Who Do YOU Say That I Am?

Sermon Preached
September 17, 2006 (Proper 19)
Church of the Transfiguration

Number two at the box office last week was Hollywoodland starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to do you a huge favor – I’m going to tell you how it ends. Think of the money you’ll save --- $9.00 for tickets, $7 for a bottomless pit of popcorn, and $5 for a soda. So here we go. The movie is about a private detective who is investigating the mysterious death of Superman star George Reeves. During his investigation the detective uncovers an affair that Reeves was having with the wife of a studio executive. Typical Hollywood intrigue, but just as the film is about to close with us all thinking the crime is simply unsolvable, the truth is uncovered that . . .

Don’t you hate when people ruin the end of a movie or a book for you?! I sure do! But that’s a little bit of what I feel when I read Mark’s gospel because even though the disciples are portrayed as bumbling humans who just don’t get it, you and I know even before the very first sentence of the gospel is read that this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God – The Messiah!

The disciples, on the other hand, are slow to catch on. After Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit – the first such miracle in Mark’s gospel – the disciples say to one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”[i] Later on in their journeys with Jesus, the disciples are out on the sea when a great windstorm comes upon them. They become afraid and Jesus criticizes them saying, “Have you still no faith?” We are told that the disciples “were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”[ii] Some time later, the disciples were again at sea struggling against a wind when Jesus walks out to them on the sea. Again, the disciples were fearful and this time we are told “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves.”[iii] After hearing a parable, the disciples ask Jesus about its meaning and an exasperated Jesus says to them, “Then do you also fail to understand?”[iv] Who is this man that even unclean spirits obey him? Who is this man that even the wind and the sea obey him? Who is this man who feeds thousands with so little, who walks on water, who speaks in riddles?

So, today we hear Jesus ask, “Who do people say that I am?” and the disciples answer him, “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “one of the prophets.” Jesus stops them at this point and asks the next question, “Who do you say that I am?” And, Peter gets it right and pronounces, “You are the Messiah.” And this is the point in the story where I feel let-down. I feel let down because I have known this about Jesus from the very beginning. I cannot even remember when I first learned about Jesus, the Messiah – the story has been a part of my life for so long. And when I hear today’s gospel, I long to be able to hear it for the first time. Because now, when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” I already know the answer. The element of surprise, the radical nature of Peter’s proclamation, any disbelief or amazement he may have felt when he, at last, got the right answer are forever lost to our experience. It is as if someone spoiled the ending for us.

This week as I was bemoaning the ruined ending, yet again, something new occurred to me. Jesus asks the disciples two questions: (1) who do people say that I am? and (2) who do you say that I am? As I heard these questions again, it occurred to me what my problem was. Jesus asks his followers – those who have been with him from the earliest days of his ministry - “Who do you say that I am?” The problem is, I have been answering the wrong question. I know who Jesus is because of what other people say. We have been told so many times by so many other people who Jesus is that if we are asked “who do you say that I am” we are most likely to respond with one of these: He is the Messiah, the Christ, Emmanuel, the Savior, the Good Shepherd, the Word Made Flesh. But these are not, necessarily, the right answers. They answer the question, “Who do people say that I am?”

But again, hear the question, “Who do you say that I am?” The difference in these questions and their answers may be for some of us the difference between a faith that says, like the Johnny Cash song, “There’ll be pie in the sky when I die, when I die and it’ll be alright” and a faith that recognizes the awesome and marvelous ways in which God is with us in the world today. Not just a future hope, a future promise, but a living presence each day from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we return to bed each night. Many of us are living a faith based on other people’s answer to the question, but are yearning for a faith based on our own answer to the question. And, I believe that if we are able to answer this question for ourselves, it may mean “the beginning of the end of [our] old life, and the beginning of [our] emergence into a new one.”[v]

Great, so how do we begin? A few weeks ago, I invited you to try setting aside some time each day or at least each week to “just be” – to sit quietly with God, reading scripture, writing in a journal or just listening to the sound of your own breath and listening for the voice of God’s Wisdom. This, I believe, is a first step in finding a living faith. But it is not the only one.

This morning’s reading from James gives us another step in our journey toward a living faith. James tells us that we will “do well if [we] really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . . [For] faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” To bring our faith alive – to have a life-giving faith – we must act – we must give of ourselves. James tells us, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,” we are to supply their needs. And again James says, “If a poor person in dirty clothes comes in,” we are to say “Welcome, have a seat here”!

There is a prayer that is often referred to as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Part of it goes like this:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.[vi]

But, how do the reading from James and this prayer move us towards a living faith? Here’s the connection, I think. Elsewhere in Scripture – in Matthew’s gospel - we are told, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger is clothing Jesus, feeding Jesus, and welcoming Jesus. And so, as we practice our faith through action, and experience Christ with us, Christ before us, Christ behind us, we may find, soon enough, our own answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

[i] Mark 1.21-27.
[ii] Mark 4.35-41.
[iii] Mark 6.47-52.
[iv] Mark 7.14-23.
[v] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 26.
[vi] “St. Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’ Prayer” accessed online on September 13, 2006.