Who is Jesus?

Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus? Some think he is Elijah. Some think he is John the Baptist. Some think he is one of the prophets. He asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, presumably for all of them, “The Messiah.” The Messiah was the promised one of God sent to deliver God’s people.  A Messiah delivers, rescues, liberates, saves. Evidently, Peter has answered correctly because Jesus does not offer an alternative answer. He merely instructs the disciples to keep it to themselves.

Jesus begins to share with his disciples about the suffering and death that he will endure. When he is finished Peter takes him aside in an effort to correct Jesus. Jesus, response is classic, “Satan, get behind me.” I imagine that remark left Peter feeling hurt and confused. He was only trying to protect Jesus, keep him safe. Perhaps without even realizing it, Peter was urging Jesus to be someone or something that he was not. Jesus would have none of it. Get behind me, Satan.

What Jesus had to say to the crowd that was gathered with the disciples, probably did not help Peter feel any better about the topic. Deny self, take up your cross and follow me. Not our burden, not your weak spot, not your insecurities, but your instrument of death. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. However, if you lose it for my sake, you will save it. What good does it do anyone to gain the whole world and lose their life?

Scholars traditionally date the writing of Mark’s between 60 and 70 CE. The sixties were turbulent times in Jerusalem. The Jews were revolting against Roman occupation. The Romans struggled mightily to put down the rebellion and ultimately destroyed the Temple at the end of the decade. The last of the revolt was squashed at Masada in 73.

In the midst of all that chaos, confusion and uncertainty, Mark’s Gospel speaks to a group of people who have had the Jesus experience. They have heard his teachings. Some of them may have witnessed a healing or watched Jesus break bread and feed thousands. They know he talked about God’s kingdom being near, but where is it. How do we get there? How do we get anywhere that is not here?

Early in the life of the church, before it knew it was church, there is this confessional moment. Who are we? What do we do? Crisis without, crisis within. Our lesson this morning, offers one question to guide these folks through the sixties, “Who do you say that I am?  For a group gathered by and because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the identity of the group hinges on who they know Jesus to be.

John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. No, those folks did good work, but Jesus is something different from what they were. Messiah, the one sent by God to deliver us. Few people needed deliverance like the Jews of first century Palestine. Roman soldiers were everywhere and wherever there are Roman soldiers, Roman taxes can’t be far behind. With their social, economic and political systems disintegrating, they needed a Messiah now more than ever. Thanks, in part to the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus has broadened the scope of his Messianic mission. The church will wrestle with that question later.

But first, the question of Jesus.  When John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one they had been waiting for or should they look for another. Jesus replied, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” When Jesus is asked to verify whether or not he is the one, he points to people who have been Messiahed, delivered, liberated, and saved.

Great, the Jesus question is answered, at least until we get to the next paragraph.

Jesus understands that the only people who care about the poor hearing good news, lepers being cleansed and the lame walking are the poor, the lepers and the lame. He knows that any serious attempt to deliver them, liberate them, save them, be Messiah to them will be met with opposition, serious opposition, even deadly opposition. He wants his disciples to know what is ahead of them.

Peter does not want to hear it. In fact, he is so disturbed he confronts Jesus. “Look, Jesus, I know you are the Messiah. I just said so out in front of you and everybody, but could you please be the sort of Messiah that does not get himself killed. That seems like a reasonable and thoughtful request on Peter’s part, but Jesus reply indicates there is something sinister in it. Peter wants Jesus to be the Messiah that he needs. Jesus insists on being the Messiah that he was born to be and that whole of creation needs for him to be.

Peter teaches the world a lesson. If you are uncomfortable with Jesus, if you want him to spend a little less time with the poor, the sick and the destitute and more time with the better off, healthy folks who are going places, don’t ask him to change. You change him. You make the modifications. You make the messiah you need. The lesson of Peter’s attempt to rebuke Jesus will go mostly unnoticed until Constantine’s baptism in 337. Then Christianity will become the religion of the Roman Empire and a Messiah who spends all of his time delivering the poor, the lame and the outcast will not do.  Eventually, Jesus will lose his olive skin and dark hair, in favor of something a fairer and more blonde. The changes will not just be cosmetic. Jesus will be used to justify everything from putting down peasant uprisings to launching crusades. To keep his teachings pure, inquisitions will torture and torment the poor and burn women suspected of witchcraft.

