by Rev. Ellen Jennings
Does anyone remember that famous moment in the 1992 Vice Presidential debate when James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate, began an introduction of himself by saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Well, regardless of ones take on the Perot candidacy, it was too bad this well respected Navy Admiral never did get a chance to explain himself to people. For answering the question, “Who am I?” is one of the greatest challenges each of us faces. Who am I? Which includes: What have I done? What do I believe? How have I lived? What matters to me?
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus introduces this subject of identity by asking the disciples who others say that he is. Then, later, he asks them who they think that he is. And the disciples give answers to both of these questions. But what Jesus doesn’t say is who he thinks he is.
Who am I?
So let’s start with the first question Jesus asks— “Who do [other] people say that I am?” The context is this: Jesus and his followers are continuing their journey of preaching, teaching and healing, and have now reached the area of Caesarea Phillipi. This town, as you might imagine, was built by the Romans, and the Jewish inhabitants of the nearby villages in which Jesus was teaching lived in its imperial shadow. Jesus has just finished feeding two very large crowds of followers, one Jewish and one Gentile (with baskets of food leftover!), and has had his own personal revelation about the importance of welcoming both the insiders and the outsiders. There has also been considerable reference to healing the deaf and blind and the importance of opening ones ears and eyes. In fact, in the section immediately preceding today’s passage, Jesus gets extremely frustrated with the disciples when they fail to understand his allusions— both to the negative effects of religious rigidity, hypocrisy, bigotry and collusion (“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod”) and to the real abundance of God’s true nature. He scolds:
‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not understand?’
Apparently not. And the reason I’m repeating parts of last week’s lesson is because I know it’s hard for us to understand as well. But it’s absolutely imperative that we do. Which is why Mark, that spare user of words, uses so very many words to make this point. He includes two feeding miracle stories (compared to the other gospels’ one) plus a passage that emphasizes their importance. Why? Because Mark wants us to know that God’s nature is abundance! Abundant love, abundant bread, abundant forgiveness, abundant compassion. There is enough. We can trust God to provide the manna. We can risk taking only what we need. We can allow others to have what they need. And if we do, there will even be some left over!
Which brings us back to today’s reading from Mark’s gospel. Jesus is outside of Caesarea Phillip, i.e. in the shadow of the Empire, having just told the disciples, repeatedly, both that the good news is for everybody and that there is enough for everybody. And, suddenly, a thought seems to occur to him.
He turns to his disciples and says, “Who do people say that I am?”
Well, clearly the disciples have already given it some consideration, for they respond immediately, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” And this made sense, right? For both John and Elijah were powerful prophets who called people to repent, change their lives, and turn back to God.
But Mark doesn’t leave it at this. He doesn’t even have Jesus acknowledge the disciples’ answers. Instead, Jesus immediately follows up with another question: “And who do you say that I am?” For this is what really matters! Regardless of what others say or think or believe about who Jesus is or was, what do you say?
And Peter, never one to keep his thoughts to himself, responds first. “You are the messiah,” he says. And Jesus, oddly, neither refutes nor affirms the label. Instead, he responds with the same message he’s been sharing with all the people he has healed—do not tell anyone about me.
Why? Why doesn’t Jesus tell us who he is? And why does he keep asking people not to tell others what he’s been doing?
Well, I don’t think that one label or another was what mattered to Jesus. What mattered to him was the Good News he was preaching. What mattered to him was the message of God’s great abundance, acceptance and love. Defining himself would have distracted from the message.
And this makes sense to me. For, sadly, over time, our Christian tradition has often been sidetracked by debates about who Jesus is—debates that have, in turn, overshadowed the message he came to preach! So, no wonder Jesus was worried about labeling or defining himself too narrowly. No wonder he was worried about people finding out he could heal and developing an image of him in their heads that may or may not have had anything to do with the good news of God’s abundant nature that he was trying to share.
As UCC minister Nancy Rockwell writes in her “The Bite in the Apple” blog:
Jesus ducks and dodges labels, weaving his way past insistent voices, making it clear he isn’t searching for just one name to be on every tongue. Who do you say I am? he answers them. This isn’t a trick question… Jesus moved through a world starkly divided by all kinds of distinctions, and spent his energy taking those distinctions down. We’re all in this, he said. And we need to work together. The only name given to him that he did not argue, dismiss, or silence was Beloved, the name given to him at his baptism. And that name, he instructed his followers, was to be endlessly distributed, without distinction. There is nobody who cannot be one of the dear ones.
Interesting. I found this so interesting that I immediately went to the baptism passage to see if she was right! And there it is, right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus emerges from the Jordan, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And, sure enough, Jesus never suggests that this message should not be shared.
So is that who he is? The Beloved? Perhaps. But even then, we’re left guessing. Who am I? Jesus never tells us in Mark’s gospel. The disciples speculate. Others accuse. Mark lets us decide for ourselves. Who is he?
Peter says, “Messiah,” but Jesus is clearly troubled by this label (as he may have been by any label), and thus begins the challenge that comprises the second part of today’s gospel reading. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “If you really believe I’m the Messiah, you do understand that I’m not the Messiah for which you were looking—right? You do understand that I’m not here on a white horse to defeat the Romans and lead Israel to a military victory. No, quite the contrary. I’m here to preach and teach a message of God’s abundance and acceptance and love, and, while the God of abundance embraces each one of us as beloved, while the God of love welcomes all, this is not the way of the world. In fact, the world will most likely condemn you for expressing it; the world, or the powers that be, will very likely crush you for living it.”
