Sunday, August 24, 2014
Text: Matthew 16: 13-20
“Who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus.
The Apostle Peter replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Actually, that’s the answer Matthew’s Peter reaches. Luke and Mark put slightly different responses in Peter’s mouth. Those of us who read Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God recently should not be surprised that the answer to that important Christological question has always been answered—and understood—variously. For instance, Ehrman has been explaining to us that the terms messiah and Son of God, which are at the heart of Peter’s response, did not originally denote divinity. (Of course, then we have to parse out what we mean by “divinity.”)
I’m thankful that, based on today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encourages us to find our own individual answers to his question. Peter’s response does not have to be mine. My answer today may not be my answer tomorrow. Folks who work hard to find an honest answer to the question of Jesus’s identity often later change their answers. For instance, Brian McLaren identifies no less than seven Jesuses he has known and loved: the conservative Protestant Jesus, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus, the Roman Catholic Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus, the liberal Protestant Jesus, the Anabaptist Jesus, and the Jesus of the Oppressed (p. 49ff).[i] A song by Angela Kaset likewise recalls several Jesuses she’s known—in a song she calls “Jesus With the Light Brown Hair.” As you listen, try to count the number of Jesus’s she names.[ii]
Getting anyone’s biography right isn’t easy. Over 15,000 biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because the authors who wrote biographies 1 through 14,999 apparently didn’t get them right.[iii]
My husband spent a number of years researching the life of former Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom. George interviewed dozens and dozens of people for the Folsom biography. He visited every county in the state. He read countless newspaper articles of the period and steeped himself in the history of Alabama politics and culture. He visited Folsom in his home and interviewed family members. Fortunately for his biographer, Folsom was an unusually unguarded subject—so guileless (or crude) was our former governor that he once paused while walking with George along a city sidewalk in Cullman and relieved himself in the nearby flowerbed. Despite Folsom’s “candor” and George’s careful research and analysis, George would be the first to say that his take on Jim Folsom’s life was partial, at best.[iv]
Countless books about Jesus have been written. Yet we know little for certain about this historical figure—who, by the way, granted no historian an interview. The four canonical gospels are the earliest extant sources of information. But they often have conflicting information, were not written by persons who actually knew Jesus, and contain little that can be corroborated by nonbiblical sources. Besides that, the Greco-Roman idea of biography was very different from modern biography or history. What we read in each of the four gospels in the New Testament is a transmission of stories and sayings about Jesus that developed within particular communities to meet their needs and concerns. Each has a theological rather than historical agenda.
Even when we apply modern historical/anthropological/sociological approaches to the study of Jesus, we reach varioust conclusions. Which is a problem for folks like us who have boiled down our definition of Christian to “someone who follows in the ways of Jesus.” How are we to “follow” such an elusive Jesus? How do we imitate one whose historical imprint is strong yet hazy? Some traditionalists say that’s reason enough to let the Church Fathers, who arm wrestled over the creeds, fill in the gaps and tell us more about Jesus the Christ than the historical record reveal. I do appreciate the brilliant minds from the past who, in search for meaning and coherency, debated doctrine into existence. I do. But I’ve concluded Jesus will never be found definitively and fully in either the biblical record or the church’s traditional teachings.
Have you seen the cartoon of the woman answering the front door to find two men wearing white shirts, ties, carrying Bibles. The bubble over their heads shows them asking her, “Have you found Jesus?” Not a very funny cartoon. Until you look more closely and see that the frame includes the entirety of the woman’s living room where a pair of feet shod with sandals protrudes from behind the living room curtains as well as a sliver of a long robed figure peeping out the side. “Have you found Jesus?” Well, sometimes it feels as if he is hiding.
How can we possibly answer the question Jesus posed to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”
Bart Ehrman, as a historian, concluded that Jesus was a first century Jewish apocalyptic preacher and healer. Period. I, as a person of faith, care both about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. To me, Jesus is more than that preacher/teacher/healer from long ago. To me, Jesus is in some sense alive in my life.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Like the woman in “Jesus with the Light Brown Hair,” I probably love Jesus in part because I learned to love him early.
And it’s not that I now think Jesus can serve as a cipher who means nothing so that he can mean anything we need him to mean.
But I recognize in the Jesus of history—insofar as history can tell us—some winsome example of what we are capable of being.
Yet he’s more than mere model or inspiration (in the ordinary sense of that word). Because attached to the historic Jesus are spiritual practices and ethical teachings and beautiful theologies that have nurtured and transformed countless lives. And the Christ of faith continues to call us to faith—though not to have faith IN Jesus but rather have the faith of Jesus. To live that trustingly.
Though terrible things have been done in the name of Jesus, the Christianity he never intended to invent but which nevertheless does spring from him, is a religion—or a way of life—that at its core attests to a universal Force for life and love and traverses the human-divine divide. Something powerful happened after Jesus’s death that so altered his previously clueless followers and others that they were willing to give up their lives to adhere to selfless love. Because the way of Jesus is marked by a cross, his followers remember to stand with victims and cultivate peace. The teachings of Jesus were not unique, nor were his sacrifice and suffering. But a sacred energy for transformation, begun in his earthly life, continued in some mystical, holy way after his death and continues today. Because of Jesus, I see glimpses of a “kingdom of heaven”—to use Matthew’s term–even as I admit my own subjectivity.
As today’s Gospel reading suggests, when we live in God’s kingdom—that alternate way of living—we’ve found Jesus. When we’ve found Jesus, we receive the key that unlocks the kingdom. But even Jesus couldn’t put words around this notion of an alternate realm. According to Matthew’s Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is like, well, uh . . . a mustard seed, a bit of yeast in some dough, seeds thrown upon various soils. Who can understand such metaphors?
And who can imagine why Jesus hands the key to this realm over to us?
I’ve shared with you before more measured words about Peter’s Christological claim. But this morning I am challenged by Peter’s succinct and ardent declaration. So I say today that Jesus is, for me, the path for my life, the symbol for all that matters, the magnet that draws me toward the good and the true, the one who points me Godward. He is all that I really need and all I hope to become.
[i][i] McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
[iv] Sims, George E. The Little Man’s Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics: 1946-1958. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.