Preparing to have a child is full of a ton of decisions, and endless questions from friends, family, doctors, even strangers in the check-out line. As the due date gets closer, one becomes more common – “what are you going to name him?” Of all the decisions you make, naming your child can be one of the most difficult. Do you pick a name that reflects names that run in the family? Are you looking for a name that is traditional, trendy, or totally unique? Will you name your child after a fruit or vegetable? What kind of nicknames might come from this name? Is it going to sound right with your last name, or give your little on an awkward set of initials? It’s easy to overthink this, but also get stuck in a lot of places. And that’s without the commentary other people are bound to give if you share your name early. Even in modern society, naming has a lot of pressure; this is the name that likely will reflect and maybe shape your child’s identity for the rest of their life. It is one of the first things that we share about a baby’s arrival, and it’s kind of a big deal. Like in the opening sequence of the movie The Lion King, when all the animals come to Pride Rock as “The Circle of Life” plays, and Rafiki lifts up the little lion cub, presenting “Simba” to the entire kingdom. It is dramatic and full of meaning, not just for the one being named, but for the whole community.
The opening verses of Mark’s gospel are a similar proclamation, as the evangelist says “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)” In this, he makes a bold assertion, a royal proclamation if you will, that this is not just any ordinary person or story. This is Jesus Christ, christos in the Greek, which means “anointed one” and would have connections with the anointing of kings in ancient Israel. “Christ” is not a last name for Jesus; it is a proclamation of his identity, and shapes everything in the story that follows. The next eight chapters in Mark demonstrate a flyover of Jesus’ ministry along the sea and in the wilderness, full of stories of healings and miracles. Along the way, we hear the buzz among the people of Galilee. Jesus casts out an unclean spirit and they ask “who is this?” (1:27). He tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven and the religious leaders question his authority, for “who can forgive but God alone?” (2:1-12). Jesus speaks in the storm and the disciples wonder “who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41).
Halfway through the gospel, these murmurs turn from a quiet buzz to a direct question, a hinge in the narrative that shifts everything in the verses we read just a few moments ago as Jesus is on the way to Caesarea Philippi. This time, it is Jesus who asks the question. First, he inquires about what people are saying about him and his identity, almost as if testing the waters of gossip. The disciples answer with reports that indicate the overall reception of Jesus up to this point by the community, each with a significance that hints at a bigger answer.
In chapter 6, Herod Antipas is alarmed that Jesus is John the Baptist, which is a startling revelation for Herod just had him beheaded, so this would indicate he had risen from the dead. Resurrection would shake the very foundations of whomever was in power. Others said Elijah, which would have brought hope in Jewish hearts aching for God’s promised Messiah, as many expected Elijah’s presence to be a necessary prerequisite to a messianic appearance. Elijah is only one of two in the Hebrew scriptures who did not die, but was taken to be with God directly, and in a mighty fashion with a chariot of fire. But perhaps he was a prophet, which would have given reassurance to the people that God had not abandoned them, even though the people in the 1st century were under Roman occupation and did not have their own king from the line of David[i]. All of these hinted at the expectations the people of God had for their redeemer and Savior. And yet, none were quite right. So Jesus pointedly asks again, “Who do you say that I am?”
He’s not looking for the textbook answer. As Andre Resner notes:
[Jesus] demands that they answer from their core. They cannot rely on hearsay – gossip theology – from politicians or theologians. They must take a personal stand[ii].
Of course, Peter is ready and quick to answer. He repeats the label given to readers in the very first verse of Mark’s gospel: “You are the christos,” the Messiah. All of the hopes and expectations for centuries of God’s people are met in this word.
Ding! Ding! Ding! We might expect a round of applause, gold star, or some other award. But what follows is the opposite. They’re told not to tell anyone about him. This is known as the “Messianic Secret,” and is a repeated instruction throughout the gospel. It’s not because they necessarily get the title wrong, but because even with the right answer, they don’t fully comprehend what it means. In the verses that follow these, Jesus describes what is to come, and dismantles the idea that the Messiah will overthrow everything in a blaze of glory. God’s power and authority is not going to look like they expect it to look. Instead it is a story that continues to Jerusalem and the cross.
