Who is Jesus?
Scripture: Mark 8:27-30
The sermon transcript is below the take-home questions.
Who is Jesus? Take-home questions
March 24, 2019, Third Sunday in Lent
United Parish in Brookline
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)
Who is Jesus?
How did you first learn about Jesus/Christ?
What was your understanding?
How would you describe your relationship to Jesus/Christ? Feel free to draw or write.
Where is there comfort or discomfort when you think about Jesus/Christ?
Many titles and images for Jesus
There are many names and titles for Jesus in the Bible- among them are:
Son of God
Lamb of God
Bread of Life
Alpha and Omega
the Resurrection and the Life
the Living Water
Perfector of our Faith
Great High Priest
a mother hen gathering her chicks
Prince of Peace
King of the Jews
the Light of the World
Is there a title or role that resonates with you in particular?
Are that any that rub you the wrong way?
Are there other images or titles that you’d add to this list?
Do you have a favorite Gospel story or “version” of Jesus from among the four Gospels? Why does this story or portrait resonate with you?
Your evolving notion of Jesus
What events, influences, or people helped shape and re-shape your perception of who Jesus is?
How has your understanding of Jesus/Christ changed or evolved over time?
How would you like to expand or deepen your understanding of Jesus?
When do you encounter Jesus in your daily life?
Take a moment to imagine: Jesus is going to be passing through your area tomorrow. What might Jesus look like in the 21st century? How might Jesus dress and talk? Where might Jesus spend time with followers and friends? Who might feel threatened by Jesus in the 21st century? Who might be drawn to Jesus? Who might be Jesus’ disciples? Feel free to write or Draw
Try imagining Jesus as a different gender, race, age, and class from your own- what feelings or thoughts does that bring up?
Why are we here? I don’t mean existentially, but here, at United Parish. Or more broadly, why do you choose to participate in a Christian community? Why Christianity? Perhaps some of you approached religion methodically, looked into different faiths and felt Christianity was right for you, or Protestantism, or progressive Protestantism…or even just United Parish.
Perhaps some of you feel you could probably get ‘on board’ with any of the major world religions, but Christianity is what you grew up with and what you're familiar with, and it just…fits!
Perhaps some of you don’t even identify as Christian, but you come to United Parish with a loved one who does, or because you just like being a part of our community and it’s come to feel like home.
Or perhaps some of you are like me, and to borrow the phrasing of Reza Aslan, Christianity is your mother tongue- it’s the language your soul thinks and dreams in. It’s the faith that you just…know is right for you, because you experience it, you live in it, and you know that this is how God is revealed to you.
There are many reasons and ways to approach Christianity; I think that largely, one thing that unites us as folks who attend a Christian church, is our belief that Jesus is important. And not just important, but that Jesus’s life and ministry and teachings are central to our faith, or central to how we make sense of the world and orient our lives.
As we move through lent we’ve been exploring our faith, and the different ways we live and express it. Two weeks ago Kent preached about faith itself, and how we express it in our lives. Last week we explored the small, easily digestible concept of God- who God is, how we experience God, where we encounter God. Next week we’ll explore the Holy Spirit and the week after that, Humanity, the Church, and the world. But today, we’re talking about Jesus.
So who is Jesus?
In the scripture this morning, Jesus asks his followers, “who do people say that I am?” and they tell him that some say he’s Elijah, a prophet…some say he’s John the Baptist…he asks them, “who do you say that I am?” and they say the messiah- the Christ. And he instructs them not to tell anyone…not yet, at least.
I want to imagine this conversation taking place in our time, amongst 21st century Christians. Who is Jesus to us? If Jesus were to gather with us at our next potluck, take up the handheld mic and ask us “who do you say that I am?” – in this instance I imagine myself taking notes on the whiteboard because that’s been my favorite thing since middle school- what responses might we hear?
Some might say he’s the Son of God, some might say Christ, some might say Jesus was a man, a Jewish reformer in 1st century Palestine. Some may say he’s a socialist, or a radical…some might say he’s a mystic. Some still might say he’s the patient they treated last week, or the homeless woman they passed on the street.
Still others might say he’s their best friend or their personal Lord and Savior. Some might say Jesus is someone they’ve heard of but never met, others may say they’ve met him but are now skeptical if it was actually him. Some may say they have no real idea who Jesus is but they know he loves them…or at least that that’s what the song says.
Even the Gospels differ in their depiction of Jesus. I mean, they tell by and large the same story, perhaps with a few different highlights added or removed from the reel, zooming in on different aspects of different stories…its like if you asked Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, and one of our kindergarteners to draw a picture of the same person. All of the portraits are of the same essential subject, but they each offer a different perspective, different colors may jump off of the canvas, they may choose to highlight different attributes, they may even take some artistic liberties…have you ever seen a Picasso?
Who was Jesus, who is Jesus? Not a question you can really answer thoroughly in a fifteen-to-twenty minute sermon. And yet, there is one aspect of Jesus that in my own theology serves as the foundation upon which I continually build (and renovate) my faith. And that’s Jesus as Emmanuel, or God-With-Us. Thinking of Jesus as God amongst us definitely brings up that tricky fully-human-and-fully-divine concept, and yet it resonates with me so much because it brings me closer to God, it helps me know who God is and what God is like, and it helps me endure the inevitable pains of the human experience.
