“Who Do You Say That I am?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 28, 2018
University Baptist Church
You may remember that last week, we looked at the portion of scripture that precedes this one. In it, Jesus heals a blind man and asks him what he sees. It takes a bit of time for him to focus. In today’s scripture, Jesus asks what the disciples see, and by extension asks us what we see. How long will it take us to focus?
The original disciples really liked being disciples, at least at first. They got to hang around Jesus. They got to get a glimpse of his transforming power and his audacious words. All of the disciples were ordinary folk, people who were pretty nondescript. None of them were leaders in their communities. But all of them were captivated by the word of God among them—this person Jesus. He had a kind of peace about him and guts, man did he have guts. He put down the scribes, the Pharisees, the priests, the followers of Herod, even the military complex of his day. He healed the sick, broke bread, feeding 5,000 one time and 4,000 another time. He even sent out the 12 or so that he called and told them to cast out demons and heal the sick. It was exciting. The disciples were thrilled and profoundly moved by the man and the message. But Jesus kept pushing them. He didn’t want them to stagnate. So in today’s scripture, he gave them a pop quiz. It’s time to see if you are really up for this. It’s time to expose your blinders.
Today’s passage is the fulcrum on which the Gospel rests. Mark reads like and episode of "Law & Order". The first half is the detective work: "who is this Jesus, anyway?" The second half is the trial and conviction of Jesus. For the first eight chapters, we have seen who Jesus is by what he does. Jesus never said, "I am the Messiah. I am the Christ. Believe in me." At least he didn't say that in the first three Gospels. Instead, he asks his disciples to get a sense of the crowd. It was like he was taking a straw poll. "Who do people say that I am?"
They answered, "Some say Elijah, some say John the Baptist, still others say one of the prophets." The disciples left out the other words, often spouted by his enemies, many of whom had religious or political authority: “Blasphemer”, “Beelzebub, the prince of demons”, “false prophet”, “trouble-maker”, “fool”, “madman”, or even the racist, “Galilean”—and all that that implies.
Then Jesus got serious and said, "okay, forget the polls. Forget what other people are saying. Forget all of the presuppositions about who I am. Who do you say that I am?" I imagine them looking at each other, shuffling their feet. They knew it was a loaded question. That's when Peter answered, "You are the Messiah". Previously only the demons knew who Jesus was, but now Peter declares that he sees as clearly as the demons, as clearly as the outcasts who took Jesus for what he was and recognized not only Jesus’ holiness, but also his revolutionary posture. Peter got it about Jesus and his conviction lasted all of two verses.
What did Peter mean when he said, “You are the Messiah”? Messiah was a pretty loaded term back then. Most people thought the Messiah would be a military ruler who would become the new King David. The Messiah would restore the fortunes of ancient Israel and ultimately unseat the powers of the scribes, the priests, the Pharisees and while you’re at it the entire Roman Empire. That’s likely what Peter wanted, but that’s not who Jesus was. The Messiah Jesus was to be would not play by those rules. This Messiah would go by the way of the suffering servant. This Messiah would be nonviolent, finally saying a profound no to the systems of meanness and retribution which breed greed and distrust. Relying on that system is what got them there in the first place. Violence cannot rid the world of violence. It only makes more enemies. Walter Wink reminded us that redemptive violence is a myth.
Peter knew from reading his scripture that the Messiah was supposed to take up a sword and lead people in battle. Jesus calls people to fight, but the enemy is not Rome. It’s not the occupying force. It’s not religion gone wrong. No, the enemy is violence itself. And he gives them the most powerful tool to fight violence: a cross.
The Gospel of Mark does a fantastic job of upping the ante as the disciples try to live up to their names. But the disciples didn’t want to pay such a high price. They didn’t want Jesus to pay such a high price either. I can imagine them thinking, “if you are just a prophet, then we don’t have to follow you all the way to death. If you are Elijah, then you can do works of wonder and will not be liked by the powers that be. If you are John the Baptist, we can follow you, but we might get our heads cut off. But if you this kind of Messiah, then you might have to suffer all of the above. And if we follow you, we might have to suffer too. Uh oh.”
Jesus reversed the rules of the game. The warrior Messiah script is on the cutting room floor and the prophetic Messiah script replaces it. Ched Myers says that the thesis of Mark’s Gospel is that discipleship is not about theological orthodoxy. Discipleship is about the cross (Say to this Mountain, 1997:99).
Hear this, the Messiah Jesus would be would lead a nonviolent revolution of inclusion and justice. And any followers of this kind of Messiah would be going up against the systems of violence, and facing them head on. Jesus taught that the Messiah would suffer, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes—all of the religious powers that be and be killed by the state. That is what happens when you oppose the system. The system uses violence to stop you. And they think that will be the end of it. Jesus was publicly executed like common criminals and revolutionaries were, on a cross, high on a hill so others could see and be intimidated by the utter power of the state when it gets in bed with religion.
Now, we all know that this is not the end of the story. For after three days the Messiah will rise again, says Jesus, showing everyone that the system of violence is a dead end street. Not succumbing to that system, not being defined by that system, actively opposing that system will bring you eternal life.
