Sermon September 13, 2015
A video survey in New York City asks the question “Who is Jesus?” The answers range from the predictable to a superpower to a Gandhi type guy. The video includes a cartoon with a newscaster saying “Everyone is giddy for Jesus to come out because we all know if Jesus comes out of his house and is not scared by his shadow, the next thousand years will be full of peace and love.”
The gospel lesson today begins with Jesus asking who others say that he is. Sharon Ringe suggests that it looks a bit “like a stopover on a political campaign where a candidate and entourage check the results of focus groups. What are people saying about Jesus? Are they getting the message?... This was a culture where identity and vocation were defined by the community’s perception rather than individual discernment.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 71) The idea that Jesus might take a public opinion poll is so unlike the Jesus who didn’t seem to care what others thought. So often, his actions flew in the face of what was considered acceptable. It makes me wonder why he would ask what others are saying. But I think the real question is the one that follows the first, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
There are so many answers to that question. In the 1980’s and 1990’s a group of 150 scholars called themselves the Jesus Seminar. The group would gather to consider the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus and try to determine if he really said and did those things. They published their findings in a book called The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say? Contrast that with Robin Meyers’ book, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. Robin says, “when it comes to Jesus, we know practically nothing.” (p. 16)
How do we determine who Jesus is? We can read books about him. We can study him and draw some conclusions, but how do we really know who anyone is? I think it takes more than intellect. If you were to ask me who my spouse is, I would not repeat the things on her resume. I wouldn’t tell you what other people have said about her. I would tell you how I experience her. I would tell you what I know from my own relationship with her. Real relationships require a level of humility – a willingness to learn about someone we may think we already know. Do you notice that Jesus doesn’t stay with the question “who do others say that I am?” Instead he wants to focus on those who have been close to him and who they say that he is.
I suppose Jesus could come today and ask who others say that he is. But I think he would really want to know who we say that he is. We are the ones who show up here week after week to grow in our understanding of him and then leave to follow him. Public opinion polls are less interesting to Jesus than relationships.
If we are going to follow Jesus, it means ordering our lives in a way that reflects his. As disciples, we want people to look at us and see Jesus at work in our actions. Somehow that led me to think about identity theft. “Identity theft is a form of stealing someone's identity in which someone pretends to be someone else by assuming that person's identity, usually as a method to gain access to resources or obtain credit and other benefits in that person's name…The term identity theft was coined in 1964; however, it is not literally possible to steal an identity.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_theft)
But I wonder if we who follow Jesus aspire to a kind of identity theft. Wouldn’t we want others to mistake our actions for Jesus? In the last week, would someone look at you in action and see Jesus? That question makes me want to ask myself, “who is Jesus to me and how do I want my life to reflect him?”
John Pavlovitz says, “I was raised on the stories of Jesus. They were the sweet milk of my childhood. Long before I ever knew what a political party was, before I ever heard the words Conservative or Liberal; long before I knew what denominations or media bias or culture wars were, I had this Jesus:
He was the one who was born into barren smallness, amidst the smell of damp straw and animal dung.
The one who called people to leave security and home and livelihood behind, in order to model the truly blessed life together.
The one who lived in homeless humility, living off the generosity of those whose thankful hearts gave a home to his words.
The one who defied rules of decorum and purity and tradition in order to bring healing and comfort and hope.
The one who spoke of relentless forgiveness for wrongdoing, of praying earnestly for enemies, of lavishly loving the least, of radically showing mercy.
The one who fed thousands of strangers on a hillside, not because they were deserving or morally fit, but because they were hungry.
The one who preached about the Kingdom of God; a way of being rooted in selflessness and sacrifice; one in direct, defiant opposition to the greed and power and inequality of the day.
The one who spoke unflinchingly into injustice and corruption and religious hypocrisy, and into the hearts and the systems that created and nurtured them.
The one who regularly ate with the priests and the prostitutes, treating both with equal dignity.
The one who endured wrongful imprisonment, brutal violence, and excruciating execution to show the world what love looks like when it pours itself out completely for others.
This is the Jesus that first spoke to me and inspired me and gripped my spirit, and the one that still compels me today even as I struggle to find my place in the faith tradition of my childhood.”
Sara Miles says, “Jesus has given us all the power to be Jesus.” (Jesus Freak, p. xi) She talks about our tendency to think of Jesus as far, far away and says, “with Jesus safely tucked away in heaven, we’re off the hook.” Then Sara warns, “But he’s still breathing in us.” (p. xviii)
As I think about this, it seems that the questions “who is Jesus to you?” and “who are you?” could be asked in tandem with the intention of taking us farther down this path we call faith. These two questions invite us more deeply to consider what who we are as people of faith. People tend to talk about what they believe about Jesus. The irony in that for me is that Jesus didn’t go around telling people to believe things. He clearly called them to do things. He called us to action. If I am perfectly honest, I have to say that Jesus makes me uncomfortable. If I am following him, I know that means I need to act in a way that reflects him. Jesus was edgy. He didn’t sit in the comfortable chairs; he walked among people. He was more concerned about eating with people than whether they washed their hands before they ate. While we have only bits and pieces from his life, we witness some threads that we can continue in our own identity as Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t accept people using God as an excuse to judge or hurt others. He wasn’t afraid to confront abuse of power or inappropriate behavior. He noticed and cared for the ones that we tend to miss. He said if we love him, we will feed one another. He said we must forgive each other. When he called disciples to follow him, he didn’t give them a job description initially, he asked them to spend time with him. He wanted a real relationship with his followers and he wanted us to have real relationships with each other.
Today, we begin a new program year at the church. There are numerous opportunities for us to grow in relationship with Jesus and each other. We grow in our understanding of who Jesus is as we spend time with him. As we invest our lives in one another and in this world around us, we grow as followers of Jesus. Then people will look our way and see Jesus reflected in us.