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|"Who Do You Say That I Am?"
One of the simple pleasures of my life is that I have names that
most folks can pronounce and spell without much difficulty.
There should also be little doubt whether my first and middle names are
masculine or feminine.
I'm also quite proud that my middle name, Robert, is my father's first name, and that my first name, John, was that of my great grandfather, John Smith.
And even if all of this sounds a bit silly to you, I believe it adds a great deal of clarity to my life and to my sense of identity. Of course, this is only the surface of things, but we carry our names longer than anything else: our entire lives.
Our names are our starting points for who we are. And once upon a time names were MORE than mere window dressing. In the twenty-first verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, an angel told a fellow named Joseph, regarding the woman to whom he was engaged, "She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Well, that son is born, is named as instructed, grows up, goes to work, and develops a following of friends.
And in the twenty-seventh verse of the eighth chapter of the gospel according to Mark, "Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
So what's he asking for? Gossip? Rumor? Is Jesus having an identity crisis? Or is this a reality check? Prior to this there have been numerous healings taking place, many parables told, and a few run-ins with the Pharisees. And all of this is bound to create controversy.
Now this is all old stuff to most of us. Most of us have heard this over and over. And we may respond to Jesus' question with a yawn.
But those who witnessed those healing miracles, those who heard those parables, those who watched Jesus arguments with the Pharisees, are going to be forming some original opinions of who he is. For them, this is NOT old stuff.
It is a brand new experience. And they WILL have some significant impressions of who he is.
"And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets."
So there is no consensus. But it is clear that they believe him to be some kind of powerful person. It is clear that he has joined the ranks of the prophets in his reputation.
But are the disciples ANSWERING the question Jesus has asked? Is he really ASKING, "What PERSON do people say that I am?" Or is he asking something else?
Indeed, I believe he has asked the most difficult question that could be asked about any person: "Who ARE you?" Maybe your lives are clearer than mine, but it seems that whenever I've finally figured myself out, I discover that I've changed and I have to start over.
Because it seems that I'm continually in the process of becoming someone else.
Well, maybe that answer satisfied Jesus, maybe not. But he continued to probe.
"He asked them, "But who do YOU say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."
It is as if Jesus is telling them, "It is not enough for you to go by what others think. You must for yourselves know, or at least have an opinion, of who I am." And I think that's important for Christians today.
It is not enough to have an idea of who the pastor says Jesus is. It is not enough to have an idea of who the local church says Jesus is. It is not enough to have an idea of who the denomination, or Christianity as a whole, says Jesus is.
We must, each of us, develop our OWN understanding of who Jesus is.
But what are we to make of Peter's response? "You are the Messiah." Or, "You are the Christ." It's a good answer. Because it is an answer that will never change. But a continuing question, I believe, in the life of every Christian should be, "Is that ALL that Jesus is? Or is there MORE?" Maybe that DOES sum it all up; but I think we need to wrestle with the question.
And then, after Peter's answer, "...he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him."
Jesus doesn't really RESPOND to Peter's answer. Does that mean that it was the RIGHT answer, and Jesus doesn't want to talk about it any more? Well, at least it is a FOCUSED answer.
And WHAT Jesus does not want his disciples telling anybody is that he MIGHT be the Messiah. Folks might think he's a prophet, and that's fine; because prophets come and go, and even when they're troublesome, most of the time folks at least tolerate them. But if word gets out that Jesus is the MESSIAH, the troubles could be insurmountable. And Jesus spells it all out:
"Then he began to teach them that 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."
NOW, who do WE say that Jesus is? Is it enough to say that he was the Messiah? The traditional understanding of the Messiah was that he would save the nation of Israel, free the Israelites from the bondage to Rome, be a powerful earthly force.
Indeed, even a warrior leading an army.
And now, here he is, telling those who think that he is the Messiah, that he will suffer, that he will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, that he will be killed, and that he will rise from the dead.
Now, put yourself in the midst of that small band of disciples who think he's the Messiah. Can you handle this? NOW, who do you say that he is?
"He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him."
Obviously, Peter could NOT handle this. Jesus wasn't playing by the script. And Peter needed to get him back on track. The word "rebuke" is not one we often use in everyday conversation, but it has lots of useful synonyms.
And one at the top of the list is the word "scold." It is as if Peter is playing the role of teacher to Jesus, telling him how he should and should not behave, letting him know that there are things that he should not be saying. I think Peter had his mind made up about Jesus, and this new information fouled up his plans. Peter wanted to be in control of who Jesus was.
I remember when I was a freshman in high school, my father once said, "Why don't you be a doctor? You obviously have the intelligence for it, and I'll pay your way through medical school." And I said, "I'd rather be a teacher."
And Dad, a teacher himself, who was, and always will be, my idol, said, "A TEACHER? You can't make any money TEACHING!" You might say he rebuked me.
"But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Now, on first reading this can be a bit shocking. Was Jesus really calling Peter Satan? Well, in another sense of the word, Satan meant "tempter," and I think that was what Jesus was talking about.
But he might also have been recalling the third temptation in the wilderness, recorded in the eighth through the tenth verses of the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew:
"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."
Jesus said to him, "Away with you Satan! for it is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."
"He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
What on earth happened to the Messiah image? "Deny themselves"? This person with the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, do battle with the Pharisees is saying I have to DENY myself?
Well, the key to all this is that opening clause, "If any want to become my followers." And if we're going to follow the leader, we need to do as the leader does. And the leader is telling them, and us, what's ahead for him.
There is a hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal entitled "Take up thy cross." And the second verse begins, "Take up thy cross, nor heed the shame, nor let thy foolish pride rebel." And that's the tough part. That's why it is so difficult to deny ourselves.
The shame. The pride.
But Jesus preaching doesn't get any easier. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
We live in the age of the workaholic. Once upon a time people worked to live, which is as it should be. But somehow, this got turned around. Now we have people, lots of them, who live to work.
They are, in fact, obsessed with their work, obsessed with the rewards--monetary--that their work will bring in. And while they are building their earthly wealth, thinking they are saving their life, they are losing their life, because there is no life left. When we become obsessed with the earthly, in whatever form, we separate ourselves from the spiritual and the heavenly.
Jesus says it well: "For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?"
But what does it really mean to "gain the whole world and lose your life"? Well, I suspect that one thing it means is that we become so absorbed in the material world that we lose touch with the spiritual.
And if someone with an annual income of millions of dollars is truly WORRIED about how to get by with an income like that, has he not forfeited his spiritual life?
"Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"
What are our lives worth, anyway? Can we put dollar signs on them? Is there any way of truly measuring their value? What I have found most valuable in the lives of others I could never put an earthly measure on. They are values that defy measurement. They are what is called the "invaluable."
And Jesus concludes the eighth chapter of the gospel according to Mark:
"Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
And Peter was probably listening, and wondering, "is he talking about me?" Was he ashamed of Jesus when he rebuked him? Was he ashamed of Jesus when he denied him before the crucifixion? Are WE ashamed of Jesus when his words seem hard to handle?
I'm sure that all of us, at some time or another, wish that some of his words would go away and make our earthly lives, our earthly desires and greeds, easier to live with. But they don't, and they won't; they stick with us, and his question sticks with us: "Who do YOU say that I am?"
And regardless of what our answer may be, if we want to be one of his, we are left with his words, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up THEIR cross and follow me."
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