Pentecost 16/Lectionary 24B, Mark 8:27-38, 9/12/21
Jesus’ question recorded in Mark’s gospel echoes through the centuries: “Who do people say that I am?”
As we are in the midst of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and right here in Arlington, how we answer the question about Jesus’ identity says a lot about how we engage and endure our troubled times. We continue to suffer the effects of what was unleashed in nation and world 20 years ago.
“Who do people say that [Jesus is]?”
The answers given by Jesus’ disciples were these: John the Baptizer; Elijah; or one of the prophets. Jesus as the return of John the Baptizer makes some sense in relation to Herod’s paranoia that the one whom he beheaded had returned. Elijah was expected to come again to usher in the messianic age. And certainly, Jesus’ teaching ministry had resonances with the prophets who went before him, the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and so many others.
The question has been asked throughout the centuries – who do people say that Jesus is? In 1985 the late, great and formerly Lutheran scholar at Yale, Jaroslav Pelikan, published his classic tome, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. In 18 chapters, Pelikan explores how Jesus was viewed in different ways depending on the epochs of Western culture. Century by century, here are Pelikan’s designations for Jesus according to how each century of Western culture viewed Jesus: Rabbi, Turning Point of History, Light of the Gentiles, King of Kings, Cosmic Christ, Son of Man, True Image, Christ Crucified, Monk who Rules the World, Bridegroom of the Soul, Divine and Human Model, Universal Man, Mirror of the Eternal, Prince of Peace, Teacher of Common Sense, Poet of the Spirit, Liberator, Man who Belongs to the World.
It’s quite the exhaustive listing. Each century has tended at least in part to create Jesus in its own image – or at least to emphasize attributes of Christ consistent with cultural themes.
Think also of the myriad images of Jesus portrayed in art, each portrayal emphasizing certain aspects of Jesus’ identity in attempting to visually portray who Jesus is.
But then Jesus poses a second question to the disciples that is piercingly personal: “But who do you say that I am?”
This question, too, echoes through the centuries to this very room on this very day. So, I ask you, who do you say that Jesus is? Seriously, reflect on that for a few moments – especially taking into account our very troubled present time. [Pregnant pause for reflection]
Here are some possible contemporary contenders for summarizing who Jesus may be to some: Friend; Role model; Coach; Cheer Leader; Cruise Director; Co-pilot; Object of Romantic Attraction; Muse; Companion; Sibling. And on and on this list could go. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s true that we have a tendency to imagine Jesus the way we want him to be.
In Mark’s narrative, it’s Peter who offers an answer to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am.” Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah.”
This seems to be the right answer, but even so, Mark says that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
It seemed for a moment, the window was opened and the lights turned on, only to have the window slammed shut and the lights turned off again. A flash of insight, but then mystery again.
Jesus, according to Mark, understood the Messiah, the anointed one, in a particular way when Mark reports that Jesus taught the disciples that “the Son of Man [there’s another designation for Jesus!] 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.”
Messiah means the one anointed with oil, just as Hebrew priests and kings and prophets were anointed with oil to mark the beginning of their leadership and service. But Messiah as one who suffers and dies would not have been in the popular imagination. Nor is it, perhaps, in ours.
With Jesus as Son of Man, as Messiah, but one who suffers, dies, and is raised, the window of insight is open again, and the lights are all on. For Jesus “said all this quite openly” in contrast to how Jesus’ words and deeds are otherwise shrouded in mystery and silence elsewhere in Mark’s narrative.
Here’s where we see the beacon shining on the end and outcome of the narrative, the culmination on the cross and in the empty tomb.
Again, this was not a desired or hoped for understanding of being the Son of Man, the Messiah.
So, it was natural for Peter to rebuke Jesus, saying in other gospels, “God forbid, this must never happen to you.”
But then Jesus rebukes Peter, with more revealing insight in the familiar words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
But who wants Jesus to have to go through such suffering?
And it’s not just Jesus who will suffer, but also those who follow Jesus! “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark reports that Jesus concludes the discourse in today’s gospel reading with these searing words: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Ouch. The burden weighs heavily on our shoulders. Who among us can be a faithful disciple – especially when the going gets rough as we are experiencing today and have been for some twenty years or more?
Where does this leave us? Jesus in Mark brought some clarity about the nature of who he was and is as one called to suffer and be killed, promising a similar fate to those who follow, and then we have the warning from James about the dangers of what we say and how we say it.
Does it all end with paralysis, and non-redemptive suffering and misery in mystery?
It’s interesting that I usually find the good news in the New Testament gospel reading appointed for the day. But today, I find the good news in both the first reading from Isaiah and from the day’s psalm.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is among the prophetic passages about the suffering servant, about whom we Christians cannot help but see attributes of Jesus, the one who suffers, dies and is raised.
This suffering servant has been given the “tongue of a teacher who knows how to sustain the weary with a word.” (cf. Isaiah 50:4) Sustaining the weary with a word – that’s exactly what we need in times like these. And this is the exact opposite of the teachers that James warns us about.
The suffering servant of Isaiah can teach in helpful, life-giving ways because the suffering servant has God’s help: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced… and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (Isaiah 50:7-9)
The good news is that Christ, God’s and our suffering servant, is for us, is our help, Emmanuel, God with us, suffers in companionship with us, our salvation – and precisely what we need now in a world ravaged by tumult.
Thus, we’re back in the light of day and can see with clarity. And in this light, the light of Christ, the one who suffers, is rejected, dies, but who is raised by God, in this light we are liberated, freed from our deadly paralysis and what ails us.
In Christ, into whom we are baptized, and whom we consume in bread and wine, we thus burst into song, a song of praise extolling our God in Christ:
1I love the LORD, who has heard my voice,
and listened to my supplication,
2for the LORD has given ear to me
whenever I called.
3The cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me;
I came to grief and sorrow.
4Then I called upon the name of the LORD:
“O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”
5Gracious is the LORD and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
6The LORD watches over the innocent;
I was brought low, and God saved me.
7Turn again to your rest, O my soul.
for the LORD has dealt well with you.
8For you have rescued my life from death,
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling;
9I will walk in the presence of the LORD
in the land of the living. (Psalm 116:1-9)
We who are enduring times like these need a divine savior like this.
And with this song of praise and deliverance on our lips, we engage in God’s work, with our own Holy Spirit-aided hands, of lifting our neighbors up out of the pits they have found themselves in and we see the truth of Jesus’ wisdom in Mark that “those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Who do we say that Jesus is? The anointed one who suffers, is rejected, is killed, but who is raised again from the dead to usher in the power of God that makes for the healing of our broken world – exactly the kind of Jesus we need in these troubled times.
May our words and deeds faithfully and consistently proclaim this kind of Christ during this season of remembering and making sense of the tragedies of 20 years ago. Amen.