Who do you say that I am?

Mark 8:22-9:8

I wonder if Jesus would be the kind of person who googles himself. I mean, if this story lmgtfywere taking place today, of course. I mean, instead of asking his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” I wonder if today he would have just popped open his laptop, pulled up a browser, and typed his name in the search bar to see what showed up, to see who the people say that he is.

I’ll admit it. I’ve done it.  I’m curious about where my name shows up on-line and what, if anything, people are saying about me.  Long story, short – not much. I show up on the church website. My social media pages get a couple of hits. And currently there’s a brief article from the Kane County Chronicle from the press release Representative Lauren Underwood’s office sent about my attendance with her at the National Prayer Breakfast. (By the way – I’ll be talking about the experience during Adult Education next week here in the sanctuary.) All in all, there’s not a whole lot of chatter about me, though, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

But there was some chatter about Jesus going on, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s curious what the people are saying. He’s done quite a bit of traveling around Judea and even beyond the borders.  He’s done more than a few things that have surprised people – upsetting some, elating others, and confounding just about everyone.  He’s preaching with an authority not found in other rabbis.  He’s breaking sabbath laws by healing on the seventh day. He’s casting out evil spirits who identify him more quickly and more accurately than his own followers. He’s healing countless people. He’s walking on water, feeding crowds of more than five thousand…. Yeah, I bet Jesus would find significantly more exciting hits on google if he were a “google yourself” kind of guy.

I don’t think he probably is though.  He knows the kinds of things the people are saying about him. The demons have no problem announcing his divinity right to his face. The Pharisees, while trying to trap him, acknowledge his spiritual power and teaching. His hometown crowd rejects him because his prophetic proclamations hit a little too close to


photo Deane Galbraith of the Bulletin for the Study of religion (taken at Moray Place, Dunedin, New Zealand – Artist unknown)

home.  So yeah, people are saying a lot of things, and none of it is a secret to Jesus. Even without comments on viral post to read or avoid (depending on your philosophy) Jesus is aware of what different groups are saying about who he is and what he’s doing. In a way, his question to his disciples on the road to Caesarea Philippi is less a fact-finding mission and more of a set up.  “Who do the people say that I am?” he asks first. Then, “But who do you say that I am?”

That’s the important question, isn’t it? Not what the religious authorities say. Not what the skeptic scribes and the curious crowds say. But who do *you* say that I am? Peter boldly and correctly declares, “You are the Messiah!”

Finally, one of his disciples is beginning to see what’s going on. Finally, someone who isn’t possessed by an evil spirit, someone who isn’t tortured by a demon. Finally, someone who has seen him straighten a withered hand, who has heard him teach about the kingdom of God with unique intimacy and insight, someone who has seen him calm a raging windstorm, but simply called him “teacher,”…. Finally one of his closest followers gets it and for the first time acknowledges who he really is, the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Finally, his eyes are opened.

Or… are they?

I don’t think it’s an accident that the author of Mark’s gospel placed this story about Peter’s declaration right after the story about the restoration of sight to the man who was blind. Mark may have the shortest gospel in the New Testament, but he was masterful in the way he crafted his story. The story of the healing of the man who was blind almost feels like the blooper reel at the end of a movie, a mistake, an outtake. A man is brought to Jesus begging for his healing touch. Jesus obliges and takes him away from the village center. He gathers his saliva (I really don’t like this story), rubs it on the man’s eyes (it really grosses me out), and then says “Voila! Can you see anything?”

Blurry Trees

photo by Andy Michael, used with permission from https://www.flickr.com/photos/84422026@N07/24098285548

I wonder if the man was embarrassed to speak his truth. “Uhhhh…. Sort of?” Or maybe he was frustrated, “You put all of *that* on my face and all I’ve got to show for it are some fuzzy tree-people?” It’s sort of anticlimactic! His vision isn’t complete. He was hoping for a miracle and he got… well, half a miracle, half of his sight. So Jesus lays his hands on the man’s eyes again, looks at him intently, and then, finally, his sight was restored. He could see everything clearly this time.  Everything.

Peter’s declaration, it’s like the first half of this healing miracle. Peter’s eyes are open. He’s seeing the big picture, the outline of what is going on. Jesus is more than a teacher.  He’s more than a preacher. He’s more than a healer. He’s more than trouble maker.  He’s more than a prophet like John the Baptist or Elijah. He’s the Messiah! But when Jesus starts to talk about what that means, what’s really at stake, we find out what Peter’s vision, his understanding, well, it’s fuzzy. He’s seeing tree-people.

Granted, Jesus paints for him a difficult picture. Maybe tree-people are all Peter wants to see once he hears what Jesus means by “Messiah.” It challenges Peter’s understanding of both what the Messiah is and what is going to happen to his dear friend and mentor and Lord. Peter rebukes Jesus for telling him about impending suffering and rejection, murder and some sort of rising. Peter rebukes Jesus, I think, for challenging his assumptions about how the Messiah will usher in God’s kingdom, not with the usual strokes of traditional power and might, but with apparent weakness, losing to win, humiliation.

