September 13th, 2015 “Who is Jesus?” Rev. Heather Jepsen
“Who is Jesus Christ?” For centuries we have struggled with that question. Was Jesus a healer? Was he a miracle worker? Was he a magician and a shaman? Was he a spiritual leader? Was he a church outcast? Was he the Jewish Messiah? Was he the Son of God? Was he God? Was he even real, or was he just a figment of our collective imagination? Who was, who is, Jesus?
It appears from today’s reading that during his own lifetime people didn’t know who Jesus was. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks the disciples as they walk down the road. Some say he is John the Baptist, which doesn’t seem to make sense chronologically. Some say he is Elijah, a figure whose return was promised in Jewish eschatology. Some say he is a prophet, come to lead the people of Jerusalem. I am going to wager that some also said, “Who is Jesus? I don’t know!”
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks, probing his disciples for their opinion on the matter. “The Messiah!” or “The Christ!” is Peter’s swift response. Though it appears to be the right answer, we will soon discover that what Peter means by Messiah and what Jesus means by it are two very different things.
Jesus tells everyone to keep the volume down and then begins to share the real news of the day. He begins to tell the disciples about the path that lies ahead. They are on their way to undergo great suffering. The Messiah will be rejected by the leaders, the Messiah will be killed, and the Messiah will then rise again.
Peter is totally confused at this point. Everyone knew that the Messiah was to come back with military power and overthrow the terrible Roman Empire. Jesus’ plan is not the Messiah plan and Peter tells Jesus so. Of course Jesus turns Peter right around with his harsh rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” Peter is thinking of the human Messiah, Jesus is thinking of the divine Messiah, and the two are not the same thing.
In case anyone missed the point Jesus now moves into teacher mode. If any want to be Jesus’ disciples then they must follow him. And if you are going to follow Jesus, then that means you need to go where he goes. It is a painful path of blood, violence, death, and love. It is a path which leads to the cross. Jesus makes things clear. Deny yourself, give up your own life, and follow me into death he seems to say. For only in death will you find a life that is worth living. It was a hard lesson for those disciples and it is still a hard lesson for us today.
So, who is Jesus? “Who do people say that I am?” he continues to ask. There are a lot of answers out in the world today. Kim Davis in Kentucky certainly has an answer to that question and I am going to guess that she and I disagree on some pretty major points. Jesus used to play a big role in politics, although it appears today that he along with everyone else has taken a back seat to Donald Trump. Pope Francis is also someone who has an answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” and the Jesus that he sees is one that I think I see some days as well.
Like Peter, I think we are afraid of a Messiah that suffers. We want to worship the victor, not the loser. We want success to be the promise of our faith, not suffering and death. There are plenty of preachers out there that will tell you that following Jesus will lead to health and wealth. Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus says that following him will lead to suffering, suffering and death.
You might have heard the story last year about the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture in North Carolina. It is a life size bronze sculpture of a figure asleep on a park bench covered by a blanket. The only sign that the figure is meant to be Jesus are the nail scarred feet peeking out from under the edge of the blanket. The artwork is controversial and immediately people’s answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” became clear.
Neighbors wrote letters to the church and to the newspaper saying the sculpture didn’t belong. One man said, “My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.” Another community member said, “Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.” And still another, “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.”
“Who is Jesus?” The answer for some is clearly not someone who needs help. Just like Peter, we don’t want a Messiah who suffers. Though the Son of Man may have nowhere to lay his head, we don’t want to think about him having to lay it on a park bench somewhere. That just doesn’t feel right. If Jesus needs help, then who will help us? I am sure Peter thought the same thing, “If Jesus gets killed, then what’s going to happen to us?”
As much as we hate this part of the story, the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” seems fairly clear in the scriptures. Peter says Jesus is the Messiah and then Mark tells us that Jesus began to teach them. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is the one who suffers, who dies, and then who overcomes suffering and death. That’s Jesus.
This morning we are coming forward for communion. When we gather here at the table we answer the question “Who is Jesus?” We remember that even as he knew the time of suffering was imminent, Jesus invited friends to celebrate with him. He invited his friends to dinner, and he shared himself with them. And he tried to explain about how he was sharing himself with the whole world.
We gather together and we remember the story. We say the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving which reminds us of not only “Who is Jesus” but also “Who is God.” We remember that God is the one who created the heavens and the earth. We tell the story of God who created us in love and continually reaches out to us in love, even though we turn away; even though we constantly long for the path of success and not the path of suffering.
We remember that God sent Jesus as a sign of love. And we remember that Jesus died. We remember that that’s who the Messiah is, the one who suffers and dies so that we too can suffer and die. The Messiah is also the one who lives again, so that we too, if we can follow the path of suffering, will also follow the path of life.
There is a lot of heartache in our church today, and there is a lot of heartache in the world. To quote a famous saying in the Jepsen household, “Jesus is in that!” Jesus is with us when we choose to follow the path of self-denial, when we take up our crosses, and when we willingly face suffering on behalf of others. Jesus is in us, when we attempt to live lives of faith that are self-emptying, giving away our very hearts for others. Jesus is in us when we suffer, willingly or not, simply because the Messiah is the one who suffers.
So, “Who is Jesus?” Well, I see him everywhere. I see Jesus in Kirk Pedersen as his body struggles to live and as his brain struggles to make connections. I see Jesus in Jill as she carries the weight of this family crises and wakes up ready to move forward and tackle each day as it comes. I see Jesus in the members of this church, who have picked up and moved on in the wake of the death of a spouse. I see Jesus in members who are diagnosed with cancer, who see that road of suffering before them and take those first steps forward anyway. I see Jesus in our people, as we go through life trying to offer care for each other, trying to share our hearts in his name.
“Who is Jesus?” He is the toddler on the beach in Turkey and the police officer who lifted his body from the water. He is the fathers carrying their children for miles looking for new homes, and the fathers who seek to run an orderly intake system and struggle to know what to do with all the refugees. Jesus is the mother who sends her son to walk across the border from Mexico, praying the child will survive to meet loved ones on the other side. Jesus is the child born in this country, whose parents have been deported and who now is threatened with deportation as well. Jesus is the ones who suffer, Jesus is the ones who need, for “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed.”
Though it is a scary message at first, and we all have the same gut response as Peter, “That’s not my Messiah”, eventually we realize the wisdom of the truth. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it.” Those of us who have walked that path know its depths and riches. We know the blessing of willingly sharing in the suffering of others. We know the blessing of giving of ourselves in love. We have lost our lives, and we have found them, and there can be no other way.
Like Peter, I think we sometimes miss the end of what Jesus says. We get distracted by the part about suffering and death and we miss the end of the story where the Messiah rises again. We forget the promise of new life on the other side. Just this week I had a great sermon illustration happen to me. If the weather permits, I get up early each day and take our dog Candie for a walk on the trail by our house. Each morning it has been a little darker and this Thursday it was quite dark. Candie and I got out on the street and headed west into a totally black sky. There was a huge black cloud and it did not look like a good direction for walking. But I stepped into the darkness anyway, thinking the worst that could happen was rain and then we would turn around and come home. I was also busy telling myself this was just like the sermon I was writing and that we need to step out into that dark path sometimes.
Well, we walked our half mile to the west and unbeknownst to me the sun was slowly rising behind us in the east. As Candie and I turned around at the end of the trail, the sky in the east was glorious. It was a wonderful display of blues and yellows, red and pinks. It was a holy moment and even other people on the trail felt the need to stop and mention how lovely it was. This is like my sermon I thought, we move into darkness and then we move out of it into light and beauty. As Candie and I reached home I turned around to look back, to see if the sky to the west was still dark. It was still dark and there was still a large black cloud, but I, I kid you not, there was a giant rainbow over the path into the darkness. All I could say was “Wow! Thanks God.”
And that’s all I have to say today, thanks be to God for Jesus Christ who walks with us on the dark path of suffering, traveling under unseen rainbows, and leading us to the sunrise of new life on the other side. Amen.