Identity theft is a real problem in these days of digital information exchange and storage. If someone with less than scrupulous intentions gets a hold of your social security number or credit card information, they can wreck all sorts of havoc on your life. If that’s ever happened to you, it’s hard to maintain perspective about your “identity”–it can feel like it’s a set of numbers, rather than anything much more resilient, much more complex, much more important.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked his disciples, clearly not asking to be reminded of his social security number, and then the much more pointed question, “But who do you say that I am?” John Pilch, a scholar of the cultural world of Jesus, points out that “Americans are the most individualistic people who have ever lived on the face of this planet.” (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Yr. A, p. 127) Each person is viewed as being distinct, unique–right?–We each have a number. We fashion our identities. We create profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace. We want to be special, unique.
The Mediterranean view of identity, on the other hand, the view in Jesus’ culture, was just the opposite. It was–and still is–what might be called “dyadic,” that is, “paired,” other-oriented. They have, says Pilch, “no sense of their individuality but depend rather on the opinions of others to help them know who they are.” (Ibid.) They are so bound up in social and familial structures that define them that acting outside of that, as an individual, was viewed with suspicion.
Each of these views–individualistic and dyadic–have their own advantages and disadvantages. But they are different. We need to be reminded that ours isn’t the only way of looking at the world.
So, these questions of Jesus to the disciples were not a “theological quiz,” Pilch contends, but rather “reflect a normal, Mediterranean curiosity by Jesus.” Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?
The normal cultural definitions of who he was weren’t working. When people identified him as “Jesus of Nazareth,” it was supposed to tell them that he was like everyone else from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”– Remember Nathaniel’s question to Philip in John’s gospel when he told him Jesus was from Nazareth? Where you came from was supposed to describe who you were. We still have a bit of that–Oh, you’re from Bennington? Or Pownal? Or Woodford? Or North Bennington? Or Manchester? We do form different pictures in our minds, don’t we, depending on the answer?
Who your parents were described you, and usually boys took on their fathers’ occupation. Which is why Jesus’ identity was a problem–”Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?” people asked. “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Mt. 13:55-57)
“Who are people saying the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked his disciples, as it seems that this is the one title Jesus may have claimed for himself–the Son of Man, the Fully Human One. “And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”
Who do you say that I am? Who do you say that Jesus is? Jesus Is the Question is the title of a new book by Martin Copenhaver, the new president of Andover Newton Seminary. Jesus asks far more questions than he does give answers. And Jesus is himself the question, isn’t he? Who do you say that I am? And what difference does that make in your life?
How would you answer that? It’s a question worth spending some time with. I was thinking that maybe just as we shared with each other our take on “the gospel in 7 words or less,” it might be fun to hear how we would answer, Who do you say that Jesus is? There’s a sheet of paper up on the bulletin board to the left as you go out Webster Hall on which you are welcome to write your answer, or answers, …or maybe your questions…
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
Scott Colglazier, senior pastor of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, has a wonderful image that really speaks to me. When Peter answered “the Christ,” he wasn’t giving him a last name. “‘The Christ’ is not a person but an energy,” Colglazier says, “the divine energy that was released into the world through the life of Jesus.” [Day1.org, 8/24/14] It is an energy that is still changing people. “This is nothing less than the energy or presence of God,” Colglazier says–expressed as compassion, unconditional love, inexhaustible grace, creative, transforming and inspiring goodness. He calls it a “Christ-burst” of energy, so that “sharing Christ” is not so much a telling as it is a sharing of an energy. “Every time we treat another person with dignity and respect and every time we bring compassion to another human being, especially a human being that is hurting and broken, and every time we offer love as a way of life, we bring Christ to others, and the great Christ-burst that started centuries ago continues in our time and in our place.” [Ibid.]
“Who do you say that I am?”
Another pastor and preacher, Lutheran David Lose, writes that for him, Jesus is the one who reveals the heart of God, as he weeps over Jerusalem, for example. [Lose, inthemeantime. org, 8/24/14] Surely God is still weeping over Jerusalem, and Gaza, and Urbil, and Ferguson, and Kabul, and Bagdhad, and Washington, and Bennington, and the whole sad and hurting world. Jesus reveals the heart of God, as he has compassion for the hungry, the poor, the sick, the outcast. That’s who Jesus is–the revealer of the heart of God.
And Jesus reveals what is possible in a human being, whose life is open to God. That’s what Paul had in mind when he wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Or, as Peterson imagines it, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.” Offer it up to God, so that God can transform it into just what is needed to make the world more just, more beautiful, more healing, as Jesus’ life was transformed.
“Don’t be conformed to this world,” Paul wrote, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”–your whole perspective changed by this Christ lens through which you now view the world and your life. Who you are is unique–you are a unique product of experiences, gifts and graces, environment, family configuration and ancestors, time in history, DNA, place where you were born, dumb luck, choices you’ve made. But each of us is but one part of a greater body– “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,” Paul said. We are each but one gem at the intersection of an infinite number of threads in a net of creation, as the Hindu myth of Indra’s net describes it. The African notion of ubuntu says “I am because you are.” A person is a person through other people.
“Who do you say that I am?” It is not a catchism question. It is a life question. How do you live your life because I am? How do you live your life because Jesus was and Christ is? What energy pattern are you manifesting? Are you so drawn into your culture and the mold it prescribes for you that you are not open to being transformed by God’s energy, God’s compassion, God’s justice, God’s unconditional love? And what are you doing to open up the possibilities of that transformation–is there space in your life for silence and noticing the world around you, including how your thoughts jump around and chase each other? Do you take time to give thanks for any number of blessings? Do you put yourself in situations where you can be reminded of the connections you have with people you don’t think are “like you”? Do you take time to connect with nature and all the creatures of which you also are a part? Do you direct “Christ energy” toward people and situations in need of healing and justice and hope? “Who do you say that I am?”
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.” “By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…” Share Christ-energy with everyone you meet and live with. Send it out to the whole world. So may you know who you are and Whose you are. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark