Smack dab in the middle of Mark’s gospel–between Jesus’ ministry of “opposing all that oppresses God’s people,” (David Lose, WorkingPreacher.com, 9/9/12) as one writer puts it–the healings, the exorcisms, the feeding, and so forth–and the journey to the cross, right here in the middle we find this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. “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.”
It may sound like a conversation to pass the time while walking from one town to the next (“on the way”), but it was far more than that–really the pivot of Jesus’ whole ministry, in fact. Who do you say that I am? It’s not just a question of names or terms, but of authority. Why does anything I say or do matter? What difference does it make–in your life, in the life of your community, or to the world, for that matter? “Who do you say that I am?”
The Christian Century, a venerable and well-respected bi-weekly journal that we receive here at the church, recently ran an article entitled, “The Gospel in 7 Words.” The pre-text was this–
“In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recalls how his friend P.D. East had badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. East did not want a long or fancy explanation. ‘I’m not too bright,’ he told Campbell. ‘Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?’ Campbell obliged his friend: ‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said. To which East replied, ‘If you want to try again, you have two words left.”
(The Christian Century, Sept. 5, 2012, p. 20)
So, “the Century invited some authors to try their hand at summarizing the Christian message in seven words or less.” (Ibid.) Here are a few of their answers–”We live by grace,” wrote Craig Barnes. Donald Shriver wrote, “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.” Author Mary Karr wrote, “We are the church of infinite chances.” Environmental activist Bill McKibben thinks “Love your neighbor as yourself” summarizes the gospel. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes with characteristic density, “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.” (Century, pp. 20-25) (“I used only six words. I rested on the 7th.”)
The Gospel in 7 words or less. Who do you say that I am? Jesus asked. How would you answer? Could you put the gospel in 7 words or less?
We know Peter’s answer. “You are the Messiah,” which didn’t seem to please Jesus all that much. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” And the conversation got even more uncomfortable as it went on. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Humanity must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great 19th c. American Transcendentalist, wrote, “In a friend, I’m not looking for a mush of concession, a person who will agree with everything I say. Rather, I’m looking for a person who will challenge me, who will become a beautiful enemy, a person who will help me in my apprenticeship to the truth.”
Jesus was looking for a beautiful enemy, not someone who would simply tell him what they thought Jesus would want to hear. If Jesus had any sense that he was the Messiah, he knew it was not the kind of Messiah that most people expected, the one who would free Israel from the occupation of the Romans, the kind of king whose armies and powers would overpower all other kings and armies, matching violence for violence, no matter how good a God he might be proclaiming. “Don’t just tell people I’m the Messiah,” Jesus says. “They won’t understand what that really means.”
Interestingly enough, 106 years ago on September 11, Gandhi delivered his speech that launched the non-violent resistence movement that changed India forever. “I am prepared to die for this cause,” he said, “but there is not a cause for which I will kill.” He also affirmed, “We are Hindu and Muslim, all children of God, and in the name of that God, let us swear a solemn vow that we will resist this unjust law, but we will not kill.” It is significant that Gandhi’s model for non-violence was Jesus. We may disagree on whether non-violence is the same as pacifism (I don’t think it is) and whether it has any moral backbone to it (I think it’s got more than I have), but it is clear what the way of Jesus is. Whether it is a way that can be followed by a nation is not clear, even though that nation may call itself “Christian.” India under Gandhi’s leadership followed the way of non-violence, but we know that India no longer follows that way.
“He began to teach them that the Son of Humanity must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu’s Institute of Extraordinary Living, writes that they have made some surprising discoveries in their research on people who are trying to discover and nourish the gifts they’ve been given, artists, musicians, teachers, whatever. One surprise is that the gift requires practice. The most successful musicians, artists, whatever are not those simply with the greatest innate gifts, but those who worked at developing and honing their gifts. The gift requires practice.
The second surprise was this: that a person’s unique gift is quite often paired with their woundedness. “Strangely, our greatest strength (and greatest possibility) seems to be routinely paired with our greatest limitation–even our greatest wound.” (The Great Work of Your Life @mariashriver.com/blog/2012/09) For example, one successful writer’s poetry comes out of the difficult circumstances of her life, an abusive childhood and the early loss of her mother. Our greatest gifts may be paired with our woundedness. Might this be a different way to think of our unique cross, which Jesus told us we must take up to follow him?
And related to this is the third surprise in the Extraordinary Living research–”The full flowing of the gift [writes Cope] is usually paired with a sacrifice of some kind,” the giving up of something else–even something important–to fully serve the gift. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
The word for “life” here is psyche, meaning “life force,” or “vital force.” To gain that vitality, that life, we have to give up clinging to it and everything else we think our lives depend upon, for when we “get clingy,” as one commentator puts it, “then we have no free arm to reach out to another.” (Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 9/10/12)
This conversation began with Jesus’ question to his disciples–”Who do you say that I am?” And though Peter had the “right” answer–You are the Messiah–it wasn’t an answer they were to tell anyone else, because it wouldn’t communicate the Truth of who Jesus was and is. Much of our “church-y” language today doesn’t communicate the Truth of who Jesus is, either–language like “lord” and “savior”. What does that really mean to anyone not raised in the church (or even to those of us who were)? “Who do you say that I am?”
Here are a few more of the 7-words-or-less answers the Christian Century writers submitted–Kathleen Norris wrote, “God is love: This is no joke.” “To dwell in possibility,” another wrote, after Emily Dickinson’s poem, I Dwell in Possibility. “God refuses to be God without us,” wrote United Methodist bishop William Willimon. “Everybody gets to grow and change,” wrote UCC pastor Lilian Daniel, though in parentheses she added, “(but not everyone will grow and change.)” “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity,” wrote Scott Cairnes. “God gets the last word.” – Martin Copenhaver. “We are who God says we are,” wrote another (Nadia Bolz-Weber).
Who do you say that I am? In a world where labels like Christian or Muslim or Jew, conservative or liberal, get hurled around, we ought to be able to speak clearly and succinctly about what being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, means to us. How would you respond to a friend who asked you, “In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?” Here’s the six word phrase I came up with–
“Love includes you and outlasts death.” Love includes you and outlasts death.
Here’s your assignment for the week. In 7 words or less, what is the Gospel for you? There’s a sheet on the folding choir doors in Webster Hall for you to add your phrase. Mine is up there. You can add your name or initials or not.
“Who do you say that I am?”
–Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark