The account we just heard comes at the mid-point of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been traveling through Galilee teaching, healing, calling people to follow him. And he has been working closely with his twelve disciples, preparing them to be his messengers. He is about to make the fateful turn to go to Jerusalem, the spiritual center of his Jewish faith, and he knows that conflict and crisis lie ahead.
And so he decides it’s time to give his disciples a mid-term exam. You might say they’ve been in his class for a few months, maybe a year, and like any good teacher he decides to check in and see if they are learning what they need to know. So out walking along the road one day he puts a question to them, “Who do people say that I am?”
That’s a safe way to begin. What are people saying about me? What’s the word on the street? And their answer is a little like what you’d get from a Gallup poll. ‘Well, 38% say you’re John the Baptist; 23% say you’re Elijah; 39% are undecided.’ These are guesses, efforts to understand their enigmatic leader. In fact, Christians for 2,000 years have been trying to answer this same question about this strange fellow Jesus. “Who do people say that I am?”
The Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote some years ago a fascinating book called Jesus Through the Centuries, which describes many of the different images of Jesus that have seized the Christian imagination. At first Jesus was seen as a teacher and rabbi. Soon after his death, though, people were beginning to call him Lord and Savior. A century or two later he was being seen as the cosmic Christ, ruler of all creation. And still later Christians focused on him almost exclusively as the crucified one suffering for the sins of the world.
Thomas Jefferson, our Enlightenment President, sat up in the White House at night using a razor to cut out of his Bible all the passages that had supernatural and miraculous accounts so he could get down to the real Jesus for him—the philosopher and teacher. Then later in the nineteenth century wandering preachers taking the gospel across the American continent began to emphasize Jesus as a personal savior who saves the individual soul. Stephen Prothero, in a book entitled American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a Cultural Icon, lists some of America’s other images. He was known over the years as a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Civil Rights activist and a Ku Klux Klansman
In recent decades we’ve seen Jesus the hippie in the musical Godspell and Jesus the revolutionary inspiring the poor in Central America. In the Sixties there was a famous poster in Cuba of Jesus holding a carbine rifle, ready to overthrow the oppressor. And lately, if you have been checking out the books in the airport, you would see Jesus the CEO, full of divine business advice.
And of course athletes have their Jesus too. Norm Evans, a Miami Dolphins lineman, once wrote, “I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played the game…If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six-inch 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays.” Prothero has suggested that our favorite image for our Lord these days is, “Mr. Rogers Jesus: a neighborly fellow one can know and imitate.”
“Who do people say that I am?” While Christians through the centuries have continually found fresh ways of knowing Jesus, they have often ended up shrinking Jesus into their own categories, turning him into what they seem to need most.
Writer Bill McKibben, in an essay called “The Christian Paradox” thinks Americans in recent years have been doing just that. Our country, he says, is perhaps the most spiritually homogeneous wealthy nation on earth. Around 85% of us call ourselves Christian. This nation is saturated with Christian faith.
But, McKibben says, “Is it Christian?” Jesus was specific about what he had in mind for his followers—Blessed are the poor, he said, blessed are the peacemakers; love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you; if someone is in need and you have two cloaks, give one away; welcome strangers and outcasts; you’ll be judged in the end by whether you fed the hungry and clothed the naked.
And yet this most Christian of nations is among the least generous, most self-absorbed nations on earth. We rank second to last among developed countries in the amount of government foreign aid we give. In nearly every measure of caring for our poorest—childhood nutrition, infant mortality access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations and often by a wide margin.
Add to this the fact that we who largely affirm our faith in the Ten Commandments, which includes “You shall not kill,” are the most violent developed nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times higher than our European peers, and a per capita prison population far beyond that of any Western nation. We’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in the states where Christianity is theoretically strongest.
It’s not just that Americans are doing badly in all these areas, McKibben says, but we trail badly in the very categories to which Jesus paid particular attention.
How can this be? Well it seems that our culture has turned Jesus into an expression of its own private, selfish individualism. Our public preachers preach personal salvation, individual growth, private success—whether it is through conservative family values or the liberal search for personal fulfillment. The Jesus we hear about is all about us.
