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Pentecost 16B

“That IS the question”

Mark 8:27-38

by The Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Who do people say I am?
(I’m not suffering delusions of messianic grandeur here by
appropriating Jesus’ question for myself,
but that move, taking Jesus’ question, and asking ourselves,
is a worthwhile and revealing exercise,
as we try to mine the riches of this text.

I’ll be the guinea pig:
Who do “people” say I am?
The passport office will tell you I’m a Canadian Citizen, though born in England.
The UCC Year Book tells you I’m an ordained minister.
My health care providers could also give you various definitions about who I am,
woman, age, b/p, etc.

You could try it for yourselves for a moment:
Who do “people” say you are? (pause)
Have you noticed how many different ways are we defined by others?
And that this definition by others has a lot to do with where we are when we ask the question?

Even though Mark is forever putting pins on the map to tell us where Jesus is,
we often ignore them, but this time it’s worth noticing that Jesus
asks his question while wandering down the streets of a town
called Caesarea Philippi.
It sat on the outer limits of Jewish land, more ‘foreign’ than ‘de souche.’
During Jesus’ childhood,
King Herod the Great and then his son Philip transformed
what was once a Greek shrine to the God Pan the place
into a showcase for their own (derivative) power,
and to suck up to the Roman Emperor who had given them that power.
In other words, when Jesus the preacher of the Dream – the Kingdom of God,
asks this question,
he is standing in the bosom of that other ‘kingdom’ – the Roman empire.

So we can see how this place shapes the first answers he is given.
“Some say you’re like John the Baptist.”
-oh really, a wild man mystic who criticized the Herodian puppet kings and lost his life for it?
“Some say you’re Elijah, come back again.”
-the one who denounced a foreign ruler (Jezebel), a plainspeaking prophet
agitating against imperial intrusion into the lives of a quirky nation
single-minded in its worship of a single god.

Okay then, “That’s “people,” Jesus says,
“but you, what about you?
Who do you say I am?”

We expect those closest to us to have a better answer
to the question than “people.”
My children might tell you something about my qualities as their mother,
I might ask you what it means to you that I am “minister.”
But who can really mirror back to me, or to you, or to Jesus,
what we believe about ourselves at our deepest, inner core?

Who we are is only ever partially defined by others,
and never fully defined by ourselves.
It’s always both.

It IS the existential, fundamental question isn’t it?
Who do people say I am?
Who am I?
Who is Jesus, who do people say he is, who do I say he is?

What’s striking to me about this pivotal question of Jesus,
is where and when it is posed in this Gospel.
We’ve already noted the geographic and cultural location,
as far removed from Jerusalem as it’s possible to get..

It’s also at the mid-point in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel.
Up til now, we – along with the disciples –
have been rushing after Jesus on his whirlwind Gospel tour
of teaching, and healing and preaching, and miracle-making.
We’ve been able to watch the action on a movie screen,
caught up in the dramatic tensions to be sure,
but not implicated, not involved.
From here on, this Gospel stops being a movie, and becomes
interactive theatre where increasingly, the disciples,
and the readers of the Gospel, (that’s us,)
are expected to play a role,
so that ultimately, it ceases to be theatre,
and becomes real life, our real life.

From here on, this Gospel is not so much
about Jesus’ proclamation
as it is about our response.

If that’s the case, being clear about who Jesus is,
IS the question to ask.

How we answer is going to have significant impact
upon the way we become part of the rest of this Gospel story.

And that’s precisely what happens with Peter.
When Jesus asks him the question:
“Who do you say I am?”
Peter answers with what should have gotten him Straight As for theology and insight
– at least that’s what we think:
“You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ!”
But Jesus, instead of giving him an A, gives Peter a condemnatory F.
“Shush! Don’t tell anyone what you just said!
You’ve got this all wrong! You’re looking at me all wrong!”

What’s that supposed to mean?

Well, we have a problem that Peter didn’t.
We know the end of the story,
and we can’t help but read it back into this incident.
But for Peter, his declaration was rooted in his
first century Jewish messianic belief that a
“Messiah,” “Christ,” Anointed One”
would be a new David,
a King, someone to replace the
Romanized puppet kings of Judea.
To replace Rome itself!
Someone with power on earth,
who would mobilize a people’s army
to impose God’s peaceful reign of justice….

Someone Jesus would never be.
Not like that.
Mark’s Jesus spends the rest of the Gospel dismantling
such a misconception of who he was and is.
He’s still doing so.
Because, even though we know the end of the Jesus part of the story,
in all it’s utter powerlessness,
we keep Peter company when we want and look for God
to overpower oppression, to smite the evildoers,
to avenge injustices with punitive vindication,
to do right with might.
We keep Peter company when we want and look for God to come in strength,
and risk completely missing God when God comes to us in our weakness.

It matters though, that Peter gets it right,
at this point in the Gospel,
because he needs to follow the right Messiah,
even though it feels all wrong.
It matters that at this point in the Gospel,
that we get it right too.
that our answer to Jesus’ question
bears some resemblance to who Jesus says he was, and is.

Preacher, bringer, incarnation of an upside down
kingdom where the powerless and homeless and useless,
and hopeless are God’s honoured guests in the banquet of belonging.

It matters a lot that we get it right,
at this point in the Gospel,
because from here on in, we have a part to play in its drama,
here in real life, now.

Because if we follow a falsified version of God’s anointed one,
and there are many to choose from …..
if we as a community of the Gospel chase after
bigger, and better, and grander and more,
and larger, swifter, more numerous,
we will be going in the wrong direction.

The one who asks us “Who do you say I am?”
tells us who he is;
one whose purpose in life and death is to serve,
one who gives life and hope where it’s been stolen.
one who cheers for the last, and seeks the lost,
one who, fed by the Spirit, feeds ours.
one who having no home, invites us to be at home with God.

One who says “Follow me.
For that’s who you are too.”

© The Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones September 2012

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