Jesus, the Christ
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
This sermon was delivered on November 17, 2019 At Common Ground Church In New York, New York As part of our Deconstructing/Reconstructing Faith sermon series Text: Mark 8:27-9:1
‘The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.’ – Mechtild of Magdeburg
‘We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.’ – Richard Rohr
“Who do you say that I am?” Part I
I would wager by the mere fact that you are in this room today, you’ve probably wrestled on some level with this question of Jesus’ identity. Who is Jesus and why does it matter? The good news is that we’re not the first ones to ask this question.
Our Gospel reading today is a testament to this fact. Mark’s Gospel is not simply telling a story about Jesus asking some of his closest followers, “Who do you think I am?” The author is also inviting the readers and hearers of this ancient text to wrestle with this question.
At Common Ground, many of us have been on quite a journey. A lot of us have been accustomed to hearing clean and easy answers to messy and complex questions. And if you’re like me, the question about who is this Jesus is not an easy one to answer. So today, friends, I am inviting you on a journey that transcends our time and place and invites you to look again as this age old question, “Who do you say I am?”
Our journey begins with a moment that is emblazoned on my mind. It’s in a land of dirt roads, sprawling pecan trees, donkeys named Honey, Nut, and Crunch, the sweetest of tea, and gentle, Southern accents. The place is none other than my grandparents’ small house that feels more like a Cracker Barrel that’s been reimagined as a home.
The year was 2000. We had successfully managed to survive Y2K and Jesus did not come back as my cousin had warned me. The house was quiet and I was sitting with my grandma, whom I fondly call ‘Nanny.’ This was a special night, because it was the night that my Nanny would share with me the good news that had been shared with her. It was the news of a god who just couldn’t get over my sin unless this male deity sent his only son to die. If he did this, then the whole earth would benefit. And the way that we would benefit is through a simple prayer that my Nanny shared with me. This magical incantation–sorry, I mean prayer–would unlock the pearly gates of heaven unto me.
Now, my Nanny did not share this book with me to scare me (at least not consciously). She did this, because this is what she knew.
Like many of us in this room who share a similar story, this experience shaped my thinking and cast a long shadow of fear and self-doubt over my life.
At the same time, however, this experience also gave me an answer to that question, “Who do you say that I am?”
The answer was clear and it was my passport to an eternity of bliss: “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior.”
“Who do you say that I am?” Part II
Fast-forward to the college years. These are what I like to call my “High Holy Days” because I was on the highest of holy horses. The irony is that while I was trying to help everyone else live their most holy life, I was wrestling with this belief that my sin was separating me from God. I was told that I was born into sin and shaped in iniquity, so how could God ever love me? What good was there to me? Nothing but the Blood of Jesus. This was a hard place to be for me and I wrestled to believe that God actually liked me. At least Jesus was my personal Lord and Savior and I knew where I would end up after I died. Right?
This perfectly ordered world that I was inhabiting began to tear at the seams. I watched as the threads started unraveling as I studied more and began recognizing that God was bigger than I had ever imagined. At the completion of a Master of Arts in Ministerial Leadership, I had been married for a little over a year to my best friend from college (who was a woman) and I began opening up my theological questions. It was during that time that I came across Rachel Held Evan’s blog and I realized that I was not alone in my questions. Rachel, like me, grew up with a conservative version of Christianity and she came to the place where the order had turned to disorder.
What did it all in for me was the realization that I had been repressing my sexual identity for 24 years. This led to a great wrestling match with the sacred mystery. What is true about me? What is true about God? How do I understand my place and others like me in God’s world?
After coming to some theological conclusions about my queer sexuality being alright, God and I went on a bit of a break. I chose to look at my faith through an academic lens and discern how I wanted to move forward. The question that arose over and over again for me was Mark’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Who do you say that I am? Part III
Friends, before we move any further, I want to be clear that I have worked through this question for years. My understanding has been shaped by a diversity of preachers, writers, and theologians like Paul Tillich, Monica Coleman, John and Sarah Crossan, Donna Schaper, Marcus Borg, and Richard Rohr. I would love to have a conversation about resources for further research. But the place that I land is beautifully reflected in this passage from Mark’s Gospel.
It begins like Jesus and his disciples who are described as being “on the way” to the villages of Caesarea Phillipi. While this is certainly a phrase that means exactly what it says: Jesus and his disciples were literally on their way somewhere; it is also an expression used by early Christians to describe their religious experience. They understood Jesus’ life and teaching to be a way for them to imitate and learn from. Not just a way to the by and by where we’ll all fly away some bright morning (maybe) but more specifically a way of being in the world here and now.
When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter steps up to the plate and declares that Jesus is the Christ. Another way to translate this is, “You are the Messiah.” As I have worked through this on my journey, I have found that this statement gives me so much more hope and meaning than, “Jesus, you are my personal Lord and Savior.” To say that Jesus is the Christ both transcends and integrates this statement. Here’s how.
I believe that Jesus being the Christ is not a means to himself. In other words, the point of Jesus is not Jesus. I think we’ve missed it if all we do is end there. Instead, I believe that Jesus is the Light of the World–a light that shines so bright it gives us a new of seeing and engaging everything including God.
But what does this mean?
Let’s get real basic for a moment. Christ is not a last name even though that’s how it often feels in church, because we don’t talk about what this means. So let’s talk about it for a moment.
Christ is the English translation of the Greek word Christos, which is the translation of the Hebrew word Mashiach or in English Messiah. The Messiah/the Christ are the same thing. They both mean anointed. This gets applied to Jesus as a title. Jesus the Christ. Or simply Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ.
