In the middle of his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” I’ve always assumed that Jesus knew the answer to this. In the Mideast, in the time of Jesus though, people didn’t define themselves outside of community. Their relationships defined who they were. If you were a woman you were a wife and mother, and if you were a man, you were a father and a shepherd or carpenter because your father was a shepherd or carpenter. Last week we heard how the Syrophoenician (or Greek) woman helped Jesus broaden his idea of who he came to serve. Because of what she said, he changed his mind from believing that he was sent to serve the Jews, to realizing that God’s purpose for him was much bigger than that. He was sent for the sake of everyone. Maybe he was also looking to his disciples for some clarification of his purpose.
If so, they failed miserably. They reported back that some people thought he was a reincarnation of John the Baptist (who had previously been killed), and others thought he was Elijah or one of the prophets risen from the dead. Then Jesus asked, “Who do You say I am?” Good question! Peter guessed. The word’ Messiah’ in Hebrew means the same thing as ‘Christ’ in Greek. In Jewish tradition, ‘Messiah’ was associated with an anointed king, a powerful royal king, who would free Israel from their oppressors. Marks’ Gospel was written between the years 60 and 70 CE and if you could imagine Jerusalem as a pot on the stove, it was about to boil over. In the year 66 the Jews had revolted against Rome, and it looked like they were gaining some ground. But in the year 70, Rome destroyed both the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, which everyone believed to be indestructible. Mark was written right in the middle of that, and if Peter spoke these words to Jesus before he died, it was in the year 32. The political situation was heating up, and to think that God was sending his Messiah to save the Jews would sound very appealing.
That’s when Jesus said, “Don’t tell that to anyone” and also “Get behind me, Satan!” He couldn’t have disagreed more strongly. That is not Jesus’ idea of a Messiah. He isn’t one to come wrapped up in violence, strength, and revenge.
The United Church of Christ doesn’t spend a lot of ink defining Jesus for us. Our Statement of Faith says, “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.” (NCH p. 885, 2nd page). The Constitution of the United Church of Christ begins with “The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession.” That’s it.
We leave it up to the individual to decide what that means to them. We don’t have dogma, where we define what else someone needs to believe to be considered part of the United Church of Christ. I find that wonderful! It respects our individual brains, emotions and experiences to form pour own conception of what Jesus means for us. And that is exactly what Jesus asks here. Who do you say that I am?
One thing that the United Church of Christ gives us, that I find very helpful is the statement, “God is still speaking!” Another is the ancient Christian belief that we are all The Body of Christ. The whole world, including all of creation, is the Body of Christ.
Someone recently told me how shocked they were, in the 90’s when their priest or minister said to the congregation, “The Body of Christ has AIDS.” It brought her to a whole new level of understanding. What could we say today? The Body of Christ is an Immigrant. The Body of Christ is homeless. The Body of Christ has Global Warming.
I read a letter to the editor the other day where a woman wrote about the homeless camp along the highway in S. Minneapolis where 350 people sleep every night surrounded by poverty, and dirty needles, but also a feeling of community.
She told how in 1847, during the height of the potato Famine in Ireland, (which the Irish called the Great Hunger), Native Americans from the impoverished Choctaw nation sent $170 to Ireland for relief from the famine. Experts differ in what that amount would be today, but it is somewhere between $5,000 & $20,000. This was just after the 4,000 Choctaw died during the Trail of Tears. She was struck by how one group of persecuted people who were displaced and killed sent this enormous amount of money to another far away in a land they couldn’t imagine. In Ireland today, in Cork County, there is a sculpture in a park made of nine 20 foot tall eagle feathers in the shape of a bowl. It is called “Kindred Spirits,’ and the Irish still tell the story. A few days ago, while visiting this homeless encampment, in which the majority of those living there are Native Americans, she watched as a group of Muslims, another group of hated Americans who had pooled their money at the Somali Cultural Institute brought food for the Native Americans. How is God still speaking here? Where is the Body of Christ? Who do you say he is?
I play bass in a little folk group, and it just happens that everyone in it aside from me is Jewish. Last Tuesday was Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and I was invited to attend the service at Adath Jeshurun because my friends were playing guitar and mandolin. It was an absolutely beautiful service, and I was very moved by the music and the people. But everyone who came had to present a large pink ticket at the door, to show that they were either a member, or an invited guest. The woman in front of me was also a visitor, and she asked why they had to show a ticket. The friendly man collecting them said it was because it was the week of 9/11 and they are Jews. There were several police cars, with officers standing by the doors of the synagogue. We worship every Sunday without fear of anyone bombing our church or trying to kill us. What would we say about the Body of Christ here? Christ lives with fear because he’s Jewish? Who do we say he is?
To not have Jesus defined for us in dogma is a wonderful gift. And it is also a great responsibility. Because then the responsibility lies with us. We need to identify him for ourselves. Who do we think he is, and then, What does that mean for us?
If the Body of Christ is camping along a highway with two little kids and a disabled parent surrounded by poverty and violence, we need to do something. If the Body of Christ is afraid to go to church during the High Holy Days, because he’s Jewish, or afraid to walk down the street or drive a car because he’s Black, or an undocumented immigrant, that tells us something. If the Body of Christ is experiencing the extinction of hundreds of species of insects, birds and plants, and if part of life itself is threatened because of Global Warming, God is Still Speaking to us.
And of course, God is also speaking in every act of kindness, of generosity, of compassion. Where in our lives is God still speaking? Where do You see the Body of Christ? Who do you say that he is?