SCRIPTURE READING Mark 8:27-38
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.”
MESSAGE “Who is He? James R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder
Note: The children’s time earlier in the service involved sending children out into the congregation with paper and pencils as the pastor everyone to write down an answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” The papers were collected, and all of the answers read out loud. This anticipated the final point of the sermon – each of us must answer Jesus’ question to Peter in our words, from our own experience, and in light of our need.
One day a woman in my church in Rochester asked me a dangerous question. A simple question, but a dangerous question. Here was her question, “Am I crazy?” My choice of answers seemed limited. I could say “yes” or I could say “no”. If I said “no” she would be assured that in all of the problems she was having (and she had a lot of them) that none of them were her fault. All of the other people in her life, her children, her husband and her neighbors were the crazy ones, not her. I couldn’t say “no”, actually, because she did have obvious symptoms for many mental disorders, like depression, addiction (not to drugs or alcohol, but to drama and crisis), like low self-esteem, like inability to sleep, like poor parenting, all complicated by poverty.
But if I said “Yes, you are crazy” it would have destroyed her. I would be just one more person telling her that she had multiple screws loose and should be committed. If I said “yes” it could put her right over the edge. If I said “no” she would continue spiraling out of control, believing everyone was out to ruin her life.
Of course, the best answer would be more complicated. And that’s what I tried to say, that no one is perfect all of the time, that we all sometimes need mental health care at one time or another, and that the very basis of her question was flawed because mental health is a spectrum of issues, not just two simple categories, “crazy” and “normal”. There’s a lot in-between. She pondered all of this for a moment, but then said, “so you’re saying I’m crazy!”.
Then there was the Peanuts cartoon, where Lucy asks Charlie Brown, “who do you love more, your mother or your father?” Charlie Brown can’t even begin to answer a question like that. Then Lucy jubilantly declares Charlie Brown “wishy-washy” because he can’t decide. The poor guy can never win. That’s how I felt in trying to answer the woman about whether she was crazy or not.
Yesterday the British Labour Party in a huge upset elected a new party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was considered among the choice of candidates to be the most to the left. The three candidates more in the center apparently did not impress the party delegates. They were too muddled in the nuances of their ideas. In describing one of the centrist candidates who was supposed to win a columnist described her in this way: When asked if she prefers coffee or tea, what should be a simple question, she answers, “Tea, but there’s a lot to be said for coffee, too”. She lost the vote. The party rank-and-file seemed to want a leader with something more definite to say, so they elected Corbyn.
Now, our Bible story from Mark’s Gospel. What Jesus asked appeared to be a simple question for the disciples, but it was also a dangerous question for them. “Who do people think I am? What are people saying about me?” It seems that Jesus saw his disciples not just as helpers, but as people who knew how to take the pulse of the crowds. What are they really thinking? What are they really saying? “What are they saying about me?”
Let’s think about the possible answers the disciples could give to such a question. People think you must be a great magician because of all those miracles. People think you’re a kooky nut because of the outlandish things you say. People think you’re a hero. People think you’re a chump. But keep in mind that these disciples are working for Jesus, so you know they have to be careful about what you say to the boss. Say the truth and you might lose your job. Say something flattering and you’ll have a job tomorrow.
I’m reminded of an old Doonesbury cartoon, where the embattled President Nixon lives in a White House surrounded by protesters, pressed by the courts, feeling hounded by reporters, and even his allies in the Congress are abandoning him. But his aides keep assuring him that the American people are on his side; “they love you, sir”. They tell him what they think he wants to hear.
So here is how the disciples answer. “Some say you are John the Baptist”. Well that’s a compliment. John the Baptist had a good reputation for preaching about baptism and new life. So a compliment to compare Jesus to John.
Another disciple answered, saying “some think you are Elijah”. Also a positive answer because Elijah was a popular prophet from long before who contested against corrupt kings and queens and once won a dramatic contest between himself and 400 prophets of the false god Baal. Someday, it was believed, Elijah would come back and sweep up the faithful and take them to heaven. Even today there is a popular Passover tradition to always have one extra chair at the Passover table in case Elijah should appear.
Another disciple chimes in, “some say you are Elijah, or one of the other prophets”, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Nathan and many others. Now they’re laying it on thick.
But to Jesus all of these answers are too safe, too calculating, too muddled, too wishy-washy. So he changes the question. The first time it was “What are THEY saying about me?”. But the second time it’s more pointed, “what do YOU say about me?”.
Before seeing how Peter answers the question, how would you answer? After all, that’s the point of the story, not just to delight in Peter’s answer, but to offer your own. Who do you say he is? Many possible answers, he’s a smiling baby in a manger, he’s the one who walked on water and the one who calmed the storm, he’s the one who changed the water in wine, he’s the one on the Cross, he’s the one who walked out of the tomb alive. But Jesus isn’t interested in what others think. He wants to know what you think and what you believe.
And now Peter speaks up. Peter usually gets things wrong. Peter usually gets things way wrong. Even when he gets them right he often twists them into something wrong. But at that moment that Jesus asks the question Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah”. This is Marks’s Gospel. In the same story in Matthew Peter says “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. In Luke, Peter says “you are the Christ of God”. In these three versions of his answer we detect that Peter has found a way to get to the heart of the answer, “you are the Christ”, more than a smiling baby, more than a miracle-maker, more than a teacher, more than a prophet, but the Christ, the one sent by God into the world, and especially sent to you!