His question isn’t looking to boost his own ego at the midpoint in the gospel, or determine the disciples’ approval rating of his ministry. It isn’t a test. Instead, as Dr. Karoline Lewis offers, this question posed to the disciples is:
It’s the moment when you come face-to-face with your own commitment, your own discipleship, your own identity. It’s the moment when you have to admit to what extent how you follow Jesus actually connects with some sort of confession of who you believe Jesus to be.
. . .
“Who do you say that I am?” is at the same time, “who will you say that you are?” That’s the rub of this question, the heart of its difficulty. If it we only had to provide an answer to Jesus’ question of his identity, that would be one thing. However, answering the question of Jesus’ identity is also having to give voice to our own[iii].
What was true for the disciples then is true for us today. If we claim Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, our Lord and Savior, then we are also asserting something bold about who we are choosing to be. And, even like Peter in his enthusiasm, in our eagerness to call ourselves Christian, we might not always slow down enough to think about all that it actually means. Wrapped in this question is a renewed invitation to discipleship. It is Jesus again standing at the shoreline, asking the disciples to follow him. And hearing it today offers us the opportunity to renew our own sense of discipleship as those who claim Jesus as Christ. We might ask ourselves what difference it makes for us to claim Jesus is the one in whom all of our hopes are realized. Does it make a difference in your life to profess this faith? How? Are we living as those who have truly been transformed by the good news of the Messiah, or are we just giving Jesus the head nod and going about our lives. Are our choices reflective of the faith we profess? This is what is asked as Jesus turns to us and says “Who do YOU say that I am?” It is a powerful moment for each of us to consider.
It is also beyond just our own individual relationships with Christ. If you look closer at his question, the word “you” actually is plural. Jesus isn’t asking for personal responses of allegiance from the disciples. He is asking for a collective understanding. Southern vernacular helps us articulate it better. In this passage, Jesus is asking: “Who do y’all” or perhaps better “all y’all” say that I am? It is a convicting statement for “the church” in many ways, and is one we should be answering continually as a community of faith. And I think we are seeking to do that here. In fact, I can name three ways it’s happening in our context right now.
At the 8:30 service, we affirm the Spirit’s call to Lisa Wolfgang to serve our congregation as a deacon. Part of her ordination vows is to affirm her faith, including a profession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and in response we promise our support and prayers for her leadership along with our other officers. The ordination vows, which all elders, deacons, and ministers of word and sacrament make in the PC(USA), remind us of who we are called to be as those who claim Jesus as the Messiah. They talk about being faithful to the holy Scriptures, attentive to God’s guidance, respecting one another and seeking to live in peace, purity and unity. They call us to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. What a wonderful list of what it means to live into our faith!
At the 11:00 service, we have the joy of celebrating the sacrament of Baptism, our reminder that we are claimed as Christ’s own forever. Shelby’s parents, Drew and Kasey, will profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and immediately follow with a promise to raise her in that faith. Furthermore, we as a congregation make a promise to teach and support her on behalf of the entire Christian church, so that she may grow up to come to know the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ. Baptism reminds us that claiming Jesus as Christ not only proclaims grace and forgiveness, but places us in the context of a community who encourages and nurtures each other throughout our entire journey of faith. This is what it means to be a Christian, too.
Finally, many of you took part in our visioning process which launched last Sunday. There is still time to respond to our initial questions, from a written survey that’s available in the Narthex, to large pieces of paper for your notes near the coffee area, to the link that is available in this month’s newsletter or on our Facebook page. Our Visioning Team will begin its work with these responses, and coming soon will invite you to participate in further face-to-face conversations about who God is calling us to be as a congregation. Throughout this process, together we will be answering the question Jesus asked his disciples in Mark, professing who it is we believe Christ to be, and who we are called to be in response to that affirmation of faith.
And really, that’s what being the church is all about. Making sure that we hear that question from Jesus, put some time and energy into our answer, and then make sure the response we give is not just lip service, but reflected in the lives we lead as his disciples. Christ, or Messiah, has to be a name that makes a difference for us, both as individuals and as a community of faith. Otherwise, we’ve missed the point. So even as we blurt out our initial answer, Jesus calls us to pause for a moment, and think about all it means, for us and for the world. For what is in Jesus’ name? Everything. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
September 16, 2018
[i] Summarizing Andre Resner, “Homiletical Perspective: Mark 8:27-30,” Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” Dear Working Preacher, September 16, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220, accessed 9/13/2018