“Who do you say that I am?” + A Sermon about Who Jesus Is and Who We Are Called to Be

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Hinsdale
16 September 2018 + Lectionary 24B (Pentecost 17)
Mark 8.27-38

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a deceptively simple question: “Who do you say that I am?”

For as long as the Christian church has been in existence, questions about the identity of Jesus have enticed the minds of historians and theologians. Even artists have taken up this debate, each offering their own distinct visual representation of Jesus. While of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, some of their representations are certainly closer to the truth than others.

It’s fair to say, too, that for as diverse as the visual answers to this question are, the theological ones are just as vast and varied. Turn on the TV to certain megachurch pastors, and the Jesus you’ll hear about often sounds more like a self-help book or a magic, wish-granting genie. Still other depictions of Jesus by the Christian Right and Left would seek to align him with one political party or another, with all the implications that entails.

So what about the Bible? Surely that will give us a more definitive answer to this question. So we might think — and yet we have four gospels with four very different portrayals of Jesus, plus the twenty-three additional books of the New Testament that each offer their own unique insights about this radical, first-century, itinerant Jewish rabbi-carpenter.

Maybe we just have to face the fact that there is no one simple answer. After all, even today’s gospel reading itself offers four different answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, or the Messiah. And just as easily as Jesus poses the question, he moves even more quickly to shut down the conversation, sternly ordering his disciples to tell no one about him. Technically, Jesus never really even confirms or denies Peter’s answer.

“Who do you say that I am?” Maybe another way of posing the question, as biblical scholar Karoline Lewis suggests, is this: “Who will you say that you are?” Indeed, Jesus’s identity is very much wrapped up in our own identity as followers of Jesus. Try as artists and theologians and historians might, we can never fully know what Jesus actually looked like or said or did. Sure, we have the witness of the four gospels and the other New Testament writings, and that paints a pretty good picture — but evidently not clear enough, for indeed, interpretations throughout centuries of Christian belief and practice have given way to innumerable divisions and denominations within the church.

Lewis continues: “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be.” Or maybe it’s the other way around. Who we are, who we have decided to be, what we have decided to believe is who we claim Jesus to be, superimposing our own beliefs, for better or worse, on Jesus.

This is a dangerous game that has led to the church’s often exclusionary and harmful attitudes toward marginalized communities throughout the years. When the church answers Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” out of its own self-interests, it has historically resulted in some pretty convincing, albeit misguided, “biblical” arguments in support of slavery and segregation, against the leadership of women in our pulpits, and opposing the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the church.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, says it this way, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” We can safely assume we’ve made Jesus into who we say Jesus is when suddenly he doesn’t seem all that different from us.

With that in mind, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah is less a confession of faith or giving the right answer and more revealing of what Peter wants Jesus to be. Following the popular Jewish thought of his time, Peter yearned for a Messiah, a specially anointed king from the royal line of David, ancient Israel’s greatest and most respected king. Descended from David, this new king was expected to powerfully vanquish Israel’s oppressors, to free Israel from the occupation and foreign rule of the Roman Empire, and to restore Israel’s status as an independent and divinely chosen people.

But that’s far from the kind of Messiah Jesus is, and he sternly rebukes Peter, even calling out Peter’s proposal as satanic and evil. Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but it certainly gets the point across.

The role of the Messiah that Jesus has in mind is much different. The Messiah that Jesus claims to be is a Messiah who takes up his cross, who undergoes great suffering, rejection, even death. This is Jesus’s answer to his own question. “Who do you say that I am?” This is the Messiah who suffers and gives up his life for the sake of others, who manifests God’s great love for God’s creation by offering his very self for our life.

This is also the answer to the flip side of the original question that Karoline Lewis poses: “Who will you say that you are?” ELCA pastor Elisabeth Johnson, who serves as a missionary in Cameroon, offers these words:

“Jesus speaks of losing our lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.”

This passage is an invitation to discipleship, to following Jesus — but it doesn’t promise that the life of following Jesus will be easy or without challenges.

In the years before 2009, before the ELCA officially began ordaining and consecrating openly LGBTQ pastors and deacons, many Lutheran clergy who did not identify as straight either served closeted, withholding their identity from those with the power to defrock them, or were barred from serving entirely.

A few, however, chose to serve the church openly, at great risk. As an act of holy disobedience, the first three openly gay and lesbian pastors in the ELCA — Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson — were ordained “extraordinarily” (outside the bounds of official church polity) in 1990, which promptly led the removal of the congregations that had called them from membership in the ELCA. In the years that followed, more and more gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender pastors and deacons were ordained and consecrated extraordinarily, served their congregations and ministry settings openly, and faced similar consequences — until the church finally started to catch up.

These early instigators of a movement toward full inclusion knew this life of discipleship well. They knew what it meant to take up their cross, to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, following the example of a Messiah who constantly reached out to the margins, toppling walls meant to keep “those people” out, and subverting boundaries every step of the way. These faithful instigators of the church knew what it meant to put Jesus’s priorities and the mission of the gospel ahead of even their own safety and the comfort and status quo of the institutional church.

“Who do you say that I am?” If we profess the church to be the body of Christ, we need look no further than these early instigators and other faithful witnesses to the gospel of radical inclusivity and love and justice for all people. These are the body of Christ. These are the answer to who Jesus is because these are the followers of Jesus.

Following in their witness, following in the witness of Jesus, this is our invitation. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who will you say that you are?

Image Description: Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson join hands in prayer and blessing on the occasion of their “extraordinary” ordinations in 1990. (Credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

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