Peter, Petros, Rock, the most hard-headed of the disciples did not like this one bit. He said, in so many words, “say it ain’t so, son of Joe.” But Jesus rebuked him back: “Get behind me Satan, for your mind is on yourself and not on God.”
And then just to see if people are truly ready for this journey he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.” Great, another reversal. Of course, Peter will later save himself by denying Jesus. Judas will later sell Jesus out for chump change and in the process lose his very soul. We are called to be better than that.
Sixteen years ago, civil rights icon John Lewis received the Edwin T Dahlberg Peace award by the American Baptist Churches, USA. It’s named after a former student minister of this very church who went on to live a life committed to peace-making and justice-seeking, including leading the ABC and the National Council of Churches. He was also a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II and helped found the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. So, no pressure, Matty.
In his memoir, “Walking with the Wind”, John Lewis tells of how he was part of the Freedom Rides in the early sixties and was literally beaten almost to death as he tried to ride a bus through Alabama and Mississippi. At one point he spent weeks in Parchman Prison along with hundreds of other freedom riders—a most brutal and horrible place. The purveyors of segregation used this kind of violence and intimidation to stop the movement. Beating them and throwing them in Parchman was designed to humiliate them, to show them how little power they had. But the freedom riders took discipleship seriously. Their eyes were on the prize. Yes, they got themselves beaten, but the beatings exposed the injustice, the brutality, the dead-end street of violence. It ultimately integrated the south. That’s resurrection. It happened because these disciples were not afraid of the cross. They knew it served to redeem the world and expose the desperation of the systems of domination.
John Lewis tells of how people, Martin Luther King included, tried to get them to stop their freedom rides—calling it too dangerous. Lewis then criticized King for being too pragmatic, too beholden to the establishment, too worried about rocking the boat. Of course they do the freedom rides. It showed how SNCC was different from the NAACP and even SCLC. All of them wanted to be disciples, and they argued about the best way to do it. Some things never change.
Seeing clearly is a metaphor for true discipleship throughout Mark’s gospel. Right before today’s Scripture reading, Jesus restored sight to someone who is blind. Being a true disciple means having our eyes open. Jesus sought to open people’s eyes and set people free.
When our eyes are opened, we cannot help but see the suffering of the world. When our eyes are opened, we cannot help but have our hearts opened as well.
When our eyes are opened, we might just be able to see a new way to live in the world.
With our eyes opened, we are free to embrace a new way of living.
With our eyes opened we are free to confess our shortcomings and embrace the freedom that comes when we join God in bringing in the reign of the divine—when we embrace a world of justice and of peace.
It’s not always a pretty road, this discipleship road, but as long as we are on it, we are walking with God by our side. And God will guide us through every thorny and mire-filled hill and valley on our road to freedom.
Yesterday, I went to the 25th anniversary of the Reimagining community. It was part celebration of great work that has happened over the years and part conference on reimagining a world without violence. I know people like Nadean Bishop, Vicki Wilson, and Faye Kommedahl were part of the earlier conferences and leadership. Women were the main speakers, Sara Thomsen (one of last year’s Roots Cellar performers) led music and at the closing ritual someone stood up and said, “it’s so good to sing in harmony.” She laughed, and said, “I’m Lutheran, so I’m used to singing in harmony, but here I can sing words that I actually believe.” The reimagining community worked hard to make sure that words were said and sung with intention. And that intention meant including everyone, even those who challenge us the most. They worked to make liturgy meaningful instead of the lowest common denominator. It was and is creative work. It affirmed the work so many of us do here. The backlash was strong 25 years ago. Many people lost their jobs. People were marginalized. Women’s voices were expunged from denominational headquarters. But a remnant remained and did the work in enclaves. The welcoming church movement grew out of this. So did the sanctuary movement. People redefined power away from the institutions. People’s eyes were opened.
But when they are opened we can see outside the box.
We can see the way to resurrection.
We can see a world made new, a people renewed and a land flowing with milk and honey.
We’ll see a place where justice rolls down like a mighty water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We’ll see a new opportunity for relationships were there is no violence, where all are recognized for their own unique gifts, where no one has to say me to.
We can see a vision of a new kind of community.
We’ll be free from the bonds of all of the systems that try to hold us down and call us deranged and demon-possessed.
All because we take seriously the question of “Who do you say that I am.” For the real question is not who you say Jesus is, but who you say that you are.
So who do you say that you are?
That’s the real question from Jesus to me and you.
Let me close with a song written by Carol Etzler as she came out of the closet. It was popular when the original reimagine conference happened and it still speaks to me today:
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened.
Sometimes I wish I could no longer see
All of the pain and the hurt and the longing of my
Sisters and me as we try to be free.
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened,
Just for an hour, how sweet it would be
Not to be struggling, not to be striving,
But just sleep securely in our slavery.
But now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them,
Because deep inside me somewhere I’d still know
The road that my sisters and I have to travel:
My heart would say, “Yes” and my feet would say “Go!”
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened,
But now that they have, I’m determined to see:
That somehow my sisters and I will be one day
The free people we were created to be.
That somehow my brothers and I will be one day
The free people we were created to be.