Oops. This isn’t exactly what Peter had hoped to hear! And, really, did Jesus have to be quite so heavy handed about it? To the point of calling Peter, Satan?
Well, probably. In fact, yes. Because as Jesus just scolded in the previous section of the gospel: Have your hearts been hardened? Do you not have eyes to see? Ears to hear? In other words—disciples, don’t you get it?! Perhaps, up to now, in spite of the road dust and heat and relative physical deprivation, they’ve just been so excited, so jazzed, so “taken” by the whole Jesus thing—the healings and the miracles and the Kingdom of God talk, and his charisma—that they’ve assumed it will continue like this. Continue like this, and, maybe even, get better! Like, maybe Jesus really can overcome Rome. Maybe he really can bring about the end of the age. Maybe he really is the Messiah.
But here’s the rub. As Rev. Christopher A. Henry suggests in the Christian Century, “Mark wants to communicate two things at once: yes, Peter was right: Jesus was the Messiah. But he was not the Messiah that Peter expected or desired.” Which is why Mark gives us such an odd juxtaposition of passages in today’s reading, why “Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus responds with ominous words of pain, rejection and death.”
So what is Jesus trying to do? Or, what point is Mark trying to make? Well, Jesus may or may not be “the Messiah” (he’s not telling…), but the point is—he’s not the Messiah we were hoping for or expected! Meaning that, if we confess Jesus as Messiah, the question is: which Messiah are we confessing? Who is Jesus? Who do we say that he is? Who do we think that he is? Who do we act like he is? And in what ways does this change our lives?
Because if it doesn’t, if it doesn’t change our lives, than it doesn’t matter who he is!
So what does it mean to change our lives? Well, the Greek word for “life” in this passage is psyche, meaning “the vital life force that sustains our being.” And, as Professor Alyce M. McKenzie writes in her column in The Preachers’ Portal, “Edgy Exegesis:”
The word “life” (psyche)…refers to the vital life-force at the depth of our being that nothing on this earth can snuff out because it is a gift from God and belongs to God… We assume this life force is ours to do with as we please, that it belongs to us.
And then we get clingy. We cling for dear life to other people, money, possessions, alcohol or food or another substance, our looks, our youthfulness, the neighborhood we live in, the prestige of our job or how well our children are doing in school, sports, life. Both of our arms are occupied clinging to our lives—and we don’t have an arm free to reach out to anyone else… [But] Jesus gives us a truth to cling to in our passage from Mark. [And] it’s a pretty strange one. “For those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
So what is Jesus really saying here? What is this strange Messiah telling us? And how about that other verse? If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. How must Peter have felt when Jesus said these words?
And how do we feel? For these aren’t “feel good” platitudes. These are tough, down-and-dirty realities. Jesus was no one’s fool. He knew that you don’t go around talking about God’s abundance and welcome for all people, challenging the status quo (both religious and political) and performing healings and miracles without garnering quite a bit of attention. Hence his constant plea to keep things quiet!
Jesus knew that living out of this psyche, this vital life force that is both of God and a gift from God, was both the most important, true, real, salvific thing he (or we) could do— and the thing that would most likely get him killed. His disciples’ eyes may not have been opened. But Jesus’ eyes were. He knew the lay of the land. He knew what was safe and what went too far… and he was willing to go there.
But he had to warn the ones who were following him! He had to let them know that, Messiah or no, this was what and whom they were following! Who am I? I am someone who is threatening the status quo, I am somebody who cares about creating Gods’ household here on earth, I am that person, that Beloved of God, who is here to show you what it means to live out the vital force that is God in the world! And the powers that be are not going to thank me for it.
Rev. Janet D. Hunt in her Dancing with the Word blog notes that the thing about suffering is that you cannot protect others from it. Many years ago, when her father was dying, she yearned to be able to protect her younger sisters from this reality. But then she had two realizations:
One was this: I could not protect them from it. They were in this, too, of course, and the loss inevitably would be every bit as much theirs to experience as it was mine. Nothing could change that.
And two, even if somehow I could shield them from the heart-ache, I knew that would not be fair. For I was already discovering that with the pain came enormous gifts: Strength building, faith strengthening, community celebrating gifts. Even in the midst of it, I found I was so grateful for those and more and I knew, somehow, that they would not be mine to embrace in the same way had I not traveled the particular path that that had been ours to share in those last weeks. Even if I could protect them from the struggle, I knew I would not want to deprive them of the gifts and the two seemed inseparable.
Likewise, Jesus knew that following him meant picking up a cross—not his cross, for that was his alone to carry—but our own crosses, the suffering (and the gift of that suffering) which comes from choosing to live a life that flies in the face of social injustice, intolerance, hypocrisy and greed. For those who give up their life, this life of worldly ambition, acquisition and accumulation, will gain a life infused with God’s vital life force.
So— who am I? Jesus doesn’t answer this question. But, who do you think that I am? is a question each one of us much answer for ourselves. And, if the answer is, “Messiah,” then we’re still not done. For we must be ready to embrace this Messiah, this Jesus of Nazareth, the one who, as Rev. Henry writes:
…will question our deepest allegiances and demand absolute discipleship, the one who requires us to move from selfishness to generosity, from fear to love, from hatred to compassion, from the narrowness of self-righteousness to the wideness of mercy. If we want to follow this Messiah, it’s going to take more than acceptance and assent, more than a moment of decision. It’s going to take a change in habits, assumptions and actions.
It’s going to take courage. And it’s going to change our lives.