All of this makes the second question, the real question Jesus is asking, all the more important. He turns his gaze to his disciples and says, “But you—who do you say that I am?” Not, what are people saying, or what’s your opinion? Jesus is asking, ‘Where are you with God, with me, with this life into which I’m trying to draw you?’
Did you notice that only one disciple, Simon Peter, had an answer for him? “You are the Messiah,” he says. “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” he says in Matthew’s version. No one else says a word. They must have been looking down and chewing on their erasers. But Simon Peter blurts out far more than he can understand. Faith in Jesus Christ is like that. Often it goes beyond what we can fully grasp. In fact, before this morning’s reading is over, Jesus is exploding at Peter—saying “Get behind me, Satan!”—when it’s clear he doesn’t really understand his master at all.
To be a Christian is to follow Jesus, to be a disciple, to know him, to have a relationship with him. It isn’t first a matter of intellect or accepting a set of beliefs. In the Bible people are attracted to Jesus first, and then they start to follow. And along the way they come to love and trust him long before they work out exactly what they believe.
Following him is a deeply personal answer to a deeply personal question. “Who do you say that I am?” And since we’re talking this morning about a response that each of us can only make for ourselves, I think I owe you a sense of how I would answer the question myself.
First, he is the one teacher I couldn’t live without. I wouldn’t know what a real life could be without Jesus’ teaching about loving our neighbors, turning the other cheek, letting go of our anxiety and trusting God like the lilies of the field. Without his sayings and stories I wouldn’t have the guideposts I need, such as the ones he gives his disciples in the lesson today—to take up their cross, to lose their life to find it. I need someone to tell me what I could never come up with on my own, that the key to life is loving God and loving my neighbor as myself, it’s giving away generously what I have, it’s forgiving seventy times seven.
But there have been many wise teachers through the centuries. Jesus offers me something more. He is for me the essential model of what a fully human life can be. When I look at him I see what it means to be genuinely free, free to be fully himself, to speak the truth, to live in the moment. He lived without anxiety or fear—of death, or failure, or loss. He gave his love with abandon, no strings attached. He had no need to manipulate or play games or prove himself. He lived out of a peaceful center that I yearn for, and at the same time he was passionately involved in the lives of the people around him.
And he was always clear that the poor, sick and vulnerable were closest to God’s heart, and that we need to be connected to them for our sake as well as theirs. In fact he prayed and worked endlessly for what he called the kingdom of God—a world where there are food and health and justice enough, and love enough, for everyone.
But I have to say, if that were all Jesus were for me, I would have thrown in the towel on being a Christian long ago, because it would just be too hard. I’m not that good; my thoughts almost always turn first to what I want. I often can’t get outside my own skin. And besides, it’s a scary world out there, so I’d better look after myself. I like to play it safe and hedge my bets. I easily close my eyes to the world’s pain.
Left to myself, I know I cannot live the way I actually want to live. I can’t be as free and alive as he is. I need something more than a teacher, however wise, or even a model, however inspiring. I need a savior. I need someone who loves me even when I can’t live his way, when I don’t even want to live that way. I need someone who cares enough for me and this whole lost world enough to hang on a cross to open a way beyond selfishness and fear and drivenness. I need someone who will go through suffering with me, and lead me through to the other side, someone who will keep working on me through the people and events of my days to lead me home.
I believe that followers of the real Jesus can make our nation the city set on a hill it was meant to be—a more just, more compassionate, less violent place, a place where every human being can flourish. I believe that following this Jesus can help turn our world around by making this “Christian” nation more Christ-like.
But what about you? Who do you say that he is? Is your reply awkward and uncertain? Do you have more questions than answers? If so, you qualify to be a disciple—right in there with Peter and Mary and Martha and James and John.
Jesus is after big game here. He wants you and me to be part of the healing of the world. He wants us to be his friends and companions. He wants to fill us with his life. And all we have to do is to follow, learn from him, and let him live in us.
But enough of my response. The question he asks today still hangs in the air for you too, and it matters enormously how you answer it. “You — who do you say that I am?”