by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
First, let me thank you for all your prayers and good wishes, flowers, cards and healthy cooking that sustained me in my recovery. It has now been 5 1/2 weeks since my surgery and I am feeling better everyday, working to get my stamina back to 100%. Thanks to all who filled in, stepped up, kept us moving forward.
As I return from medical leave, I can’t help but feel like our community is incomplete without Pastor Jim being among us. Like we are little less “us” because he is not here. But – at times this this – when one of our family is in crisis and missing from our warm embrace, it is good to remember that we are all connected – no matter whether we are physically together or not. I certainly felt that as I recovered, as you gathered week without me, I could feel your prayers and well wishes; i could feel you willing me to take care of myself so I could be back with you. I am also certain Pastor Jim feels that, too.
As we open ourselves to the scripture text today, it addresses this question – question of identity, or community, of duty and responsibility. “Who am I?” Jesus asks us. and furthermore, he asks us, “Who do YOU say that I am?” and then gives us instructions.
These questions of identity are important because they help us focus on our purpose, on our uniqueness and on our community with our brothers and sisters. But they also change over time. … As I mentioned to the children, when I was child, I had different interests, different activities, different priorities. But I am still the same person I was – the same ME.
To begin, let us just brainstorm some of the things that make us who we are.
Please introduce yourself to your neighbor (someone you don’t know) –Something like this: “Hello, I am Krista….” And then tell a little something about yourself. (What information was shared? How do we identify ourselves?)
Here are some of the descriptors we use:
Occupation, relationship status, family, birthplace
In all of our introductions of ourselves, we identify ourselves in relation to others – Iam a parent because I have a child; I am a spouse to another; I am a long-time member of this church and these people have known me a long time. It’s all about relationship. So Jesus is asking his followers, “Who am I?”
Now, before we get to the actual text, we must understand the setting: “This questioning takes place in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. According to Harper’s Bible Dictionary, this city was known… as a shrine of the Greek and Roman nature god, Pan.” (1) and it had a name honoring a human – Caesar! SO, this question, does not happen in a holy site, not in a church or a synagogue, not in a Bible Study or in a confession, but out in the world – amid the challenges of pagan Gods and human rulers.
The questioning about Jesus takes place not in the synagogue (or a church), but out in the world, precisely in a place dedicated to a pagan god, with a name honoring the human Caesar (who was often presented as divine).
Author Brian Stoffregen asks, “Where does our real confession take place? Certainly our confessions and statements about our faith in church are real — but, I think that it goes to a different level when we proclaim our faith in Jesus in the midst of all the other forces seeking our allegiance.”(2) Our identity as a follower of Christ is much easier to proclaim and to demonstrate within these four walls, but who are we when we are in the world?
Mark 8:27 – 29:
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
The first question sounds like an impersonal question, “Who are the people saying that I is?” What are people saying about me? Give me the rumors and the gossip. And the following answers are given:
- John the Baptist: Some scholars believe Jesus was an early follower of John’s, but branched off at some point, drawing some supporters away from John. When John was killed, Jesus made a bid for the support of John’s now-leaderless supporters, and largely succeeded. Some of John’s supporters continued in John’s name. To this day, there is a group called the Mandeans, located now in southern Iraq, who trace their “religious lineage” to John the Baptist.
- Elijah: Elijah was the classic prophet, and, like Jesus, was from northern Israel. Elijah is also an eschatological figure, predicted to come at the end of times. In fact, the very last two verses of the Old Testament, Malachi 4: 5-6, say: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
- “One of the Prophets” In Matthew, this says “Jeremiah”: Matthew adds “Jeremiah, the suffering prophet” to the list (Jeremiah is not mentioned in Mark or Luke.) Jeremiah and Jesus both opposed the religious and political establishment of their day, and both suffered for it. (3)
The second question is personal with “you” emphasized. Jesus asks, “You, who are you saying that I am?” This “you” is a plural “you”, meaning Jesus was not only asking Peter for his answer, but he was asking the whole community. “Who do you all say that I am?”
This is a question as vital for us today as it was to the disciples in the time of Jesus. Who do we understand Jesus to be? Peter understood him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. What is our answer, as we stand in the marketplace – out in the world – who do we “say” that Jesus is?
Now, many of you will feel uncomfortable thinking of proclaiming Jesus in the public square, with images of street corner preachers and people shouting “Repent! for the end is near!” That’s not necessarily what I am suggesting.
Because Jesus doesn’t just ask us believe and confess… he requires action. It is not enough for us to proclaim Jesus with our words, we must proclaim him with our lives. In verse 31 he tells them how:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“Don’t let your lips and your lives preach two different messages.” It’s another version of “practice what your preach” or “Faith without works is dead”.
In the middle of the public square, Jesus asks “Who am I?” and when we answer – “Jesus, you are Lord, Savior, teacher, comforter, rabbi, Son of God, Messiah.”
He responds, “Okay, then prove it.”
You see, it’s a trick question! He doesn’t want to just HEAR our answer, he wants to see it in our actions. He wants to experience it in our lives. “Who I am and who are you, in relationship to me?”
In this way, I think he is trying to move the crowd from following him into discipleship, with an eye on what is to come… For example, we answer the question “Who am I” with answers like wife, mother, brother, teacher… but what happens when that “other” is absent. What happens to the teacher when she retires? The pastor when she is on medical leave? The mother whose child is killed? The child who is slowly using a parent to dementia?The spouse whose partner has passed on? Have you stoped being a wife, because your mate has passed on?
No. You have a different relationship, but you don’t stop being a CHILD, PARENT, SPOUSE, SIBLING – those relationships make us who we are. Those people remain with you, and you will always be connected; you just move into a different phase of the relationship.
When I was sitting in the ER with Pastor Jim last week, and he was bruised and in pain from his injuries he told me he saw a lady in a bed down the way who looked so much like Arlene, that for a moment he thought it was Arlene! We agreed that Arlene was still with him and looking over him at this time. Just because Arlene isn’t physically with us, Jim has not stopped being her husband.
In a similar way, Jesus is trying to prepare his followers for a time in which he is not present with them. “Who I am and who are you, in relationship to me?” he asks and implied is the question… “Will you give up this movement, these beliefs, this identity once I am gone?” In this way he is trying to move them from Followers to disciples. Disciples continue the work, even when the going gets rough. Disciples continue preaching the Good News, even when the world is dark and there is only bad news in sight. Disciples continue the relationship, even when our leader is not physically with us.
“Don’t let your lips and your lives preach two different messages.” May we continue to follow int he footsteps of Jesus, to be kind, loving and compassionate as reencounter the world. Amen.
- Brian Stoffregen, found on http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark8x27.htm, Sept. 15, 2018.
- John Petty, Progressive Involvement, found on http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2011/08/lectionary-blogging-matthew-16-13-20.html