal the sick, free those held in evil’s grasp. His parables have captured their imaginations. His capacity to still storms and seas stir their hopes in his glory and power. His “fulfilling, satisfying, fruitful ministry” makes them bold to believe he comes as the liberator who will gain Israel’s victory over the oppressive power of Rome. (Hudson)
That was before. This morning, the Gospel of Mark turns. Jesus departs from Galilee, sets his face towards Jerusalem. As he moves through the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, the mood darkens. Pulling away from the crowds, Jesus focuses his energies upon the twelve. Tension builds in the narrative as Jesus begins to speak of suffering, death, and crosses. Jesus gives his disciples to understand that the way ahead will not be easy. (Hudson)
Here, at the turning, he asks them: “Who do people say that I am? And you, who do you say that I am?” Have you ever noticed how easy it is for good, church-going folks to avoid answering this second question? We talk about Jesus. We quote him, we read of him in the Gospels. We sing his praise, we pray in his name; all of which has value. And yet none of it answers this second question—the very pivotal, personal question Jesus asks: “And you, who do you say that I am?”
A few years ago, when this reading appeared in the assigned cycle of readings, I tried a little experiment. I wrote a sermon answering Jesus’ second question for myself. And then I invited the congregation to write me a letter in the first person answering the question for themselves. Out of three hundred people, I think I received six letters. I kept them because they read like treasure in clay jars; the scripture of someone’s life joined with the person of Jesus; the gospel of Christ. I’d like to share one with you this morning, written by my friend the prayer lady. Some of you have heard me speak of her before.
“Surely I have enough spunk to do this” wrote Louise. “My answer … comes in layers. But one layer is not superseded by the next. Rather, the answers are like a brick wall, permanent, one brick on top of another.
“Childhood, early teens. Life at home, at school and in church a composite delight. Jesus was one in the three part Trinity, the one I imagined when we sang ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.’ Jesus was the inspiring figure in the stained glass window in St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
“College. Boys. When it turned out that love was not as easy to master as English Lit and Chemistry, Jesus became the Divine Listener, to whom I could talk about being spurned in love, and later about being the spurner myself.
“August, 1951. Although already married, I became an adult only when my older brother died in a car wreck at 28. He had been the best and the brightest, emerging from Navy service in the waters off Japan on the battleship New Jersey unscathed. Jesus became my teacher. ‘Everyone must suffer.’ Carrying my own cross to Golgotha. ‘Remember, my grace is sufficient.’
“Age 32. With husband and three children, moved to Washington, D.C. We joined a church where the gospel was proclaimed and preached. The minister became my invaluable companion in faith—his spirituality honed by intelligence and experience. One Sunday, those of us in the pews were asked if we wanted to simply sit there and thank Jesus for being our Savior; to welcome him into our hearts. I felt sort of foolish, but I did it. My life was changed.
“That moment fortified me for the hard time ahead, especially for the death of a son, age two days, and the deaths of my parents.
“Later, Jesus became the teacher again; this time of forgiveness. I was deeply disappointed at one juncture and could not move on to the place of forgiveness until Jesus took me by the hand and dragged me there.
“Now old; yes 75 is old. If a day cannot begin without the sun rising, my day cannot begin without the help of Jesus. The words of Cleland McAfee have become my morning words: ‘O Jesus, blest redeemer, sent from the heart of God. Hold me who waits before thee, near to the heart of God.’ With love, Louise.”
On his last Sunday in a nine-year pastorate, Martin Copenhaver delivered a sermon giving a devotional response to Jesus’ question “And how about you, what are you saying about me?” Without using a single quotation, speaking only from his heart, Copenhaver spoke as clearly as he could of his experience of the Jesus who calls forth his love and commitment, who shapes his life and vocation.
At the end of worship, Copenhaver stood at the back of the sanctuary, shaking hands. An older woman, one of the beloved saints of that church, reached the head of the line, so overcome by emotion she could not speak. She stepped aside. “I assumed,” said Copenhaver, “she simply didn’t know how to say goodbye.” And yet, when she finally reached him again, her voice cracked slightly as she asked, “Why didn’t you tell us this before?” (Copenhaver)
“Who do you say that I am?” Let me offer you this morning a small piece of the way I answer that question. Jesus is, for me, a spacious intimacy; a deep and abiding closeness that would draw me ever nearer and yet refuses to break my freedom. With a grace at work long before I recognize it, Jesus continually prepares a way where I see no way. He woos me to a more complete devotion long before I am able to join him. And yet he welcomes every “yes” I can offer and creates more newness from my reluctant “yes” than I could have asked or imagined.
To experience Jesus as spacious intimacy is, for me, like sitting on the screen porch with my husband these cool evenings; neither of us saying a single word, each of us deep in our own thoughts, separate yet profoundly joined; a powerful, palpable, energy of love filling the space between us. After almost 19 years of marriage, the power of that love almost takes my breath away. Jesus is that for me, only deeper and more.
In the spacious expanse of love and devotion that is Jesus, I discover in myself a surprising gentleness grows, and at the same time a firmer, clearer passion. Jesus softens the brittle chambers of my heart and fills me with a more compassionate courage.
In his intimate embrace, and in some mysterious way that I do not understand, Jesus makes it possible for me to practice a rigorous honesty about myself and my motivations. This journey with him has proved hard. And yet when I avoid it, I have learned life goes wrong, lacks vitality, my heart fills with weariness, and the stench of death rises. I cannot maintain an intimacy with Jesus absent a willing accountability born of gratitude. In return, he offers me the assurance of his covering grace.
Over the years, I have noticed that who Jesus is for us becomes who we may be for others. I have noticed a quality of difference in the stories people tell me these days; more human, more truthful, more intimate. I think they see and sense the spaciousness born of intimacy with Jesus and they seek to draw near.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus puts the question to us today and every day. I wonder how you answer it. Write me a letter; send me an email, for I would love to know who Jesus is for you.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication.
Martin B. Copenhaver, “Who do you say that I am?” sermon published in Christian Century, 8.24-31.1994
Trevor Hudson, Questions God Asks Us, Upper Room Books, 2008
Personal letter, Louise, 9.17.00