ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 13, 2015
THE WORD ON THE STREET
Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a; Psalm 19; Mark 8: 27 – 38
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
At the core of human life is the question “Who am I?” “Who am I? is a matter of identity and integrity. It asks us to define our personality and our character. Who am I? What do I stand for? What is the thread of consistency that makes me who I am? What choices will I make and what will inform these choices? There was a time when the question “Who am I?” was part of a life quest – who we are formed, changed and solidified as our lives unfolded. However in this digital age if you want to know who you are, all you need to do is google “who am I?” and up pops a quiz. You answer a number of questions and they give you a profile. As it turns out I’m 99% open, 92% agreeable, 46% extraverted, 82% neurotic and only 18% conscientious. Overall, I’m a “Stargazer” or a dreamer who has lots of ideas but never gets anything done. Now I’m wondering if I need to adapt my personality to the results of the quiz. So much for the easy path to self-discovery.
“Who am I?” is a spiritual question. It can’t be answered without also exploring the question “Who is God?” No wonder Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” What’s the word on the street? The disciples paid attention to what others thought of Jesus; given the political climate surrounding Jesus it was helpful information. The answers varied, “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another prophet”. These answers were in keeping with the Jewish roots of Jesus and his followers. Today in our global village people answer that question many ways. A leading Hindu scholar says Jesus was a wandering, ascetic teacher who had let go of all earthly attachments. The Jewish scholar Martin Buber claims Jesus as a spiritual brother. Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet with an important role in history. Gandhi viewed Jesus’ life and teachings as an example for all humanity. Some say Jesus was the western equivalent to Bhuddha both being role models for their cultures. Jesus has been described as an ‘Avatar’, meaning a manifestation whose source is in an unseen reality. He has been called a ‘zombie’ because he is a living dead person. A clueless student identified Jesus Christ as a Civil War hero. Some say Jesus never existed – people made him up, a fact which the Church has conspired to hide. Even self-identified Christian scholars who have tried to separate “the Jesus of History” from the “Christ of Faith” proclaim Jesus as nothing more than a good man and teacher. What’s interesting is almost everyone has a judgement about Jesus and most feel the need to reduce him. For some reason Jesus is a problem to be solved.
It can be very difficult for Christians to respond to this barrage of ideas. Many of the answers to Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?” come by way of circuitous thinking. They begin with the premise that Jesus was just human and that all documents or witnesses that present him as anything more are emotive, deceptive and untrustworthy so cannot be considered when answering the question. Faith and scripture are not scientific (provable) and therefore must be discarded as unreliable. Instead they ask us to rely on their opinions which are based in what? – their imaginations?!
Interestingly, Jesus didn’t pay a lot of heed to the word on the street, instead he asked his disciples a question that went to the core of their identity: “Who do you say that I am?” Since they are “disciples” they obviously think of Jesus as a good man and a spiritual teacher, a man worth following. However, according to Mark, in a moment of revelation and clarity Peter responded, “You are the Messiah (or in Greek: the Christ).” (vs. 29) We aren’t told what Peter meant by this – like most Jews of his day he may have envisioned Jesus as a savior who would lead his people to glorious vindication against their oppressors. The problem was that Jesus was not that type of saviour.
Jesus responded to Peter with two statements. The first revealed how Jesus answered the question “Who am I?” He said, “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.” (Mark 8: 31) The fact that Jesus referred to himself as “The Son of Man” or a human being is often used to verify the humanity of Jesus – somehow the Bible is a reliable source when people think it says what they want it to say. Apart from the book of Ezekiel where God sets apart his chosen prophet by addressing Ezekiel with this title, the only other place it’s used is the book of Daniel where it’s clearly used to describe the Messiah, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (7: 13 & 14) Jesus affirmed he was the Messiah, but a Messiah who would suffer, be murdered and rise from the dead before fulfilling Daniel’s vision. This didn’t fit Peter’s image of Jesus. When Peter objected, Jesus shut him down. Then Jesus said those who see him as the Messiah, those who identify themselves as his followers need to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.” (vs. 34 & 35) There were enough Roman crosses doting the countryside for the disciples to have a horrifyingly vivid picture of what Jesus meant. If Peter resisted the news the Messiah would be killed, how much more shocking would this have been?
Each person who answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” as Peter did, is also answering the question “Who am I?” To acknowledge Jesus is the Christ leaves us with no choice but to live and die for him. Taking up our cross is much more than stoically bearing the trials life throws at us. It does not mean we’re to masochistically engage in self-hatred or look for ways to suffer. To take up your cross is to deny oneself. It’s to reject our inner impulse to grasp rather than give. It means saying “no” to our desire for ease and our tendency to ignore the needs of others. It’s to renounce our urges to touch, taste and see what is forbidden to us. It’s to let go of self-will, self-aggrandizement and our drive to be equal to God. To deny the self means that “I” am not the centre of the universe. However, taking up one’s cross isn’t only a spiritual metaphor, it’s the commitment to never deny Jesus, even if it costs us our lives. To follow Jesus is to identify our self with the one who “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped but humbled himself…even to the point of submitting to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 6- 8) In the words of the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It’s no wonder Jesus is a problem for so many.
Some of you may be thinking that Jesus is fast becoming a problem for you. Taking up your cross isn’t anyone’s idea of “the good life”. Denying ourselves isn’t enjoyable. Such high demands make us question if we’re really followers of Christ at all. Discipleship is a life journey, not some magical act of perfection on earth. Just as children discover who they are in the process of growing into adulthood, so we discover we are followers of Jesus as mature spiritually. We follow Jesus one step at a time, taking up our cross moment by moment. We become followers of Jesus over a life time.
To say Jesus is the Christ has immense implications. It sounds more like a heavy load than good news. In a paradoxical way, this call to identify ourselves with Jesus – to discover who we are in light of who he is, is an invitation to life. The truth is: I can’t possess our own life; I don’t get everything I desire; I am not the centre of the universe; I can’t raise enough money to buy my way into eternity. But Jesus is telling us a secret: we gain our life by giving it away. To deny oneself is to discover oneself. In doing so we become the person we were truly created to be. It gives us the answer to the question “who am I?” Jean Calvin put it this way, “We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should rule our thoughts and actions. We are not our own, therefore let’s not aim to seek what is easiest for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us forget ourselves and all things that are ours. We are God’s, to him, therefore, let us live and die. We are God’s let his wisdom guide our actions. We are God’s towards him, let us direct our lives.” (Institutes 3:7)
Who do you say Jesus is? Do you accept the word on the street? Or do you say he is “the Word on the street” – God incarnate, living among us? If you profess with Peter, “you are the Christ” then be prepared to deny yourself and take up your cross. And never forget who you are is defined not only by Jesus’ suffering and death, it is also defined by his victorious resurrection.