Until finally, swastikas ringed the altar of Magdeburg Cathedral. It was 1933 and Adolf Hitler had just come to power. The dean explained from the pulpit: “In short, it has come to be the symbol of German hope. Whoever reviles this symbol of ours is reviling our Germany. The swastika flags around the altar radiate hope — hope that the day is at last about to dawn.” Paul Althaus, a notable German theologian, hailed the rise: “Our Protestant churches have greeted the German turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God.”

The national church of Germany professed, “As Christians we honor with thanks toward God … every authority … as a tool of divine preservation … In this knowledge we as believing Christians thank God that he has given to our people in its time of need the fuhrer as a ‘pious and faithful leader’ and the National Socialist political system as ‘good government,’ a government with ‘decency and honor.'”

With decency and honor and the good feeling that comes from knowing you are doing what God wants you to do, the Holocaust happened. Men to one camp, Women to another, Families torn apart.

In our own country, we fashioned a Messiah that was suitable for worship on Sunday mornings, but who did not raise much of fuss about slave children being sold away from their parents or husbands being sold away from their wives. Some preachers insisted that it was what God wanted. Which was good because slavery and the sale of slaves was good for the economy. Of course, a strong economy was good for the country.

After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 authorizing the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Sometimes families were kept together, sometimes not. Either way, lives were traumatically disrupted to the extent that some would never recover and few could ever forget.  The Jesus that was being worshipped in American churches at the time hardly noticed. Which is just as well because many of the people advising the president said it was a necessary thing to do for our national security.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s the U.S. forcibly removed Native American children from their homes and placed them in government boarding schools. They were stripped of their names, language, cultural beliefs and customs, and they were punished severely for any infractions. They also were trained to create crafts to be sold for profit for the schools. Ironically, conversion to Christianity was cited as a principal goal. Not until 1978 did the Indian Child Welfare Act give Native American parents the legal right to refuse the placement of their children in off-reservation schools. If we can’t kill them all, then let’s make them Christians. Converting them to Christianity was about assimilating them into white culture than it was about their religious or spiritual well-being. White American churches had a messiah ready to bless either option.

Now in 2018, the U.S. government is again imposing a policy of forced separation on families of color. This time the victims are refugees from Central America who are seeking asylum in the U.S. More than 600 unreturned children are still suffering, after many months of separation, and some, we now learn, may never be reunited with their parents. Private persons and corporations are profiting from building and running some of the compounds, and once again “national security” is touted as the justification for these inhumane abuses. This policy is also being support by many pastors of churches who worship the guy Peter tried to rebuke in our text this morning. One said, “Jesus was not this wimpy little guy who walked around munching sunflower seeds … The real Jesus of the Bible said: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ That is — obey the government.” See what he did there? Your government and your God want families to be separated at our borders.

Nazi Germany, Japanese internment camps, Native American boarding schools, African-American slave auctions, and Asylum seekers separated from their children.  Do any of those things look like “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them?” Does any of that look like Jesus? Yet, in each case, a substantial portion of the so-called Christian population had or has little problem reconciling their love of Jesus with those actions. How is that? Who did they say that Jesus was?

Who do you say that Jesus is? It is an important question for us to ask as we seek to follow him. History and the evening news demonstrate for us how easy it is to arrive at an answer that alleviates us from moral accountability, insulates us from concern for those who are different and isolates us from the larger human community. Whatever words you use to answer the question are not as important as the direction your answer takes you. If you notice your life moving toward the sort of people that sought out Jesus, you are likely headed in the right direction.

Who do you say that Jesus is? It is a critical question. It is critical to the care and nurture of our own souls. What we think about Jesus and how seriously we take his own understanding of his messianic mission will shape us spiritually and morally. What we think of Jesus has a lot to do with the sort of people we are becoming. It is also a critical question with regards to the safety and well-being of our neighbors who are different from us racially and ethnically. Will our understanding of Jesus as messiah enable us to support separating families at our border the way it enable previous generations of white Christians in this country to tolerate separating families of color by way of slave auctions. Or will our understanding of Messiah Jesus cause us to find some way to carry good news to the poor?

Who do you say that Jesus is?