Before I dive in, however, I want to offer this disclaimer that Marcus Borg included in his workbook, Living the Heart of Christianity : “we can say that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God for us as Christians without needing to say that he is the only and exclusive revelation of God.” Similarly, I share this part of Christian theology with you because I find it to be life-giving, affirming, and encouraging.
As your pastor, as a fellow Christian, and as a fellow faith-explorer, if you encounter Jesus in a different way, or have a different perspective on who Jesus is, not only do I want to affirm your faith and your relationship with God, but I also would LOVE to get together and hear more about it! And I’m serious about that- I always cherish these conversations with you.
I think back to last week’s sermon, when we heard the story of when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush. Also in the story of Exodus, when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God only allows Moses a glimpse of God’s back- explaining that to gaze directly at God’s face would be fatally overwhelming. God and Moses converse as one would converse with a colleague or friend, and yet despite this closeness, God was always in some way unreachable…distant.
And then the Word became flesh, and in Jesus, God’s glory and love and majesty was amongst humankind, mortal and in the world, but not quite of the world. God became immediate and visceral. In Jesus we encounter the full glory of God right there on the dusty road.
Martin Copenhaver imagines God declaring that as Jesus, God “will encompass the dimensions of eternity and yet will be as close as your elbow. And through this one you shall see me and not die. You will live to tell the story and lives you have never lived before.” In other words,” Martin says, “in Jesus, God turned around and we could finally see that face”
Jesus can bring us closer to God, or rather, brings God closer to us- Jesus is immediate and fleshy and right there talking to you on the street and asking you to touch his wounded hands…
Now, if you were to go by just one story about Jesus from the gospels, you would likely have a very different idea of who Jesus is than someone who was going off of a different story. But these different stories about Jesus help us understand what God is like. Copenhaver explains it that “this is no mere glimpse of God we are offered. It is a picture of God that we can continually turn to.”
He continues, explaining that “By observing the ways Jesus responded to those who had been cast off by life, we can understand God’s special care for the outcast. By hearing about the ways Jesus healed the sick, we can discover that our God is the kind of God who can put together the broken pieces of our lives. By observing the ways Jesus forgave the very ones who rejected and betrayed him, we can realize how far God will go to embrace us with forgiveness.
By studying the ways of Jesus, we need not wonder what God would have us do because we can endeavor simply to do what Jesus did.”
Sometimes, explanations for what it means to simply do what Jesus did come from very unexpected places. This week, from an Instagram post. It brings me so much delight that I have to share it: the person recounts a recent Sunday morning,
“There was a little girl in church, about 5, and her parents obviously let her get dressed herself that day because she came waddling in with the puffiest coat on in the summer in North Carolina. She comes and sits in the pew in front of us. 15 minutes into mass she turns around and hands my husband a clementine. Her parents are mortified. “Savannah not again!” they scold, which kills me. They apologize and she turns back around.
A few moments later she goes to hand me a clementine but her parents grab it from her before she can. Savannah is determined. She reaches her tiny fists into her puffy coat and pulls out two more clementines. She begins to distribute them. Her parents are now beet red and in shock. There is no stopping small Savannah now. This small child proceeds to laugh a laugh I can only call maniacal, unzip the inner lining of her coat, and releases what had to have been twenty to thirty of those little clementines into the pews. WE EAT!!! Savannah yells, cackling. The priest can no longer contain his glee. The entire church is dying with laughter. The person reflects finally, “She felt like Jesus on the mountain with the baskets of fish that day I’m sure.”
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks… “Feed my sheep.”… Clementines work.
Jesus offered many of his teachings in the form of parables, so perhaps it’s fitting that I’m including so many anecdotes in this Jesus-themed sermon. You see, I’ve been working my way through Martin Copenhaver’s book, To Begin at the Beginning, which is a refreshingly non-academic exploration of Christian theology. He cites a story recounted by theologian and pastor John Westerhoff, that for me gets to the crux (no theological pun intended) of how Jesus’s humanity, Jesus’ life on earth is so important to me, especially in times of pain.
John tells of a mother whose child was late in leaving his nursery school room. The child explained to his mother that, as class ended, one of the other children had broken a pottery dish she had made. The mother asked, “so you had to stay and help her pick it up?” “no,” the child replied, “I had to stay to help her cry”. In Jesus, Copenhaver explains, “God came to us (in part, at least) to help us cry”. And to me, there’s something comforting about knowing that there is no suffering I could ever endure as a human that God has not suffered along with me and is right there with me to share the burdens. This to me is one of the miracles of Jesus as Immanuel- God with us.
I could go on and on about Jesus- there are so many ways to approach this sermon, this topic. There’s the story of resurrection and the promise of life that it offers us, the promise that evil will never get the last word. There’s the fact that our tradition teaches that a peasant boy born out-of-wedlock to a pair of nobodies Bethlehem is the messiah in whom we encounter God.
There’s the way that Jesus called his disciples, there’s the matter of who he called as disciples. There’s the fact that he offered the bread of life and the cup of salvation even to the one who betrayed him.
The wonder of faith is that we never have to stop exploring it. I encourage you to come to our small group after worship or on Tuesday morning, or just take some time this week to mull over our take-home questions, pray, meditate, or come in for a conversation! Take some time to think about Jesus, who Jesus is for you, where Jesus is for you. Listen for the question he asks us still- “who do you say that I am”?
Download the accompanying Lenten Study curriculum packet here.
Download the take-home quetions here.