But Peter also rebukes Jesus out of the pain he must feel hearing about how the mounting resistance they are noticing might turn into all out violence in the future. He doesn’t want this to be true. I wouldn’t want this to be true. Think about how we experience worship by the time we get to Good Friday, the emotional weight of that service, those stories, these feelings – and we know how the story turns out. It’s no wonder Peter resists what Jesus tries to tell him, but it’s something he has to hear. It’s something we have to hear.

“Who do you say that I am?” It might just be the most important question Jesus asks, because how we answer it and how we understand what that answer means, it changes everything about who we are and what we do in the world. Or at least it’s supposed to. “If any want to become my followers…” that is, the followers of the Messiah, the anointed one, the Lord… “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Following the Messiah, Jesus is telling us, is not the same as following a teacher. It’s not the same as admiring a healer.  It’s not even like trusting a prophet.

Deny. Cross. Follow. These are intense words! And yet, according to Jesus, these are actually the words for those who see who Jesus is. Jesus is telling us to put aside ourselves and our expectations about Jesus, our warm fuzzy feelings and the robes of

The Wooden Cross

photo by Neil Williamson, used with permission from https://www.flickr.com/photos/neillwphoto/14582687297

politeness and comfort in which we like to dress him. Jesus is telling us to get ready for a difficult road – maybe even a cross, and not a pretty one on the wall, decorated with flowers and delicate scrollwork, but a wooden one, a splintery one, one by which the government will put him, put us?, to death. Jesus is telling us that walking with him, following him, is more than a Sunday morning commitment, more than a monthly committee meeting, more than a mission trip or afternoon at the Food Bank. Walking with Jesus, following him, is a whole life affair, and it may just disrupt the life we anticipated living in the process.

Peter’s half-insight is a good first step. Our professions of faith – the ones we make at 13 or 14, maybe we sense a renewal of them at 20 or 30 or 40, maybe we find ourselves having to come back to them almost daily our whole adult lives – these professions of faith are good and faithful first steps; usually, they let us see the tree-people, the broad outline of the Messiah. And yet Jesus invites us beyond these insights, to see him even clearly, to follow even more closely, to witness even more deeply to the way he is changing the world into God’s kingdom.

He’s doing it with everything he has – his healing hands, his disrupting teachings, his political challenges. He is doing it in every arena – in the countryside and in the cities, in the temples and the marketplaces, where people work and where they rest, where they eat, where they shop, where they worship. And he is calling us to take our faith in God, our faith in him, everywhere we go, letting it influence everything we do – how we treat our neighbors, how we treat our enemies, how we treat ourselves; what we buy, what we do, what we say; how we work, how we rest, how we vote. (Yes, I said, “How we vote?” It’s up to each of us to discern that vote in prayer and in the Spirit, but I believe whole-heartedly that Jesus wants our faith to influence our civic decisions.)

It’s not until they are on the mountain that the picture is finally made clear. Peter tries one more time to keep the Messiah in a box, OK a dwelling place, a tent, a hermit’s cabin at the peak.  Peter tries one more time to save Jesus, save himself, from the difficult future that has been forecast. But that attempt is fuzzy thinking, fuzzy seeing.  It’s motivated by faith and love, but it doesn’t reflect what Jesus is trying to tell him; it doesn’t reflect how Jesus will be the Messiah that Peter has already declared he is.

So God speaks into the mystery of this thin place between earth and heaven.  God’s voice declares to all who are there, what God’s voice declared to Jesus at his baptism. “This is my Son, the Beloved! Listen to him!” The very voice of God proclaim that Jesus isn’t just a teacher. He isn’t just another leader. He isn’t simply one of the prophet.  He is God’s Son.

Friends, are we listening to him?

Once who have seen who Jesus is, once we make the claim that he is Lord, he is Messiah, he is the embodiment of God’s will we simply can’t live the way we always have. Really, if our lives have not changed since we realized who Jesus is, then I’m not so sure we have realized much at all.

We have to listen to him! We have to learn from him! We have to pattern our lives and our life as a church together after him. And he told us what that would look like; he told us what it would mean – bumping up against the authorities, sticking out in a crowd, mingling with the evil spirits to bring about God’s righteousness, touching the people society calls unclean, saying difficult things to people in power, pointing out when the letter of the law is no longer just and no longer aligned with the spirit of God’s law, giving up our lives, our time, our money, our privilege for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of our enemies, for the sake of creation.

He told us what it means to live with our sight restored, with our eyes focused on the vision God has for the world.

This is my Son. The Beloved. The Messiah. The anointed. This is God’s Son. Are we listening?

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