In the worship experiences of the ancient Israelites, anointing was an important act. Oil was taken and rubbed or smeared on people who were understood to be operating as God’s vessels. It was a way to signify that God’s presence was flowing in a specific time and place. This was typically used for priests, prophets, and kings, because it was believed that God was at work within these people.
By the time that we get to Jesus in the first century of the common era, there are multiple understandings of an anticipated individual who would be a specific anointed one. A common idea was that there would be an anointed one of God who would come and rescue the Jews from the Roman Empire’s grip. The anointed one was connected with both religious and political authority.
So what do we make of Jesus as the Christ? Jesus did not free the Jews from Rome. At least not in the way that many anticipated.
If we recognize that Jesus is the Christ, it does mean that we are allowing him to reshape our expectations of God’s activity in the world. To see Jesus as the Christ, then, revolutionizes the way that we see everything. To see Jesus as the Christ is actually about the way that we see and engage ourselves, one another, and all of creation.
As we continue with Mark’s Gospel, we find more of what this change in Messianic expectations actually looks like.
Right after Peter says that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus explains that his next steps involve suffering, rejection, and death. It’s clear that this does not line up with Peter’s expectation of what God is expected to be doing through Jesus.
After Peter and Jesus have a rebuke fest, Jesus explains that this is actually the way that he is inviting everyone to follow him. Jesus is inviting his followers to follow his pattern of death and resurrection.
You see, to say that Jesus is the Christ is to say pay attention to Jesus’ life–not just the last chapter of his story. It is Jesus’ life that is actually showing us the pattern of death and resurrection that happens over and over again before the final chapter. Jesus life is a one of descent–not one of ascent. The way of the Christ is not a way of getting the best life ever through climbing the ladder. It is a way of finding our true selves by losing our false selves. It is learning to become conscious of the programming that we unconsciously live by everyday and letting that die so that our original goodness can live in us.
This is carrying our cross. This is death and resurrection.
To say that Jesus is the Christ is to say that God is present and active in the world. The anointing is an acknowledgment of God’s activity. To acknowledge Jesus’ anointing is to acknowledge God’s presence in our own human bodies. It is matter–the physical world where Spirit is active. God is not in another dimension deciding whether or not to intervene in the world. To recognize the Christ in Jesus is to recognize that God is active in the material world. The universe is the Body of God. It is where we see, hear, and touch God. It is going back to the original declaration of God in Genesis: creation is good–it is very good!
Beloved, I believe that a recognition of Jesus as the Christ is actually a recognition that God is here–around us and within us. I believe that it says just as much about us and the entirety of creation as it does about Jesus. Before Jesus ever walked the earth, the Christ was present. The Christ was present in creation, declaring the goodness and beauty of God. And the Christ is present after Jesus–still in creation and in us. We are the places where God dwells. This is the conclusion of the early Christians. They recognized that God’s work in Jesus meant that God was working in their lives. Heaven is all around us being unveiled.
Yes, it is hard (sometimes it feels impossible) to see God’s activity in everyone. But I challenge each of us to take a second glance. Look again. We are all on a journey of death and resurrection; we all have to do the hard work of letting the false self die so that the true self can live.
And the good news is that on this journey, we are already accepted by our Creator. We are not separated. We have been embraced.
And because of this embrace, we are invited to cultivate our interior lives. We are invited to know ourselves and find healing. In facing our own pain and trauma, we can find that death does give way to new life. This new life becomes the spring from which our own acts of love, service, and justice can flow more freely, because we project less and less of our unhealed pain onto those around us. We learn to let go of the prejudices we have been programmed to believe. Don’t believe me? Find a good therapist and see what happens!
In Jesus we don’t see that resurrection is a mere future reality for a select few; rather death and resurrection are the pattern of all things. Loss and renewal are always occuring in our world. We are shown a new way to interact with suffering and loss. We can learn to go with the flow of the cross bearing journey and find resurrection here and now. We can transcend our suffering–not by ignoring the pain or attempting to erase it but instead by integrating it. By acknowledging it and allowing it to become part of our healing and our way forward.
Beloved, if Jesus is the Christ, we are not being asked to believe only in Jesus so that our personal salvation is guaranteed. If Jesus is the Christ, we are being asked to recognize and rethink our how God is at work in the world. Surely death and resurrection are all around us. If we pause and look carefully, we will find that this is the pattern of Reality. And it doesn’t just happen inside churches or among people who claim the name of Christ. God doesn’t need our specific branding for this work of love to take place.
But for those of us who are finding this pattern of reality in the person of Jesus, here’s the message we carry: what looked like a man who failed to liberate people from an oppressive empire actually became the start of a movement where we find that there is a nonviolent alternative to an unjust and violent world. We can respond the cycle of destruction differently. We can find healing and wholeness by learning to integrate and transcend this destruction, because we are not waiting for the divine mystery to show up nor are we waiting for our future salvation in heaven.
Instead, we are learning to meet the Christ within ourselves, one another, and the entirety of creation. We are learning to see the face of God here and now and live in this world, because it’s God’s world. For as our passage reads, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Beloved, may we have eyes to see the kingdom here in all things. Amen.
Beloved, when you look in the mirror, may you find the Christ looking back. When you look in the eyes of your neighbor, may you find the Christ looking back. When you gaze at the face of your enemy, may you find the Christ looking back. And when you see the stars light up the sky, may you find the Christ the Christ looking down. And now, go in peace.