"Who Jesus Is," Rev. Fred Kinsey
“Who do people say that I am,” Jesus asked his disciples. And “who do you say that I am,” he asked a 2nd time?
Does it matter what the title of Jesus is? Is there one right answer? What if we get it wrong? Does Jesus even acknowledge what the right answer is?
And why is Jesus asking the Disciples now – here in this Las Vegas style Roman resort town of Caesarea Philippi, a completely rebuilt northern town of Israel by Philip, at the source of the Jordan River – which became a polis for the rich and famous to come and vacation?
This 8th of 16 chapters of Mark is a turning point, situated midway thru his gospel. From the base of Mt Hermon, Jesus will make his way south to Mt Zion, into Jerusalem.
So here, in this swanky setting – not unknown to us in the 21st century – Jesus brings up the question of his identity. The disciples have been following for some time now, and this is a kind-of, check-in. The catch is, that we, the reader, know the whole Jesus story. Even in the opening chapter, the narrator has clued us in, at his baptism, how Jesus was coming to bring the gift of the Holy Spirit, followed by God’s voice telling us, this is God’s beloved Child, as Jesus comes up out of the baptismal waters! And we know the ending too, his death and resurrection, how God vindicates Jesus as the Messiah.
Mark also tells us, in the very first two verses of his Gospel, that Jesus has come to prepare a ‘Way’ for us, and now in the first verse of chapter 8, of our Reading today, at this midpoint of Mark, Jesus is described as, “on the way” to Jerusalem.
‘Who Jesus is,’ which of the many titles are used, may vary from gospel to gospel, and throughout the NT, depending on which community the author is addressing. But one thing the four gospels hold in common is this journey to Jerusalem, and the road to the cross, the purpose of Jesus’ life, or, in Mark, simply, ‘the Way.’
Throughout the 1st half of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching and preaching about the realm and kingdom of God, and showing what the kingdom is, through signs of wonder, and intimate healings of people considered untouchable, or unclean. He’s successfully confronted the hypocritical leaders of the nation, and freed the suffering and demon-possessed. Yet, in chapter 8:21, just before our reading today, we find that Jesus’ closest followers, his 12 disciples, still haven’t been able to comprehend Jesus’ identity! And a bit exasperated, he says to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
No, not really! And, do we? What do we call Jesus? Who is Jesus for us?
Lutheran professor Karoline Lewis says, “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be. You can’t answer Jesus’ inquiry (who do you say that I am?) without revealing who you are!” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220)
In other words, as followers of Jesus we follow him in our own ways. As followers, we are limited by our personalities, our family upbringing, our schooling, our income, our gender, our race and ethnicity, and so much more. But given that, we then make our own decisions about what kind of follower we will be; how much of our lives we will give to following (on the Way); and what shape that following takes. And, other people will see it, in us. Our attitudes and our deeds, reveal who we are as followers of Jesus. “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be.”
Jesus wants his leaders – his 12 Disciples – to be clear about who he is, so they can reflect that in their lives of following, on the Way, too! He starts the conversation by asking them, “who do people say that I am?” What have you been hearing, in general? And like any good lawyer, Jesus knew the answer to this question already: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, are all titles we’ve heard, on the way, in Mark’s gospel already. These are revered biblical characters which all reflect well on Jesus, which the disciples have been paying attention to as well!
But still, these do not fully describe who Jesus is, and his mission that he’s embarking on. So he asks the disciples more pointedly, who do you say that I am?! And out of the blue, Peter says, “you are the Messiah (the Anointed One).” Which Jesus doesn’t deny, but quickly orders the 12 not to tell to anyone about, just yet!
Sometimes I wish we could end the story, right here. This sounds like good news, right?! Jesus is lauded as one of the greatest of God’s messengers, and even as the most hoped for, and anticipated, Savior of the age, the Messiah! Let’s go celebrate that! They were in the perfect place, after all, in the Roman built vacation paradise of Caesarea Philippi!
But Jesus has to go and ruin it all by turning it into “a teaching moment.” And so, in front of all the people at the slot machines with cocktails in hand, Jesus tells them about himself as the Messiah. Or to be accurate, Jesus sees himself as the Son of Man(kind), the Human One, a very specific title used by the prophet Daniel (when the Jews were under oppression in Babylon), to talk about how a new realm of God would dawn, through a present and inescapable suffering. And the suffering Jesus was talking about was to be rejected by all the ruling leaders in Jerusalem, and not just an electoral loss, but a rejection that would, he predicted, lead to his death. But after three days he will rise again. I want to be very clear about this ahead of time, Jesus tells his disciples. And indeed, Jesus will, sit them down, two more times, on the Way to Jerusalem, and say the exact same thing (the major theme of the 2nd half of Mark).
But this message is not yet sinking in for the 12, and Peter is so angry that Jesus is talking about his death as Messiah, that he pulls him aside from the rest to rebuke Jesus! But Jesus will have nothing of this temptation to power by violence, and in front of all of the 12, Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him Satan!
If we could have only stopped back at Peter’s wonderful insight, “you are the Messiah!”
But this is the part of Jesus’ identity that makes all the difference, and some of Jesus’ most intimate and powerful teachings happen after each of the three predictions of his death and resurrection, on the Way to Jerusalem. On this occasion Jesus talks about, “whosoever would save their life will lose it…” Then in Chapter 9 it’s, “if anyone would be first, they must be last…” And finally, in chapter 10, Jesus teaches much the same lesson the gospel of John relates in the Foot Washing, “Whosoever would be great among you must be your servant…”
Jesus, as we know, called Peter and Andrew, James and John, from their nets and boats, and Matthew from being a tax collector, and all the rest, to his become Disciples in the very beginning of Mark’s story. In today’s gospel we find a 2nd ‘Calling to discipleship,’ at the midway point of the story. And his message is clear, “Discipleship is not about theological orthodoxy but about the Way of the cross,” as Ched Meyers says. (Say to This Mountain, p. 99)
Getting Jesus’ title correct is not an oral, or a written test for us, as it wasn’t either for his 12 disciples. But it has to do with “the Way” of following. It has to do with the “whosoever’s,” the invitation to us, to follow – which is the beginning, the midpoint, and the ending, of who we are, in our lives, and as Disciples of the Human One, the Messiah.
In the following, we will find who Jesus is!