Who Do You Say?
The summer after I graduated from York Suburban High School before my friends and I went off to college, we gathered almost weekly to go down to where Otter Creek runs into the Susquehanna. On the river there was a big rock that had to be thirty feet above the water. One day John decided he would jump off that rock and into the river. When he popped up, he shouted, “Greg, c’mon in, the water’s fine.” Well, I looked down from the top of that rock that had to be fifty feet above the water and I decided I didn’t want to c’mon in. So, John shouted again in front of Barb and Sandy and Alice, “C’mon Greg, I double dog dare you.” What was I going to do? John had double dog dared me in front of Barb and Sandy and Alice, so I decided that even though this rock was a hundred feet above the water I had to make a leap of faith and jump in. So, I did.
I went back last summer to reminisce and the rock I had jumped off somehow shrunk over the years – maybe only twenty feet high. It wasn’t as big as I remembered, but it was surrounded by signs that said, “No jumping off the rock.” I wish those signs had been there back then.
Today’s scripture lesson is all about diving in the deep end, making a leap of faith. It is about coming down off the fence on one side or the other because sometimes sitting on the fence becomes so uncomfortable, so full of splinters, you have to make a choice. There comes a time when questions of faith demand an answer. There comes a time when the period of exploration must be fulfilled. There comes a time when you must say “Yes” or “No”.
For Jesus’ disciples this was the time. Their response mimics our own. We can learn much about our own journey of faith by following theirs. Before we unfold our spiritual maps, let us pray:
Lord, we make a dozen decisions everyday of our lives; from the time we get up and choose breakfast to the route we take to work. Other decisions are not so trivial. Sometimes our integrity is challenged where we work; sometimes we face difficult moral decisions. Each choice we make is a reflection of deeper beliefs and values. So, the most important question we face is what we will do with Jesus?
Help us Lord, to find the answer to that question; and in finding an answer, find a way of life. Amen.
We’re at the half-way point in the gospel of Mark; and now the narrative takes a dramatic turn. Up until this point the disciples have just been students in Jesus’ school. They came to class every day. They took notes. They had seen him heal the blind and the broken. They had heard his preaching before the crowds and listened to his teaching around the campfire at night.
Now it was time for mid-terms. Now it was time to find out if they had learned anything at all. The text begins with an almost casual question, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27) Now, there was nothing these pupils enjoyed more than a good theological discussion. In fact it was almost a national past-time for people of the mid-east. It was then; it is today. They love to talk about God to make the evening pass.
So, everyone jumped in. “Some say, `John the Baptist’, others say Elijah; and others one of the prophets, (Jeremiah, or Isaiah or Ezekiel).” (8:28) All of these answers were safe, and they were safe for three reasons: First, everyone mentioned was dead; so they could not challenge the notion that Jesus was somehow a prophet re-incarnated. Second, they were all respected. People always think well of “dead” prophets. They may not be crazy about them when they are alive but they are revered when they’re gone. Third, they were just reciting other people’s answers. If the answer turned out to be wrong, they could just say it was them – not me.
Jesus then asked, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:28)
Sooner or later everyone bumps into the question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?” Was he just a nice guy or a good teacher? Are we to look at him as an example or illustration of what a moral life looks like? Or, was he a prophet or preacher whose mission was simply to point people toward God, to act as kind of a spiritual traffic cop? Or, did he do more than simply point to God? Was he in fact a flesh and blood incarnation of God?
These are the choices we have. They are the same choices Peter faced, when he and the rest of Jesus’ disciples gathered around a campfire and Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
This question moved from the head to the heart; from curiosity to commitment. This was the “dive in the deep end” “put it all on one roll”, “fish or cut bait”, “get off the fence” question. And the disciples knew it. Only nobody really had the courage to answer this question before. Everyone was holding their cards close to the chest, and squinting out of the corner of the eye to see who would be the first to put their chips on the table. No one wanted to be the first to place their bet, because the stakes were incredibly high; they were in fact a matter of life and death. For all the flowery words of faith, no one was yet sure that Jesus was the “real deal”. No one was yet willing to put his life on the line, and say out loud what most were thinking.
In this strained silence they were like students who look down at their shoe laces hoping the teacher will not call on them to answer a hard problem.
They may have all been thinking the same thing; but it is only Peter who finds the courage to answer, “You are the Christ, (the long awaited Messiah).” (8:29) This first confession of faith has been celebrated by many a preacher over the years. Peter has the honor of being the first to confess what millions of Christians have come to believe.
That is what makes Jesus’ response so puzzling. He gave Peter no gold star; no A+ on his report card; he didn’t call him up to the head of the class to praise him for his great discernment. Instead he said, “Tell no one what you have just said.”(8:30)
Now, why is that? Why didn’t Jesus praise Peter for getting the right answer? I think the next verses indicate that he was not so sure Peter had really gotten it right. It is one thing to say that you believe in God or in Jesus; but it what you believe that really matters. And that is what ultimately forced Jesus to the cross. Remember, all the principal characters in the Gospel believed in God. There were no atheists. Everyone from the High Priest to the custodian who cleaned the temple believed in God.
