Who Do You Say That I Am?

Guest essay by Hank French. Henry French received the M.Div. degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and the PhD from Drew University in New Jersey where he was classmates with Dan Clendenin. After serving as a missionary professor in Japan, a mission executive with the ELCA, academic dean and professor at Luther Seminary, and publisher at Fortress Press, he is rounding out his career in parish ministry at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church in Minneapolis (ELCA).

For Sunday, August 21, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Exodus 1:8–2:10 or Isaiah 51:1–6
           Psalm 124 or Psalm 138
           Matthew 16:13–20
           Romans 12:1–8

Who do you say that I am?
Who do you say that I am?

           The gospels record several very pointed,  poignant, and powerful questions that Jesus ingenuously asked of those around him. Consider Luke 18:8b—“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Or again, Luke 6:46—“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?” And from this Sunday’s lectionary gospel of Matthew, “Who do you say that I am?”

            Good questions, all of them, designed (I suspect) to put us on the spot and keep us honest. Dangerous questions, all of them, because they unrelentingly cut to the existential core of our relationship with the divine—the self-disclosure of God in Jesus of Nazareth and our response to that disclosure.

           The great Trappist spiritual writer Thomas Merton once remarked that we should never underestimate our ability to deceive ourselves. Taken seriously, Jesus' questions cut through our self-serving self-deceptions and leave us wonderfully vulnerable to the transforming, enlivening presence and power of God.

           Whoever takes these questions with great, existential seriousness will discover for her or himself exactly what the writer to the Hebrews was getting at when he declared: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  Risky business, surfacing the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, letting the word of God—the questions of Jesus—do their work on us. Risky, perhaps painful, but finally deeply inspiriting and lifegiving.

You are the Christ, by contemporary Bertrand Bahuet.
You are the Christ by contemporary Bertrand Bahuet.

           Before asking the dangerous question, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his followers the safe question, “Who do others say that I am?” Safe because to answer it required no conviction, no commitment, and no risk. All it requires to answer the safe question is a bit of curiosity, or perhaps cynicism.

           Apparently there had been a lot of speculation, rumors swirling around, a lot of wondering among those who followed and listened to Jesus —most of it well off the mark. It’s pretty much the same today.

           People still wonder about him. I wonder about him. At least once a year Jesus shows up on the cover of Time magazine or Newsweek because people still wonder about him.

           Who do people say that he is?  Well, I’ve asked a lot of people over the years and gotten a lot of answers. Some say a great moral and political leader like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some say a great prophet like Mohammed. Still others say a great spiritual teacher to be numbered with the likes of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, or the Dalai Lama.

           Some say he was a political revolutionary and enlist him in their cause.  Some say he was a capitalist and do the same. Hard to compass it, but there was actually a best selling book several years ago entitled Jesus-CEO.

           There are those who say he was clearly a socialist, and others who are just as sure that he was a liberal Democrat. These days, many Republicans eagerly claim him as one of their own.  Still others say he was but a dreamy idealist with his head in the clouds. Some call him Jesus Christ Superstar, while still others call him Jesus Christ the would-be-but-failed messiah.

What Do People Think About Me, by Vasiliy Polenov, 1900.
What Do People Think About Me by Vasiliy Polenov, 1900.

           Others, following Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, wonder if he was a real man at all, with a real history, or if he was just a made-up man, the product of human hope, need, and projection. It all reminds me of Harnack’s wry observation that we have a marked tendency to look at Jesus down the long well of history and see our own faces staring back up at us.

           And among the scholars? Some say he was a “peasant Jewish Cynic” 1,2 who offered “free healing” and “open commensality,” thereby spreading “religious and economic egalitarianism”.3 Others say that he was a “prophetic sage offering primarily counter-order wisdom,”4 or (and I like this one) that he was a “spirit person and mediator of the sacred”.5 Some don’t see the cynic/sage/wisdom figure Jesus but do see a “millenarian prophet” Jesus with a decidedly ascetic bent,6 while still others see Jesus in the line of the “classical hero” who patterns the heroic life for his followers.7 Finally, Wright sees a prophet whose “vocation” was to proclaim and embody the completion of Israel’s history, enacting “the return of YHWH to Zion” as king of the long promised kingdom.8

           It’s all very interesting—if sometimes confusing—and it matters. As N.T. Wright pointed out, “What you say about Jesus affects your entire worldview. If you see Jesus differently, everything changes.” Jesus' question, “Who do you say that I am?” is an invitation to take personally and seriously the possibility that maybe we need to see him differently. It is an invitation, as Robert Funk has suggested,9 to venture beyond the iconic Christs of popular culture, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and even scholarship, and allow ourselves to be confronted by the iconoclastic Jesus of Nazareth.

Handing Over the Keys, by Rafael, 1515.
Handing Over the Keys, by Rafael, 1515.

           Jesus’ question is an invitation to take personally and seriously the necessity to stop taking refuge in the answers of others and answer for ourselves. It is an invitation to stand as existentially naked as we are able before the one in whom our existence takes on new meaning.

           “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “Blessed are you…. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” It was a self-defining moment for Peter. Through the grace of God he had discovered himself in the presence of the one who disclosed God and revealed the Way of God—the way of love and justice. He spent the rest of his life figuring out what that meant for who he was and how he lived.

           “Who do you say that I am?” Naturally, we have to answer for ourselves, and our answers will disclose as much about us as they do about him. My answer? You are the one in whom I am loved, and called to love. My life is about figuring out what that means for who I am and how I live.

[1] Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence, 1988.
[2] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 1991.
[3] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography, 1994.
[4] Ben Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 1994.
[5] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, 1994.
[6] Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, Millenarian Prophet, 1998.
[7] Gregory Riley, One Jesus, Many Christs, 1997.
[8] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996.
[9] Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus, 1996.