Who Are You?
Sermon text on Mark 8: 31 – 38. Focus on what it means for Jesus to be a suffering savior and why that is necessary. Be sure to check out Rasaan Bourke & Bill Ucker’s anthem – The Call.
Today’s text is about identity. It’s about how it gets formed and by whom. Growing up in North America we see the individual as a unique, self-contained universe of self-awareness and judgment who interacts with others who are self contained and self-aware. But our Biblical ancestors saw their identity as being interconnected to groups such as family and tribe. Being an individual meant you where poor and disconnected.
That’s why the people after hearing Jesus preach for the first time ask: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” “Isn’t he a Nazarene?”
As a result of this we have a natural tendency to seek the approval of others within our family or tribe. And in order to get that approval we must adopt the mores and attitudes of our family and community, which also has this dark side, which defines who we are by who we are not.
Authors such as Rene Girard have pointed out in their writings on identity formation that our sense of self-worth is created and supported by contrast and opposition to others, which usually has a moral connotation to it. I feel good about myself because I am better than others. More virtuous. More righteous. More authentic. More humane. More tolerant. More insightful. More kind. More something.
We have always understood ourselves by comparison. So the real question before us isn’t how can I stop doing this but who will be my guiding light as I struggle to become who I am? In other words what vision, person or tribe shall shape me?
And this is the question that our text is seeking to address.
So when Jesus asks the question of his disciples – Who do men say that I am?, he isn’t testing the disciples as much as he is asking the question: Where does my life find its focus and meaning?
The fact that Jesus asks this question in Caesarea of Phillipi will also show how he differentiates himself from the all the earthly rulers who have come to this town to receive their oracles from the Greek gods. In this place of power and honor for the rulers of Rome, Jesus has just been told that he is the Christ, the king of kings. In a place dedicated to earthly kings. He has been honored above all kings.
And since Jesus is human like the rest of us he too must decide whom he will get his identity from and what vision shall guide him. Will he follow a Messianic path to power and glory like the kings of old? Will he be the conquering Messiah who restores Israel or will he be something else?
In our text Mark refers to Jesus as the “Son of Man” a term which includes these images out of the book of Daniel 7: 13 – 14.
As I watched in the night … I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
But Jesus seems to reject this vision, the vision that Peter was holding out to Jesus in favor of another image that wasn’t regarded as very Messianic, an image that was found in being the Son of Man but a Messianic figure who would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…(Mark 8:31-32) Somewhere Jesus got the insight that he had to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy too:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter… By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53)
If you are part of the early Christian community, the community that Mark is writing too, a community that is being persecuted, what vision would give you hope? – The vision of a Messiah who stands above your suffering or one who goes through even worse suffering but conquers it?
Rather than seeing himself apart and distinct from everyone else, Jesus identifies with the suffering of his people, a suffering that had been present from Babylonian rule right down through the rule of Rome. And at Caesarea Philippi, a place that conjures up images of power and greatness where earthly rulers received their identity, Jesus now receives his identity as king of kings but not in the same earthly way. His way will not be found in using power to force his will on his subjects. It will be found in sacrificial love for his subjects.
In this way Mark’s Jesus mocks the powers that be. For he will not compete with power so much as he will undercut its rational for being. Within the world of power lies this underlying belief: The fact that you compete with me actually builds my self-esteem, especially if I can still win, because it says that what I have is worth taking. But service says, this whole game is pointless.
So when Jesus rebukes Peter he is rebuking an image of power that Peter holds in his mind.
Which brings to mind my spiritual mentor, Tex, who often listened to my tales of woe in my early years of ministry. You know the kind I’m talking about. The ones where you are the only guest because the pity party is all about you and only you. The music is all whiny, and the lyrics go something like, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me.”
And usually Tex would side with me, to build me up, but there was one time when I was on a rant and Tex never said a word. He just let me wail on. But at the conclusion of my diatribe Tex asked me:
“Are you a Christian?” To which, I annoyingly replied: “Of course!” “What does that mean?” Tex asked. And I impatiently responded – “To follow Jesus.” Tex responded then you should be happy because you’re still here. Jesus’ ministry ended after three years. Then Tex opened up his desk drawer and pulled out a cross and said, “This is what they did to him.”
I have never forgotten that moment, and whenever I hear this passage in Mark’s gospel, that moment comes to mind. Like Peter, I’m not keen on a suffering Jesus, because it means I might have to suffer too. And it makes me want to say with Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of that light.”
Yet the part of me that Tex cultivated so skillfully almost thirty years ago, knows that Jesus is correct. Life does not go to the swift or the powerful. These things all come to an end.
Life goes up and it goes down. Life holds suffering and salvation before us, but any life worth following is one that takes our suffering seriously, for suffering is the way we find God and the divine image in one another. All of us will have to deal with suffering, which is why the Jesus story is important, because of it we also believe that he has found a way that has conquered something no earthly Caesar ever conquered – which is death.
And in this wonderfully paradoxical way Jesus also fulfills Daniel’s vision as well – “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away. And his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7: 14) Amen