Who Do You Say That I Am? (Maundy Thursday, 2019)
Mark 8: 27-29
Who Do You Say That I Am?
As a child I learned very quickly at Sunday school and in the children’s message on Sunday morning, as I’m sure many of you all did, that when the teacher asked a question, if you answered “Jesus” to that question, 50% of the time you were probably right. This was especially true toward the end; if they’re beginning to wrap up or if there seems to be a culminating question, then if you just answer that question with the word Jesus, you’re probably going to be right more often then you’re going to be wrong. “Jesus is the answer.” We hear this time and time and time again. It is a mantra in the modern church. There’s shirts you can buy it with this phrase on it. Jesus is the answer.
If that is true, then perhaps when we go to the Gospels we could expect Jesus to be giving answers. In fact there’s a lot of Christian tradition nowadays which teaches that this is exactly what the Bible is meant to be, and that that’s how you’re supposed to use the Bible: you open it up with questions, and you look for the answers inside, and the Bible will give you answers. But with the exception of the first five books, and really only about two of those first five books, that’s not really the way the Bible works. There are answers in there, but not this kind of direct answer thing that we seem to anticipate and that we seem to want the Bible to be.
In fact Jesus doesn’t answer very many questions directly at all. We’re going to be looking at this concept as we go on in our sermon series after Easter. We’re going to be looking at the lessons I learned from a book I read last fall by Martin Copenhaver called Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 That he Answered. Now, in the introduction he says that that number was according to one survey and that according to his account Jesus actually gave a direct answer to eight questions; but he was asked 183, and that means it even at the higher number of answers that Jesus gave, Jesus still was 40 times more likely to respond with a question, or a non-direct answer like a parable, than he was to give a direct answer when he was asked a question. And furthermore, Jesus asked so many questions that almost ⅔, certainly at least ⅗, of all the questions in the Bible or the Gospels are attributed to Jesus over everyone else combined. Jesus asked a lot of questions and didn’t give very many answers. What does that mean? What does that mean for the type of life Jesus expects us to live? And what does it mean when he does give a direct answer? What are those times? Because they seem to be important.
We’re going to talk about that once you come back after celebrating Easter in a week and a half. But I will look today at one of those questions, because this is a very important question for us. You may have guessed what that question is because of the title of the sermon, but the question is: “who do you say that I am?” Who do you say that I am? Jesus asked this question of his disciples are near the middle of the gospel stories. And this is really a turning point in the story. Up until this point, Jesus was kind of preparing his disciples; and now they kind of know what’s going and what was to be expected. And from this moment forward he begins to head to Jerusalem. This is an important question even among the over 300 others.
Let’s provide some context for this question. Jesus has taken his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi, which is a city that’s kind of out-of-the-way. It’s a long journey from Galilee and the Sea of Galilee up to where this place was. Caesarea Philippi was up near in the area that we now call the Golan Heights, which you may have heard of in the news recently. And it’s where the headwaters of the Jordan River are. The Jordan River has three springs that come out of a mountain up north of Israel. Those three springs trickle out and then come together to form the headwaters of the Jordan River that flows into the sea of Galilee, and ultimately down to do the Dead Sea. And one of those three springs is at a place called Caesarea Philippi. This is the city that was built there, and it was named of course to honor Caesar. It was built by one of Herod’s children by the name of Philip. And so here you have a city that is named for two kings: a king of local stature, and then a king called Caesar.
Also, Caesar was a god; so there was a temple to Caesar that was placed there within the city. And that was not the only temple that was in the city not by far. Actually what we believe to be the beginning of the settlement here was a temple to the Roman god Pan. And Pan was the god of nature. There was a large cave that the spring kind of comes out of. It is a very large cave in the mountain and they build a shrine over this cave to Pan. Some believed that this was the home of Pan. And then there were a couple of other shrines to other Roman deities that wind up the hillside.
And Jesus takes his disciples here seemingly, in my mind at least, for a very important and very specific reason: to ask this question. Who do you say that I am? He takes them to this place and surrounds them with all the options; you have Roman gods, you have lesser Roman gods, you have Caesar, you have a city named after the lesser king of the Jews. And Jesus sits there and begins by saying “who are people saying that I am?” Which provided even more options for them to answer the question. Who do people say that I am?
And they’re quick with that answer: some say you’re a prophet, some say your John the Baptist, or Elijah reincarnated. And then Jesus says “take a look. You’ve provided all these options for what I could be in the Jewish sense. And then look around you here, and all these titles and idols that the people here have provided. Now, who do you say that I am? Do you pick one of these options? Do you say that I am a manifestation of Pan, or Jupiter, or some other Roman god? Do you do you say that I am Elijah reincarnated? Do you think I’m a prophet? Who do you say that I am?”
