Monday, September 17, 2012

"Who do you say that I am?"

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Emily Garcia on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Near the beginning of an Episcopal service, four pieces of the Bible are read aloud. In this case, the readings were: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38.

There’s a lot of speech in our readings today—a lot of spoken words, mostly between God and an individual. In Isaiah, God speaks to the prophet: “Morning by morning” he “wakens” Isaiah’s ear, to listen as those who are taught. Because of this, Isaiah knows “how to sustain/the weary with a word,” and is able to “set his face like flint” and not respond to those who humiliate him. His identity is in God’s words.

The Psalmist, though, finds his identity in the fact that God has heard his words: “I love the LORD because he has heard the voice of my supplication.” God hears and responds by helping the Psalmist, rescuing his feet from stumbling. Because God has heard him, the Psalmist can say confidently that he will walk in the presence of the Lord.

In James the focus is all on speech, but I think the crux of it comes when he says, “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” The problem here is the hypocrisy of a Christian who uses words to establish a relationship with God, and then denies that very relationship in their words to other people.

I think “relationship” is the key word here. All of these readings are about the process of figuring out and building a relationship through speech.

In our reading from Mark, this process reaches a dramatic peak. Walking along with his disciples, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” He seems at first to just be gathering information, and they give him a survey of responses. Jesus then narrows the question; and here I imagine he’s stopped walking, and is standing in the dust, looking directly into the faces of his disciples. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The “you” is plural—he’s asking, “you all,” “each of you,” “Who do you say that I am?”

Only Peter responds, saying, “You are the Messiah.”

For us, this might not seem like so great a step. But remember, we have at our disposal all of the Gospels. For Peter and the disciples, this sudden statement moves the disciples’ attention from “human things” to “divine things.” It’s as if we’ve been watching a film of people walking, and the camera suddenly pans out to show us the entire landscape, fraught with forces previously unseen. “You are the Messiah.”

In asking his question, I don’t think Christ was looking to be affirmed, or to be crowned. I think he was helping Peter and the disciples figure out their relationship through speech and words. It was an invitation, an invitation to realize something true, and to come closer. I think it’s similar to how when I loved one says “I love you”, it invites us to respond with our own expression of love.

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus. “You are the Messiah,” says Peter.
But when Christ then shows what these “divine things” will mean in stark human terms, Peter tells Christ to stop talking. He rebukes him! Peter knew the truth. He knew that Jesus was the Messiah, but—he did not know what this meant. He did not know what this would look like—for Jesus, or for himself, or his friends who followed Jesus.

Jesus picks up his first question again—“Who do you say that I am?”—and unfolds it into an invitation open to anyone : If he is the Messiah, then one should follow him, and to follow him means to deny oneself and to take up one’s cross, and in giving up our lives, we get our lives and our selves back, and we get them back more whole and more free than before.

Now, this doesn’t exactly solve Peter’s problem! He still doesn’t want Christ to suffer, he still doesn’t want him to die! He still doesn’t like the future Christ has laid out. Throughout the rest of the story, in fact, Peter will continue to resist and fumble and react to the ramifications of his confession.

However, even in this, Peter’s understanding of who Christ is guides his actions and reactions—even when he doesn’t know what’s happening. Jesus is his teacher and the Messiah, and this makes Peter devoted and loyal, a passionate partisan. Even though Peter doesn’t like what’s coming—even though he is confused by the future Jesus describes—he is pulled along by his relationship with Jesus, and by who Jesus was and is to him.

“Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response seems to come straight from his heart—it leaps out—I imagine that when he said it, he even startled himself a little. When Christ asks him that question, we the readers are included in Christ’s direct and perhaps unsettling gaze. He is asking us, “Who do you say that I am?” But we are not physically standing in the dusty road with him; we are not physically drawn along with him. So what is it like for us to answer his question?

True, we have the Gospels at our disposal—not to mention the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Eucharistic Prayers, the articles of religion, and the catechism, all found in that red Book of Common Prayer at your knees. We have also centuries of art—songs, paintings, stained glass, icons, poems, hymns—showing us how people respond to Christ’s question. But when Christ asks us—each of us—you and me—he wants to know what we say. He wants to know what answer our hearts leap to.

I’ve been asking myself, Who do I say that Jesus is? My thoughts and feelings have changed so much over the years, but now, I think I would echo the words of our Gospel hymn, and say that he is my resting place. And I would take the words of a favorite childhood hymn: Oh what a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. And I would take the words of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. This, now, is who I say Jesus is.

And now I find myself in Peter’s place, because even if I can say this, I don’t always know what this means in human terms. I can say with words, “You are my Lord. You are my friend,” but I don’t know what reply my life will give. I don’t know what’s happening tomorrow, I don’t know what’s happening next year—I don’t know exactly what my life will say to answer this question.

But this is fine. Because, like Peter, I can hope that my understanding of who Christ is will be strong enough to guide my actions, even as I am baffled and bewildered by my own life.

And since I am stubborn, and would rebuke even God if I have my mind set on what I think should happen—in the coming week, I need to pay special attention to today’s Collect: “O God, without you we are unable to please you. Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

In Isaiah, God speaks to the prophet in early morning whispers. In the Psalm, God speaks with divine intervention. In the Gospel, God speaks directly to people, from a person fully divine and fully human.

We may not have the embodied Christ among us, but we are not left alone. We have Christ in our churches and friends, and Christ in our hearts, and Christ in the bread and wine we are about to share. And I trust that in these things, Christ is present, asking and answering questions, drawing us along with him.

Light of the World, by William Holman Hunt

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