A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 13, 2009 (Proper 19, Year B)
I’d like to take an informal poll this morning. By a show of hands, how many of you would identify yourselves as Red Sox fans? (Just what I suspected). Are there any Yankee fans in the house? And finally, are there any Baltimore Orioles supporters among us?
Identity is a powerful thing. We identify ourselves with all sorts of organizations and causes: our sports teams, political parties, schools from which we’ve graduated, hometowns, jobs. All you’d have to do is walk around the parking lot and check out the bumper stickers to get a sense of this. And if someone were to ask me to describe myself in twenty words or less I’d use a bunch of these identifiers. I’m an Episcopal priest, husband, father, runner, coffee drinker, dog owner, and Orioles fan from Baltimore by way of New York who served in the Army and went to Tufts University. For those keeping score that was actually 31 words but you get the idea. We could engage in a similar exercise at Coffee Hour and we’d get a quick snapshot of each others’ basic identities.
And identity is precisely the question Jesus addresses with the disciples in this morning’s gospel from Mark. He’s gathered them together to determine the buzz that’s out there. Jesus has been teaching and preaching and calling and healing at a frenetic pace. And he wants to know the word on the street. He wants to know what the average Joe makes of his ministry. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks the disciples. And he gets a variety of responses. Some think he’s the reincarnation of Elijah, some think he’s John the Baptist, some think he’s a prophet of some sort. And it makes sense that there’d be a fair amount of confusion. No one had ever seen or heard anything quite like this guy from Nazareth.
And Jesus doesn’t immediately refute all of these other responses. Or laugh at the people who are confused about his own identity. Rather he lets the evidence of his ministry speak for itself and he redirects his question to those closest to him. Fine, they may think I’m Elijah or John the Baptist or some other prophet “But who do you say that I am?” And you can almost see the intensity in his eyes as he asks them this bedrock question of faith. The public opinion poll no longer matters – the question becomes personal. “Who do you say that I am?”
Moving forward, the answer to the question of Jesus’ identity will define the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. If the answer comes back “a brilliant teacher” or “a great guy to hang around” or “the wisest prophet since Moses,” that’s hardly worth going to the cross for. But Peter gets it immediately. He replies “You are the Messiah.” And in that moment it all becomes clear. Jesus’ life, ministry, and purpose is defined; his identity is revealed – he is the anointed one; the one sent by God to bring salvation and healing and hope and life eternal to a broken and sinful world.
Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t completely seal the deal for Peter and the disciples. They continually backtrack and demonstrate a lack of faith and deny their “Messiah.” That’s pretty much a hallmark of the disciples in Mark’s gospel – theirs is a sort of bumbling, Three Stooges approach to faith. But it also shows that the question of Jesus’ identity never goes away. The question returns again and again and again and we must be prepared to answer it each and every day. Because it’s not just a question Jesus posed to his followers a couple thousand years ago. With the same loving intensity, Jesus poses the question directly to you and to me. “Who do you say that I am?”
So, who do you say that Jesus is? He’d like to know. Do you say he’s a good moral teacher? Sort of a faith-based life coach? Do you say he’s someone you like to call upon but only in times of real desperation? Do you say he’s someone you’d like to be available 24/7 but only when it’s convenient to your schedule? Or do you say he’s the Messiah; the savior of the world? The one in whom you live and move and have your being? Like the disciples we often stumble in our attempts to keep Jesus at the very center of our lives. But this is precisely where he needs to be for us to live our lives to their fullest potential.
It’s hard work – no one ever said discipleship was easy. In one breath Peter declares Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah. In the next he rebukes Jesus for telling of his future suffering, rejection, and crucifixion. He wants to be a disciple of Jesus but on his terms rather than God’s. Which is a trap we often fall into. And Peter in turn gets the big verbal smackdown: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Which begs the question for us: is your life about God’s plan for you or is it more about your plan for God? There’s a big difference and I bid you to spend some time wrestling with this question in the days ahead as you ponder who you say Jesus is and how his presence in your life defines your own identity.
And as you think about the 20 or 31 words that best describe you, I hope “Christian” is part of the mix. That should be what ultimately defines us. Our relationship with Jesus Christ must trump all our other self-identifiers. Yes, even our loyalties to our sports teams. We may not walk around with Jesus hats or t-shirts, as we might with our Red Sox or Yankee or Oriole hats. But our Christian identity is firmly and indelibly marked upon our hearts and souls by virtue of our baptism. And it’s precisely this identity – as children of God – that we must continually strive to live into.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009