This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Decatur on September 15, 2018. The Gospel is from Mark, and this passage is often called Peter’s Confession. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” Bishop Mayer suggests that the “you” in that question makes it highly personal. But he also suggests that another important word is “who,” Jesus does not ask what do you say that I am, rather he asks, who do you say that I am.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Resurrection Decatur 2018 17 Pentecost – Proper 19B September 16
Today in the life of the Church of the Resurrection we celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation as three already baptized persons deepen further their lives in and through the Episcopal Church. To those of you being confirmed, we count it a privilege to a part of your lives on this significant day. Momentarily, all of us will make a vow to do all in our power to uphold you in your life in Christ.
Every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation, everyone gathered says together the Baptismal Covenant, reminding ourselves that we are called into the Body of Christ for a purpose beyond ourselves: to proclaim and embody the Good News of God’s love for all people.
Love. Last May the world was captivated by the preaching of our presiding bishop at a royal wedding. An estimated 3 billion people watched as Bishop Michael Curry preached about love – and then he was interviewed on morning shows, and late night talk shows, and cable news, and magazines, because – I would suggest – people hunger for love, and know the message is true. Bishop Curry says: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God. We are called to make disciples who will change this world by the power of God’s love.” Love changes hearts. Love changes lives. Love changes this world.
Today’s Gospel. Today’s story from Mark is known as “Peter’s Confession,” when Peter recognizes and verbalizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus asks the twelve, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
The context of this event is important. Already, Jesus has healed the sick, and cast out demons, and taught in synagogues, and fed the 5000. His reputation is spreading; he is becoming famous, and drawing large crowds. And while alone with his closest disciples, he says, “Who do people say that I am?”
And they answer: “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” So, the crowds don’t know yet who he is. And Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, inspired by God, says: “You are the Messiah.”
And then – and this seems strange – Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him. Tell no one. Eventually – according to Matthew – the Risen Christ will say: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But today – in this passage, this moment – he sternly orders them to tell no one. For no one will understand that the Messiah must suffer and be rejected and be killed. That’s not what happens to a messiah, they think. A messiah is supposed to be a triumphant king. Suffering and rejection and death on a cross does not fit the “messiah profile.” So tell no one. They won’t understand.
And that’s no surprise – especially given the context of all the miracles. Even today people will answer the question differently, “Who do you say that I am?” Just as an example, it has been observed that those who tend see the Christian mission as primarily “spiritual” tend to see Jesus primarily as “Redeemer.” Those who tend to see the mission as creating a better world tend to see Jesus as “Reformer.”
We all agree that Jesus is Messiah, Savior, Lord, Redeemer, Reconciler, and so on, and over the ages volumes have been written trying to articulate an answer for each time and place. And I would suggest it shows that Jesus is more than we can imagine when on the one hand he’s seen as a “Revolutionary” to one suffering poverty in Brazil, and on the other hand, he’s a “Savior of Souls” in the heartland of America.
For, the question, “Who do you say that I am?” is a deeply personal question. Who do YOU say that I am? The word, “you,” is a key word in this sentence. Having said that, I want to suggest this morning that there is another key word in this sentence; perhaps a more important word. I’m suggesting that the most important word in the sentence – “Who do you say that I am?” – is “who.”
Jesus does not ask, “What do they think that I am?” Or “What do they think my mission is?” Or “What do they think I can do for them?” It’s not “what is my function, what is my role, what is my purpose in the grand scheme of things?” Those are good questions, but that’s not what Jesus asks.
Rather, he says, “WHO do the crowds say that I am?” As Jesus grows more and more famous, and as his reputation grows as one who can heal the sick, and cast out demons, and teach, and perform miracles, and save people from disease and even death, Jesus wants to know, “Who do the crowds – who do you – say that I am?”
There’s a great Christian writer from the 20th century, a contemplative, named Thomas Merton, who wrote: “The ‘what’ in Christ is vastly less important than the ‘who.’ He says: “To love Christ merely [for what he can do for us] would be like loving a friend for his money.” He says, “We do not love Christ for what He has, but for who He is.”
And furthermore, Merton says, “… God is neither a ‘what’ or a ‘thing,’ but a pure ‘Who.’” God is a pure who. Jesus is a who, not a what. YOU are a “who.” You are more than a “what.” Those being confirmed today are loved by God no matter what they are, or what they become, or what they can do to further the mission of God. You are a “who.”
As his fame grows, as more and more people become aware of his power to heal and perform miracles, and as they wonder “what Jesus can do for me,” Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do they say that I am?”
Thomas Merton reminds us that Jesus is more than someone to be admired, more than someone to improve our lives – more even than savior figure, and miracle worker, and healer, and prophet. He’s all that and more. He’s a person – a “who” – a person who offers intimacy, a bond with us, union with us, communion.
To take a very personal example: my father was to me a provider, a counselor, a teacher, a coach, a boss, a disciplinarian, a friend. He was all of these things – all of these roles – acting out of love with a glad heart for my benefit, my growth, my becoming who I am.
But beyond all that my father did for me, beyond all that I remember fondly, beyond all that shaped my life and empowered me to face the challenges and trials of life – beyond all that he gave me, most of all he gave me himself. He was, and is, a “who.”
Beyond and deeper that all the things he did for me and was to me is a bond, a strong bond between a father and a son. The “what” is far less important than the “who?” The bond is the main thing – the binding, the bond. We call it love.
The word “religion” is a word with Latin roots. “Religion.” It’s a very good word. If you break it down it means “re-bind.” Re-bind to God and one another. We could say it means “to reconcile the bond between God and humankind, and to reconcile the bond between one another” the purpose of Christianity. Christ is the living bond in whom and through whom we reach union with God and one another.
Every time we come to this Altar to make our communion, we remember all that God has done for us throughout our salvation history as a people. We remember some of the events of our salvation history both in our readings from scripture and in our Eucharistic prayer – and we remember our history with gratitude and humility. But I would suggest that beyond and deeper than all of that is the Bond, the re-binding of all creation, the Union, the Love – Communion with God and one another.
That is God’s mission. And we, the living members of the resurrected Body of Christ – the Church – are called and privileged to participate in God’s mission; to participate in the healing, the restoring, the reforming, the reconciling, the loving of God’s world (a world full of people longing to be seen and known as a “who,” not a “what”) all in the Name of the Holy Trinity, the Living God in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.