Oh boy. This is one of those Scripture texts I was thinking of a few weeks ago, when I talked about how my job as a preacher is to stand up here and say things that might make you uncomfortable, or might offend you.
“Who do you say that I am?,” Jesus asks. “Deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus intones. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
This is a demanding text. There is no getting around that. We have the freedom to answer Jesus’ question, and to respond to Jesus’ invitation any way we want to—just as the disciples and Peter did. There is no coercion here. There is a question and an invitation, not a declaration and a command. But the question and the invitation are so clarifying. Like a bright light shone upon us, they require us to declare ourselves.
Who do you say that I am? Who do we believe Jesus is? I’ve come to believe that this is a crucial question for us to answer in the United Church of Canada, and here at Trinity. Because who we believe Jesus is informs what we’re about as a community. It gives shape to our purpose, it sustains our mission, it provides the content for our evangelism.
Okay, I’ll pause there: I’ve challenged your beliefs, and used the words mission and evangelism in the same sentence. That’s a lot to take in for us as liberal Christians!
So who do we say that Jesus is? Well, for the first several decades of the United Church’s history, the Apostles’ Creed was a regular part of the liturgy. And this is what we said about Jesus:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Then, beginning in 1968, A New Creed began to be used in our services. And here is what A New Creed says about Jesus:
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new…
We are called to be the Church:…
…to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
Then, almost 20 years ago, in 1997, the Very Rev. Bill Phipps, 36th Moderator of the United Church, gave an interview to the Ottawa Citizen in which he expressed doubts about the resurrection and stated, “I don’t believe Jesus was God.”
In speaking with you, I think it’s fair to say that we have in our fellowship here people who can affirm the Apostles Creed, people who are more comfortable with the language of A New Creed, and those who would consider themselves fellow travelers with Bill Phipps.
As individuals, we are free to answer this question however we want to answer it. Jesus gives us that freedom. In response to his first question, Who do people say that I am?, the disciples offer a variety of responses as to how Jesus is seen by his contemporaries: some see him as John the Baptist reincarnated, some as the ancient prophet Elijah returned, and others see him as one of the prophets.
The variety of understandings of Jesus in his own time get taken up by the early church, which continued to wrestle over its understanding of Jesus’ identity. Eventually, over a few centuries, the church defines Jesus’ identity more specifically, in the form of creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.
But the conversation about over Jesus’ identity continues across the centuries. And, down to today, arguments can be made, based on Scripture and based on Church history and tradition, that allow for a wide spectrum of responses to this question, Who do you say that I am? Many Christologies—ways of understanding who Jesus is—are possible. So there is this freedom in how we answer the question.
My guess is that today, it’s become more common for United Church people to believe that Jesus was what we call a moral exemplar; a really admirable human being who exemplifies the best of what human beings can be. We sometimes set Jesus alongside Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But what I want to say today is that how we answer this question has consequences: for how we live as Christians, for what we do as church, for what we believe about the world, about history, about the future. And it was always so.
Right after Jesus asks the disciples, Who do you say that I am?, and Peter answers, You are the Messiah, Jesus begins to spell out for them the implications of that description. And it is not at all what they expect.
This is where we need to know a little history: the consensus amongst scholars is that when Peter or the other people around Jesus use the term “messiah,” they are thinking in terms of a heroic leader.
Someone who will march at the head of a victorious army, changing the world for the better: lifting up the poor, and freeing the captives, mending what is broken, ushering in an era of freedom, and equality, and abundant life for everyone!
If that’s what the title messiah means, it’s an easy title to get behind; the disciples want to be part of that. And it’s an easy title for us to get behind: that social and political and economic vision is an attractive one for us in the liberal, Social Gospel tradition. It’s the future we dream of.
But that’s not what Jesus says messiah means. For Jesus, the title messiah draws on another thread of Jewish tradition. It’s the tradition of the suffering servant from Isaiah. The messiah is one who must undergo great suffering, and rejection, and be killed, and will rise again from death.
The way of the messiah is not a victory march; it’s the way of dying and rising. It’s one thing to think of Jesus as a moral exemplar, as a really fine and inspirational human being, but Jesus seems to be pushing beyond that here.
Do you feel that? Peter sure did. He immediately gets where Jesus is going, and doesn’t want to go there. He wants Jesus to be a moral exemplar, a political hero. Someone who will be able to shift the world’s politics just enough, so that those who were on the bottom get to be on top, so that the world is just a bit more fair, more just.
Kind of like what we hope Jesus will do for us, and for our world. We want Jesus to make us nicer people. We want Jesus to teach our children good habits. We want Jesus to inspire us to support social justice initiatives.
And you know, having Jesus as our role model, our good example, will do that for us.
But Jesus wants to do so much more for us.
Jesus doesn’t want to just make the world a little less awful, or to just clean up our bad habits, and get us to swear a little less. Jesus invites us to die to all that is wrong in our lives and in our world, and to be born anew. Jesus invites us to surrender the whole of our lives, and to receive fullness of life in return.
That’s what it means to follow Jesus. It’s costly: it will cost your whole life. Or what you think is your life. But it’s only when we let go of what we’re so determined to cling to, that we’re freed up to receive the life God intends for us.
So, to review: notice the movement in this text. At the beginning there’s freedom: you can believe what you want about Jesus. And then, in the second part, Jesus confounds our expectations: you think this is what Jesus is all about, well, Jesus is about a whole lot more than that. Jesus has something to say about our opinions of him. And finally, if you want to follow Jesus, it’s costly. It’s still optional—you don’t have to follow Jesus—but if you want to, this is what it looks like.
I said that this text, and its question, Who do you say that I am?, matters for us. It matters for understanding what we’re about as a church; it matters for our understanding of our purpose and our mission; it matters for our evangelism.
I want to say two things about that.
The first is that there is research coming out of the U.S. that says that some of the reason churches like ours have lost their appeal—why there are growing numbers of people who have no religious affiliation, or who are ‘done’ with church—is because we’ve set our sights too low. We’ve lost some of the radicality of following Jesus. We’ve reduced what we allow Jesus to be and to do in our lives to something so much less than it could be. And so what we have to offer has become less compelling.
The second thing I want to share is a question someone asked me recently. This person pointed out that the United Church of Canada has taken stances on political issues that are particularly appealing to younger generations: same-sex marriage, right relations with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers, care for the earth.
And then the question was, So why aren’t these young people flooding in to our church? My response was that those young people don’t need to come to church to find people who share those values. They have other places, other communities, where they can find that.
I added that we need to think about what we have to offer here that people can’t get in other places. What we have to offer is Jesus; the Gospel; a theological perspective on all those important issues. You see, we’ve become so preoccupied with offering political and social and economic analysis that we’ve forgotten what our real expertise is. We’re a community that is trying to know God, and to love like Jesus, and to travel the path of dying to what is wrong, and being reborn to right living.
I said at the beginning that this is a demanding text, and this is a challenging topic. In our tradition, we value openness and questioning and the freedom to think about Jesus in a variety of different ways. And I respect the fact that we need to continue to do that.
But we also have to make room for Jesus here among us. Room for Jesus to speak to us, to shape us; to challenge us, and to change us. We need to tune our ears to hear his call. We need to tune our hearts to support and encourage one another, to find the courage to respond to Jesus’ call. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2015. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.