It is what they believed about God that mattered because that is what guided and directed and influenced their words and actions for good or for evil. Jesus was put to death after all “in the name of God” by people who believed they were doing the Will of God.
Our theology is seen in what we do; our beliefs are reflected in what we say. Our thinking about God may be deliberate and disciplined, or it may just be instinctive and reflexive, hiding in the back corners of our soul; but it is there and it will be lived out. Our spirit will be seen in our flesh. That is why Jesus did not let Peter rest on his laurels; but pushed the question, “Who do you say..?”
Jesus then offers his definition of what the Messiah or the Christ is to be. He said, “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (8:31) In other words, the Messiah will be the Suffering Servant which the prophet Isaiah described;
“Surely he has borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God and afflicted.
He was wounded for our transgressions,
and bruised for our iniquities.” (53:4-5)
This was not the picture of the Messiah that Peter had in mind. Peter wasn’t thinking so much about the prophecy of Isaiah as he was about another found in a well known book of the time, Psalms of Solomon. The writer of this volume painted a completely different picture of the Messiah:
He will smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar;
and destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth;
At his warning nations will flee from his presence
And he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts. (17:21-25)
Peter saw the Messiah as a soldier King with a strong right arm and a flaming sword who will drive away the enemies from their borders. He saw the Messiah as one who will manifest the power of a General or President. So, sure was he of this theological view; that he took it upon himself to correct Jesus’ theology. In fact the Bible says, “Peter rebuked Jesus”. (8:33)
The word is hard and harsh. Matters of deep personal conviction are being debated here so emotions and rhetoric run high.
Jesus response to Peter is equal in force. He separated Peter from the group so as not to embarrass him; took him aside and “ rebuked Peter, and said, `Get behind me Satan’, for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (8:33) Jesus could not have chosen more powerful words to correct Peter’s thinking. Peter, who moments before had been the first to make this courageous confession of faith now stands accused of being in league with the Devil himself. I’m sure his jaw and his heart must have dropped to the ground.
Understand this. Jesus’ rebuke is not given in a spirit of anger or animosity. Jesus had not let his rhetoric be caught upon in the emotion of debate. Rather he used these hard words because he understood that what we believe about God will guide and direct and influence our words and actions – our lives. Theology is seen in what we do; our beliefs are reflected in what we say. Our spirit will be seen in our flesh; it will be lived out! That’s why the stakes are so high.
The shadow of the cross already loomed upon the horizon. If Jesus had let Peter’s triumphal theology stand; Peter’s faith would fail at the first sign of trouble. Peter’s courage and convictions would collapse. As one teacher pointed out, “Peter’s coming confession of faith, like that of Jesus himself, would be given not in a church, but in a courtroom.” (Minear, Paul, Mark, pg. 95) To face that kind of pressure demands an integration of mind and heart and soul. We must believe and feel the same faith.
God had sent his Son not to rule with an iron fist; but to conquer in the Spirit of love; and love always is shown in sacrifice.
After this quiet rebuke, Jesus calls the rest of the group together so they all might understand, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (8:34) This is where theology leaves the safe environs of a Sunday School Class and moves into our living rooms and board rooms and market places.
The challenge of Jesus’ view of himself has not been lost on believers through the ages. In the year 1427 an exiled Catholic monk and priest Thomas a Kempis looked at the church of his day and made this observation. Listen, does it sound familiar:
“Jesus today has many who love his heavenly kingdom, but few who carry his cross; many who yearn for comfort, few who long for distress. Plenty of people he finds to share his banquet, few to share his fast. Everyone desires to take part in his rejoicing, but few are willing to suffer anything for his sake.” (Imitation of Christ, pg 76-77)
That challenge is as real for us as it was for people living five centuries ago. There will come a time when each of us will face our own “final exam”. Jesus will ask you, “Who do you say that I am?” That question moves us from the head to the heart; from curiosity to commitment. This is the “put it all on one roll”, “fish or cut bait”, “get off the fence” question. There are only three answers: you can deny him, you can be an admirer, or you can be a disciple.
I can’t answer that question for you. Your husband or wife cannot answer that question for you. Your mother or father cannot answer that question for you. You have to answer it for yourself. Today or tomorrow or a day years from now, you will have to answer that question. All I can tell you is that Peter observed and listened to Jesus, he prayed and reflected; and then one day reached down deep in his soul and said, “You are God’s Messiah, the Christ.”
There would still be much to learn. There would still be many more questions. In fact the questions never end. But, the questions are now asked from the strong foundation of faith; rather than from a leaky raft floating in a sea of uncertainty. Your theology, your belief about God will be reflected in your life; your spirit will be seen in your flesh. Let your life be seen in the life of Jesus.
Making a decision for Jesus is as simple as a prayer. If you’d like to do that, join with me now:
Gracious and loving God, I come to you now as a sinner in need of salvation, ready take up my cross and follow Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Grant that I might have the abundance of life you intend; and to see your love and grace at work in my life and in your world. Thank you for your grace and your promise life rich and full and forever in your kingdom. Amen.