Sunday, September 17, 2006

Who do you say I am?

Mark 8:27-38

A Sarah-inspired sermon.

There is an ad on TV at the moment in which some pretentious git comes hurrying up to the check-in counter at the airport demanding immediate service. The staff are a little slow as there seems to be some problem with the ticket so he get’s huffy, “Do you know who I am?” The woman who is helping him takes a moment to calm herself. She says to him, “Oh, I didn’t realise!” and picks up the public address intercom, to the satisfaction of her blustery client. She calls the airport to attention and then informs everyone, “There is a man here who does not know who he is. If there is someone who can help him, please report to the information desk.”

I have heard on many occasions someone in Sunday School referring to Jesus’ parents as Mary and Joseph Christ. It is not such a surprising mistake. I learned this week that there was a Roman historian who confused the Greek word Christos (which means Christ) for the common slave name Chrestos. He spoke of the troublesome “tribe” of chrestianoi led by the slave Chrestos.

It is interesting that today we are so certain of what Christ means and assume that this word was easily understood even in Jesus’ day. In the NRSV that I read from today we read it translated as “Messiah”. The KJV translates the word “Christ”. Some versions try to stick to the original meaning of the word and translate it as “anointed one”. This is in fact what “messiah” means: anointed one.

I learnt this week Peter’s saying this to Jesus, was not as categorical as it sounds. In fact, it is very difficult to know what Peter actually meant when he said it. Anointed doesn’t really mean much except that someone has been chosen for something by virtue of the ceremony of soaking their head in oil or water. It could refer to just about anyone. What one needs to know is: anointed by whom? Peter does not say - perhaps Peter does not know.

There were many people in Jesus’ time who looked forward to the arrival of a messiah. But, it is apparently misleading to think that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day longed for some God-sent, spiritual superman who would fulfil their dreams and start a new creation. In fact, most were waiting for someone who would reinstate the monarchic line of David. Others hoped for a reformer in the Temple hierarchy. Then there were prophets who were also seen as anointed and some people longed for a prophet just as our text today suggests.

We tend to think that Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” because he was testing his disciples. To us “Christ” is the right answer. So why would Jesus then tell his friends to shut up about it? His response is puzzling. We are not the only generation of Christians who find it puzzling. Even Matthew, written a short time after Mark, adds a little to Jesus response so that it sounds as if Jesus is saying, “Quite right, well done, but this is going to be our little secret?”

But Mark is the plain speaker of our gospels and there is no mistaking Jesus’ abrupt tone here. It is almost a reprimand. It almost seems to throw Jesus into a bad mood for a little while later he calls Peter “Satan”!

Bruce Malina in his book The New Testament World explains why Jesus asks this question. He points out that people’s identity in the cultures of the Mediterranean was not based on an individualised, internal and personal construction like we have in the Western world today. Rather people’s identity was what anthropologists call “dyadic personality”. This means that a person’s identity was built from what other people said about them – something akin to the African idea of a “person is a person through other people.” So when Jesus asks, “Who am I?” he is not testing his friends, but is collecting information about himself so he can know who he is.

Now we know that people confused Jesus with a militant revolutionary or even a temple reformer. It is one of the reasons people deserted him in the end when it was clear he wasn’t going to usher in a new Kingdom. And we also know that this was despite Jesus’ best efforts to teach people about what he is. We read over and over again his frustration with people’s confusion about who he is. So when Peter calls Jesus “The Christ”, it may be that Jesus’ reply is actually telling Peter he is just plain wrong.

All through Mark, we hear Jesus telling people to be quiet about what he has done for them, especially the miracles he performed which would have fed the idea that he was some kind of prophet or spiritual superman. Jesus is not trying to protect his secret long enough to postpone a confrontation with the authorities so that he can make an entrance in Jerusalem. He is trying to control perceptions about himself, trying to steer people away from the misleading idea that he is a revolutionary, a temple reformer, a reincarnated prophet or even God’s special strongman.

Jesus goes on to speak of carrying the cross. Of suffering for the cause he has taken on. It is a distasteful idea: the anointed crucified. Remember crucifixion was meted out on slaves and traitors. It was a demeaning as well as agonising death.

Jesus’ whole cause is nothing less than the inversion of every human institution. He does not want to be seen as a revolutionary, because it is both establishment and revolution that he seeks to subvert. He does not want to be seen as a reformer of the temple, because the entire temple idea must be undercut. He does not want to be seen as a prophet, because he is undermining the very notion of specially spirited authority. Jesus is unique and incomparable. He upsets every stereotype and surprises anyone who thinks they have him pigeon-holed.

Every identity, every institution, every assumption, every prejudice, every edifice is in danger from this man. He is a truly disturbing presence.

The revolution of one age becomes the establishment of the next. The reformer of one generation is the oligarch of the next. Jesus is not interested in recycling. He wants a genuine revisioning of humanity. Jesus wants to get to the bottom of things and there he finds in every temple basement, in every government cellar, in every heart’s secret the truth that we are desperately afraid to be known and loved. Our civilisation is our protection from actually dealing with one another; knowing and loving one another. Our levels of sophistication reflect only the lengths to which we will go to avoid having to connect. “For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” Jesus asks.

The eccentric or maverick that stands apart from traditional institutions is regarded with pity or outrage, yet such people are often the most precious. Jesus was such a person. He stands clear of human institutions while still being eminently human. So special is he, he seems almost to transcend history itself. Yet Jesus is the quintessential lover. And this strange man asks us to divest ourselves of our pretensions, to live more honest lives, unafraid of being our genuine, strange selves.

No wonder he rebels against any label that puts on him the expectations of others. He owns his own identity and yet that identity he freely shares with anyone who would open themselves up to the power of compassion.

“Who do you say I am?”

No comments: