September 16, 2018
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples have been feeding multitudes and healing the sick, and they get a moment to themselves to catch their breath when, Jesus asks who the crowds are saying he is. And what’s so interesting is that there are many different perspectives on Jesus’ identity. They all experienced the same Jesus, but they come to different conclusions about who he is. For some of the crowd, Jesus was somehow the embodiment of John the Baptist after he was beheaded by Herod. For others, he was the prophet Elijah who was expected to appear before God’s deliverance of Israel. And for others, he was one of the other prophets. All of them experienced Jesus, but they each have their own perspective about who he is.
And then Jesus turns from a general question about the crowds and gets very personal. He looks at his disciples and asks them the most profound of questions: But who do you say that I am? Who am I to you?
All relationships depend on relating to one another as we really are. I only get to know you when I can let go of who I want you to be, and learn who you truly are. And it’s the same for Jesus. His question to us in today’s Gospel is about our relationship to him and whether or not we’re relating to him as he truly is rather than who we want him to be.
In the 2006 sports comedy film entitled Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby there’s a fascinating scene that shows how we shape Jesus into the person we want him to be. Ricky Bobby is a successful NASCAR driver and he’s at the table with his family and his best friend Cal. Before they eat Ricky Bobby says grace and one of the strange elements of his prayer is that he addresses it to the infant Jesus. This makes his wife uncomfortable and she says that Jesus grew up and that Ricky doesn’t have to always call him a baby.
“Well,” Ricky says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want. “
Ricky starts praying again to a tiny baby Jesus when Ricky’s father in-law interjects that Jesus was a full-grown man with a beard.
Then, Cal, Ricky Bobby’s teammate gives his perspective on Jesus and says he likes to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T shirt, because it’s as if Jesus is saying “I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party, too.” “Cause I like to party,” Cal says, “so I like my Jesus to party.”
Ricky Bobby’s son chimes in “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.”
At this point, Cal is on a roll and says: “I like to think of Jesus with giant eagle’s wings. And singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel band. And I’m in the front row.”
After this chaotic exchange during the table grace, Ricky Bobby concludes by praying to “Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus…”
But who do you say that I am?
For Ricky Bobby, Jesus is a tiny infant who helps him win races and make lots of money. For Cal, Jesus is a guy who likes to party who wants him to party and have a good time. For Ricky Bobby’s son, Jesus is a ninja fighting off evil samurai.
It’s a chaotic and frenzied scene, where each person shares their own misguided and ill-formed perception about who Jesus is. And as off-putting or funny as that scene might be, don’t we do the same thing? Don’t we often shape Jesus into who we want him to be rather than who he really is?
Peter did. He says that Jesus is the Messiah but according to his own desires. Peter wants a Messiah to overthrow the enemies of Israel. Not one that saves God’s people by suffering and rejection. Jesus has to clarify his identity and help Peter see who he really is.
And he has to do the same with me. I have come to know Jesus as the loving face of God. He brings me comfort and peace in the uncertainty of this life. He tells me that God is like a loving parent who is always with me, and that no matter what happens I will never be left alone. That I have everything I need in God’s love for me. That my sins are forgiven and that I don’t have to be afraid. That God loves me and there is nothing that I could do to earn that love or to lose it. And that death isn’t the final word.
That’s comfortable for me. That’s the Jesus I like. And it’s easy for me to focus on those things and not pay much attention to the fullness of who Jesus is. The one who says that I will be forgiven to the degree I have forgiven others. To give and lend and not expect anything in return. To love my enemies and pray for them. To be merciful and compassionate towards those I don’t agree with or understand. To not worry or be afraid, but to trust God. Or like in today’s Gospel, that I’m not truly living if I don’t give up everything for Jesus and the sake of the gospel.
I don’t have anyone else in my life that makes these types of demands. That I take up my cross and deny myself and follow them. That’s what Jesus is getting at here. He isn’t saying that we all have crosses to bear that come to us in the course of our lives through the various forms of suffering we might face. This is different. He’s saying to put everything secondary to following him and living out his good news. To seek first the kingdom of God before anything else.
And on this Sunday morning, with each of us gathered here at St John’s with our own perceptions and desires that shape Jesus into who we’d like him to be, the question is as relevant as ever. Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am. Who am I to you? And the answer to that question isn’t found in our comfortable and manageable images of him. Instead, the answer is found by confronting the fulness of the one who gives himself up in love for the world and who calls us to do the same.
As we try to answer the question of who Jesus is, we have to acknowledge we are limited. As much as we try to follow in the way of Jesus, we are not him.
But do we ever wrestle with the claims he makes on our lives? When is the last time you have let Jesus disturb you or unsettle you with his way of self-giving love and the demands he makes as the Messiah, God’s anointed one?
The spiritual path of following Jesus is about letting go of our comfortable images of Jesus and to allow ourselves to be disturbed by the claims he makes on our lives. To engage with Jesus and wrestle and grow and learn to follow him.
This morning, my hope and prayer for all of us is that we will continue to grow in our knowledge of just how much Jesus loves us and to be comforted by his eternal faithfulness to each one of us. But at the same time, I also pray that each one of us can let go of who we want Jesus to be and meet him as he really is. To be made uncomfortable. To wrestle. To grow.
May God bless us with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that we may live
Deep within our hearts and come to know the Son of Man who went through great suffering, was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and was killed, and after three days rose again.