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Who Do You Say Jesus Is Now?

The Rev. Dr. William Rich
August 16, 2016


Who Do You Say That I Am?

Near the mid-point of his ministry, on the road with his disciples, Jesus asks them a crucial question. It is the question that we have, in effect, been asking ourselves all year long here at Trinity as we have journeyed through the New Testament with Jesus, with his disciples, with Paul, and with the many followers who join the Jesus movement after the Resurrection, as the Holy Spirit begins to animate the Church for mission throughout the Mediterranean basin and into the regions beyond.

27 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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:27-29)

Peter’s answer, when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” is that for him Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But Peter has been with Jesus for some time before he answers the Lord’s question in that way. I sometimes wonder what Peter’s answer would have been if Jesus has asked this same question only a week or so after Peter left behind his nets and began to follow Jesus. And to us who have traveled with Jesus over whatever part of our lives we have been Christians, and have together been traveling with him and one another during these months since last September, Jesus has over and over been putting the same question: “Who do you say that I am?” What is your answer? Is it the same now as when you were younger? Would your answer in May be the same as the answer you would have given last September?

Let me be personal with you as I try to answer Jesus’ question.  I have been a Christian my entire life, now more than 63 years of journeying with Jesus. (There was, as some of you know, during college a hiatus in my journey, when Jesus and I had a lover’s quarrel, and I decided to try to make a go of journeying without God. More on that later.) During the many years of my journey, I have answered Jesus’ question in a variety of ways. During my childhood, Jesus was teacher, the one whose Beatitudes convinced me that there was a better way of living than the behaviors I saw among my schoolmates. Jesus was also the friend I could count on when schoolmates were cruel to me or to others.

In my teens, Jesus became my opponent in heated debates about whether God was really good and powerful. (The fancy theological term for this is the problem of theodicy.) The Vietnam War was raging, and the movements for civil rights for people of color and women were drawing out nasty, violent reactions from those who feared change. As I wrestled with these issues, I could not make sense of how a God of goodness would allow such terrible things to happen. And so Jesus and I quarreled, and debated with each other about God’s goodness, and God’s power. And I “solved” the problem by eventually concluding that the God I had been taught to believe in must not exist, and I told Jesus so – with some defiance, and no few broken-hearted tears. It was rather like a lover’s quarrel. In this time, Jesus became for me a sounding board and a debate partner. Someone who respected my opinion and listened to me, but also offered strong counter arguments and opinions – while still allowing me space for my own. My friendship with Jesus was morphing.  Maybe it was maturing….

My attempting to journey in life without God occupied the first few years of my twenties, and I was unhappy. Issues that had been bubbling below the surface for some time – my streak of perfectionism, and my inability to grapple with my sexuality with open-eyes – came to a crisis point. My girlfriend of several years announced without warning that she was ending our relationship mid-fall in sophomore year, and I came up to the cusp of exam time so afraid of not fulfilling my perfectionistic standards academically that I became suicidal. Into the midst of that horror, God appeared as a gentle, warm light in the corner of my room in the wee hours, and stayed with me for some twenty minutes, before the light faded. As the light began to dissipate, I heard an inner voice say the exact opposite of what I had been feeling, “Bill, you are just fine the way you are.” Needless to say, I had to reassess my atheistic worldview, and I began to feel that Jesus had come to me as light in the midst of darkness, a Savior I desperately needed. Never before had the term Savior had any real personal meaning, but from that point on, I came to know what it meant to be saved by God’s intervention.

I have lived more than forty years since then, and I will not try your patience with recounting the new dimensions of awareness of who Jesus is that have illumined my life since then, and changed my experience of myself, of others, of the wider world, and of God. Suffice it to say that I have come to know Jesus as Redeemer – the One who can turn around the messes that I, and others make. He has made himself known as the end of sacrifice, the one who frees us from the hubristic need to try to make God – and others – more loving through “good deeds.” I have glimpsed Jesus as the Hope who turns around and trumps my hopelessness. And I could say more, but I will stop here, with one last word. Since September, the new Jesus who has emerged more strongly for me is the courageous yet compassionate risk-taker, who stands up to injustice, intervenes on behalf of the judged and outcast, and yet does not sink into self-righteous condemnation of the unjust ones he confronts.

I have opened this “short” history of my relationship with Jesus up to illustrate what I hope you too have been finding out in your journey this year. Jesus is not just one thing to us, and his relationship to us is not static. Jesus meets us where we are – and in many different guises according to the needs of our individual souls, and the needs of our church and our world. Jesus does not stand still, but always goes out in front of us, bidding us to discover new dimensions of self, other, and God. And while calling us forward, he also walks beside us as faithful companion as we venture into these new dimensions of life. This journey, I believe, will never end while we are in this world. To new horizons of truth, beauty, and goodness, Jesus invites us, and as we make our hesitant or joyful steps towards what lies beyond our sight, he helps us to bear whatever “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” may befall us along the way. And when we cross the last horizon that is death, I have the delightful suspicion that we will continue to be surprised by his graciousness and the unbounded love of the God he incarnates.

But more importantly: who do you say Jesus is for you now?


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