"Who do YOU say that I am?"
19B 2003 (September 14) Mark 8:27-38
Elie Wiesel, in his work, The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966) relates a wonderful Hasidic
tale that serves as an apt prelude to todays Gospel reading.
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune
threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire,
say a special prayer, and then the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple,
the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he would go into the forest and
say: "Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer." And again
the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more,
would go into the forest and say: "I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and
this must be sufficient." And it was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of
Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: "I am unable to light the
fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and it must
be sufficient." And it was sufficient. (1)
Tell the story. Thats what Christians are called to do. To tell the story
of who Jesus is. Every day of our lives Jesus asks, Who do people say that I am. And, of course, the answer we give to that
question can depend in large part on who we say that he is, by our witness and by our lives.
It really is interesting
that the infamous Jesus Seminar, in the current quest for the historical Jesus, can't come up with answers that are significantly
different in tone and tenor than the answers Saint Mark records the disciples giving that day on the dusty roads connecting
the villages of Caesarea Philippi. They use more up to date language in addition to prophet: zealot, radical social reformer,
visionary, sage, holy man. And they are convinced, by collegial vote, that Jesus did NOT ask the most important question,
"And you: who do YOU say that I am?" I think that they may well be afraid that Jesus really was who he said he was.
famous existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, called the response of Saint Peter the true beginnings of Christianity: Peter,
who alone believes, somewhat dimly, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah. (2)
But we know the end of the story.
We know that it did NOT end on a shameful death on a bloody Cross on a hill near Jerusalem called Golgotha. We can tell the
story that it did NOT end in a tomb in a garden. We can tell the story that Jesus was and is more than sage, more than prophet,
more than just a teacher or rabbi. More than just a healer. Jesus was all of these things and much much more. In Saint Matthew's
Gospel Peter gets it more nearly right: "You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Probably as close as
Peter could come at that point Peter didn't know the end of the story yet.
We can tell the story in our words and
by our witness and lives. And pray that it is sufficient.
But how do we hear the story? How do we receive and perceive
who Jesus really is? The danger, of course, is putting the divine Jesus, Son of God, in a very human box where he'll be safe
or rather, where we'll be safe from him. Or answer his question of "Who do you say that I am?" by using our own human images.
Sister Rachael Hosmer, of the Order of the Holy Cross, was teaching at The General Seminary in New York. One night
she had a dream about ordering from the Sears Catalogue. Only this was no ordinary catalogue. In it, she could order the Jesus
of her choice.
The dream flowed on: there was Jesus as a seminary professor, with pipe and tweed jacket.
was Jesus the farmer, with calluses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails.
There was a suburban, churchgoing
Jesus in a suit and tie.
There was an Hispanic Jesus, and an African-American Jesus. There was a feminist Jesus, who
enabled bent women to stand up.
In her dream, Sr. Rachael chose one and ordered that Jesus. She received a Jesus,
but it was different from the one she had ordered. She ordered another Jesus, and again she got a Jesus different from the
one she had chosen. This happened again and again.
Every time she received a Jesus who differed from the one she had
ordered. And every time, it really was Jesus whom she was given.
The message of her dream became clear to her the
next day. If she started where she was, with what she really longed for, Jesus would come into her life. And he was always
different from her expectations, always wonderfully surprising. As the Voice from the Burning Bush told Moses, Jesus in her
dream would be who he would be. (3)
One of the hardest questions in the story comes next. Jesus asks: "What will it
profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?" (Mk. 8:36-37).
In other words, how do we do and live the story? James Emery White, in Rethinking the Church, tells this story with
some following observations.
You might remember comedian Yakov Smirnoff. When he first came to the United States from
Russia he was not prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, "On
my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk--you just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice--you just
add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to my self, What a country!"
was joking but we often make the assumption about Christian Transformation that people change instantly at salvation. Some
traditions call it repentance and renewal. Some call it sanctification of the believer. Whatever you call it most traditions
expect some quick fix to sin. According to this belief, when someone gives his or her life to Christ, there is an immediate,
substantive, in-depth, miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character. We go to church as if we are going to the grocery
store: Powdered Christian. Just add water and disciples are born not made.
Unfortunately, there is no such powder
and disciples of Jesus Christ are not instantly born. They are slowly raised through many trials, suffering, and temptations.
A study has found that only 11 percent of churchgoing teenagers have a well-developed faith, rising to only 32 percent for
churchgoing adults. Why? Because true life change only begins at salvation, takes more than just time, is about training,
trying, suffering, and even dying. (4) And telling the story. Hearing the story. Doing and living the story. Over and over
Who do you say that I am? This is the question that confronts us today and every day of our lives. Wherever
we turn in life we are faced with this question and the implications of it in our lives and practice of faith.
Reverend Brett Blair noted in 1999 how throughout the ages various individuals have attempted to answer that question posed
by Jesus. Ernest Renan, a French writer, answered it by saying that Jesus was a sentimental idealist. Bruce Barton, an American
businessman, said that who Jesus was the greatest salesman who ever lived. William Hirsch, a Jewish writer, responded that
Jesus conformed to the clinical picture of paranoia. A musical drama was performed some years ago that answered this question
by featuring Jesus as Jesus Christ Superstar. I took the Youth Group of St John's Cornwall to see it on Broadway. Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, the martyred German theologian, referred to Jesus as the "man for others."
The Gospel writers also attempted
in their own fashion to answer this most fundamental question. They bestowed upon him numerous titles and claims: Son of God,
Son of man, Divine physician, king, prophet, bridegroom, light of the world, the door, the vine, high priest, the firstborn
of creation, the bright and morning star, and Alpha and Omega.
All of these were attempts to answer this question
posed by Jesus. But these are attempts made by others. Jesus is more concerned with what your answer is than what their answer
is. Martin Luther, another German theologian, wrote: "I care not whether he be Christ, but that he be Christ for you." (5)
C.S. Lewis, in his book "Mere Christianity," among many things he said about Jesus, said this about our Lord: "A man
who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic
on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either
this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his
feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He
has not left that open to us." (6)
Of the historical Jesus Albert Schweitzer writes, "He comes to us as One unknown,
without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow
me!" and sets us to tasks, which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise
or simple, he will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts and the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship,
and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is." (7)
Tell the story. Hear the story.
Do and live the story. And keep on telling, hearing, and doing and living the story.
1. Elie Wiesel,
The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966), quoted in Synthesis for 14 September 2003
quoted in Ibid.
3. Sister Hosmer story in Ibid.
4. Smirnoff story and observations from a sermon by Brett Blair, Why
must we carry a cross, eSermons.com, as adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Baker, 1997, p. 55-57.
Brett Blair, www.esermons.com, 1999
6. CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, quoted by Brett Blair in a sermon entitled Jesus:
Liar, Lunatic, Legend, or Lord, christianglobe.com.
7. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (New York:
MacMillan, 1945), p 403