Of course in our text, Peter answers very, very quickly: you are the Messiah, the son of God. And then Jesus responds by saying what the son of God must then go through, what it means to be the Messiah, what it means to be the one the Jewish people were waiting for. He must travel to Jerusalem, and when he got to Jerusalem he was going to be tortured and ultimately put to death on the cross, and then was raised from the dead on the third day. If you remember, Peter’s response to that was “no, you don’t understand: the Messiah is going to take up arms and drive the Romans out, and rule the kingdom forever as an independent nation, free from the oppression we experience.” Which indicates that even though Peter had the right words, he answered the question incorrectly; he had a different understanding of what the Messiah was to be and so therefore answered incorrectly. That may be for a different sermon.
Today, of course, is Maundy Thursday, which is the day that we remember the night that Jesus Christ was betrayed; the night he goes into an upper room to celebrate Passover with his disciples and would institute the Eucharist, which we will observe here later. So you may be wondering why I am bringing up a scripture from significantly further back in the Gospels and why am I not talking about the events from that particular night. And part of the reason for that is that what we just spent the last six weeks talking about that about the events that we will be celebrating here tonight and we did not read need to rehash them. But also part of it is because the story of Passion Week really begins back at Caesarea Philippi; begins back with this question of “who do you say that I am?” And it was a question that resonates more and more and more as they get closer and closer and closer to Jerusalem; as they get closer to it actually happening. This is the moment of the Gospels were Jesus turns toward Jerusalem; the moment where the Passion began was when Jesus asked this question and the disciples got it right…ish.
And actually I bring this particular question up because I do think that Jesus talks so much in questions because were meant to think. And that these questions actually do matter to us. These questions actually force us to wrestle with things. I realized a few years back was this is the most important question of the Gospels. Who do you say that Jesus is? This is a question we must all wrestle with, every single one of us. “Who do I say that Jesus is?” And never do we need to wrestle with this question more than when we remember the events of that Thursday and Friday nearly 2000 years ago.
If you remember, after Jesus is betrayed he’s arrested and brought before the high Council of the Jews, and the counsel bring charges against him. They charge him with blasphemy, they charge him with claiming to be the Messiah, was claiming to be God when he was not. And here’s the thing: if he wasn’t the Messiah they would’ve been doing the right, just, and holy thing. If Jesus wasn’t actually the Messiah,then he would’ve been guilty of this exact crime. And actually the punishment of death would’ve been biblically mandated for him for fear that if they didn’t his presence would actually contaminate the entire community and bring upon them the wrath of God. Now, I’m not a fan of the death penalty in the modern sense, and the United Methodist Church has statements against the death penalty today, but in terms of the Bible this particular crime deserves death for the sake of the community. If Jesus is not the messiah, then the Jewish religious leaders are correct in everything they do. But if he is the Messiah, then they are blind to the truth, and they murder God to their own damnation. This is really the question. If he’s not the messiah, they’re doing the righteous thing. If he is the Messiah, they’re doing a very unholy thing.
So who is he? Who do you say that Jesus is? Is he the Messiah; or is he just another criminal who deserves what he gets? These are the options. And that is the question that every single person must answer when they encounter the story: who do I say that Jesus is? Because if he’s not the messiah, than this whole church thing and the last 2000 years has just been a wistful delusion and you should have no part to do with it. Just go on living your life as good as you can and trying to follow the law that’s presented for the Gentiles follow the Old Testament; and maybe, just maybe you’ll do enough to get in. But if he is the Messiah, everything he said about this action and about what the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood would do is true. He went to that cross that I might be able to live, and I should dedicate every waking moment honoring that.
Tammy Duckworth was a soldier in Iraq. She was flying a Black Hawk helicopter as a pilot. And the helicopter got shot by the enemy with a grenade that exploded at her feet. And she lost both her legs and actually lost some movement in her right arm. And she lay there and was assumed dead by her fellow soldiers. But her fellow soldiers knew that if they left her she would be put on parade by the enemy, and they did not want that fate for their friend. And so they they took her and they drug her across several miles of fields to safety at great personal risk and great personal danger to themselves. They did this out of service to someone they believed dead. And when they got there, they found out that miraculously, somehow, in spite of losing almost half her blood, she was alive. And they recuperated her.
After being discharged with the Purple Heart she went into service in the government and she became the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs under the Obama administration, and ultimately 2013 became a representative from the state of Illinois and now a senator as of 2018 from the state of Illinois. You may have recently heard her name because she became the first senator ever to give birth while a senator, and they changed the rules the next day to allow babies under the age of one onto the Senate floor specifically for her. But as she was confirmed for her position with the Veterans Department, she was asked what she thought of her fellow soldiers actions that fateful day. And she replied, “You have to get up every day and seek to live in such a way as to be worthy of that kind of effort and sacrifice.”
Someone risked their life for you. Someone gave their life for you. Today you receive bread, and receive the juice, that reminds you of the body that was broken for you and the blood that was shed for you. I want you to think for just a moment about what happened that night. I want you to answer the question. Who do you say that Jesus is? And if you, as I do, believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah, who gave up his glory and took on the form of a human, suffered and died for you and me; then the next question will be how do you go from here and live in honor of that kind of effort and sacrifice? What difference will it make for you? Think on that. Amen.