17 September 2006
Mark 8: 27-38
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek
Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City, Maryland
You have seen them everywhere: bracelets, key rings, and just about anything that can be marked with the logo, WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?
I must confess to being afraid to ever wear one of those bracelets. I am afraid because in most situations I do not feel qualified to answer that question. How could I ever presume to know what Jesus would think or do in today’s world? Jesus was always doing the most surprising things! He was arguably one of the most unpredictable persons in all of recorded history.
If the gospels are any indication, it appears that when he was pressed by others for advice on what to do he would a) ask them another question, b) tell a story or a parable, or c) say that only God knows, not me.
A couple of years ago, when the WWJD bracelet rage really started to catch on, someone came up with some alternative bracelets:
Like WWDD for football coaches: What would Ditka do?
For politicians on the campaign trail there’s HWCL: How would Clinton lie?
Or DYWFWT for McDonald’s employees: Do you want fries with that?
For elderly Christians there’s WDIPOTB: Why did I put on this bracelet?
And for today’s teens, simply W: “Whatever” or “Whatsup,” take your pick.
In today’s gospel Jesus makes his own suggestion for a bracelet slogan: WDYSTIA?
“Who do you say that I am?”
Again, if the New Testament is any indication, the people around Jesus had a surprising number of answers for that one: Son of God, Son of Man, King, Lord, Son of David, teacher, rabbi, king of the Jews, Son of the Living God, master, the gardener, and in today’s lesson and its parallels, one of the prophets, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jeremiah. He was also called a blasphemer, a glutton, a drunkard, and an imposter.
It is important to recognize that Jesus invites us all to answer this question, Who do you say that I am, for ourselves. And equally important for us to consider is that the New Testament offers all of these answers and more, not limiting us to any single idea or label for Jesus.
This morning we hear Saint Peter’s answer: You are the Christ. To which Jesus responds by urging them to tell no one. Well, so much for that. Here we are and we call ourselves Christians! Mark has spilled the beans. The evangelists Mark, Luke and Matthew do not honor what Jesus asks the disciples to do:. Tell no one.
The next time we are tempted to say, “The Bible says,” or “Jesus says,” we might ponder our inability to honor one of the few direct requests he makes to all of us who are his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Christ.
Especially if we are not at all clear ourselves just what we mean by “Christ.” It is a Greek word meaning, “anointed” or “anointed one.” Which is a translation of a Hebrew word we know as messiah, which also means anointed one.
Now what is interesting, even in Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition there is not a lot of agreement as to what this word signifies. Or, it is more accurate to say it is a word freighted with many meanings. Because it can refer to individuals like Aaron, the priest, who was anointed with oil and by God to be a priest in the Temple. Or, it can be used metaphorically to refer to someone like Cyrus of Persia who delivered the Jewish people from their captivity in Babylon, or even to the entire people of Israel as anointed by God to be a light to the nations.
In Luke’s gospel only, Jesus is shown to be reading from the 61st chapter of Isaiah, “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” that is the Jubilee year of Leviticus. He then announces that this scripture is fulfilled, suggesting to some that he is claiming to be anointed, messiah, christos.
And at the time of Jesus the idea, not from the Bible, of a Messiah coming to restore the kingdom was in the air. But there were many different interpretations of what that meant. He would be a warrior, a judge, a king, a prophet, etc. None of which included the idea of being executed by the Roman government.
So what does Peter mean by christos? What does Mark understand it to mean? What do we mean by calling Jesus the Christ?
There is a cute joke circulating on the internet: Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the Father of the Church, and Baptists do not recognize one another in the liquor store.
Aside from deriving its laugh-line at the expense of Baptists and some perceived hypocrisy they might embody, the joke has another problem from the outset. It would lead us to believe that Jews reject the idea that Jesus was christos, anointed, messiah.
Decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue reveals that few Jews actually deny that Jesus could have been messiah. What they do not see is any evidence that he is. For in Jewish terms, the world would be a much better place if he were. There would be justice and peace for all people. The dignity of every human being would be respected. And Christians, at least, would seek Christ in all people and serve the Christ that we believe is already in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
And what we see are Christians killing Christians in places like Ireland, or unable to share bread and wine together in church, or trying to force one interpretation of who Jesus is on each other and everyone we meet, and on it goes.
The evangelist Mark reports, “And he charged them to tell no one about him,” and yet we continue to prattle on with our own ideas of who he is, missing altogether what he goes on to say: take up your cross and follow me.
At the end of the day, Jews say “Messiah is coming,” and Christians say, “Jesus/Messiah is coming again.” And most Jewish people say that when Messiah comes, if it turns out to be Jesus they will have no problem with that. Surprise for sure, but no problem.
This causes one to wonder, however, if it is not Jesus, how will we respond?
Contemplating what that future point in history might look like inspired the great Jewish thinker and writer Martin Buber to say that if he is present when Messiah comes, and people are all asking if it is or is not Jesus, he would hope to have the courage to step forward and whisper in Messiah’s ear, “For the love of heaven, please do not answer.”
The witness of Christian scripture is that even if it is Jesus he would probably answer back with a new question, a story, or say, “Only God knows for sure.”
Six years ago a statement issued by over 170 Jewish rabbis and scholars titled Dabru Eme was made publict. Dabru Emet is a call to the American and worldwide Jewish communities to reexamine how they think about and relate to Christians.
Here is, in part, what Dabru Emet had to say:
At one point the document acknowledges that “The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture. Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition. Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition. That difference will not be settled by one community insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other; nor by exercising power over the other. Jews can respect Christians’ faithfulness to their revelation just as we expect Christians to respect our faithfulness to our our revelation. Neither Jew nor Christian should be pressed into affirming the teaching of the other community.”
Sounds a lot like Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Gal 3:28-29
The document concludes with what we can do together: “Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace. Jews and Christians, each in their own way, recognize the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery. Although justice and peace are finally God’s, our joint efforts, together with those of other faith communities, will help bring the kingdom of God for which we hope and long. Separately and together, we must work to bring justice and peace to our world.”
In the end, the only thing we know that everyone can agree on about Jesus is that he worked alongside anyone who would join him to bring justice and peace to the world. He rarely, if ever, asked them to believe anything, least of all about him. He wrote no creeds or confessional statements. Instead, he always calls us to follow him.
We promise in our Baptism that we will be those people who strive for justice and peace for all people, not some people, not a lot of people, but all people, and respect the dignity of every, not some, not a few, not the ones like us, but every human being.
WDYSTIA? Who do you say that I am? Jesus wants to have that conversation with each of us, and is not overly insistent that we all have the same answer.
His only concern is that whoever we say Jesus is can be seen by the degree to which we do pick up our crosses and follow him. Where he goes and the people he chooses to spend time with are not the people we always find ourselves drawn to be with on a day to day basis: tax collectors, sinners, the lame, the sick, prostitutes and so on. That is the real challenge in our Baptismal promise to follow him.
What Jesus did in any given situation was always surprising and unpredictable. Which is why I cannot presume to know what he would do today or tomorrow, and cannot bring myself to adopt the kind of hubris it would take for me to wear a WWJD bracelet.
I could, however, wear one that says WDYSTIA, “who do you say that I am”, so that I might continue to have the conversation with him as I strive to follow him in his mission to bring Jubilee, justice and peace, to all people while respecting the dignity of every human being.