“But Who Do You Say That I Am?”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
“But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he charged them to tell no one about him.” — Mark 8:29-30
A friend of mine in the academic world once said to me that he finds it relatively easy to get agreement from his intellectual friends on the possible existence of God but impossible to get even a scintilla of appreciation for the Christian view of Jesus. This is just one small indication of why today’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” is close to the heart of the faith. It calls for the most scandalous answer. How can it be that a young Jewish man, who was murdered by the state and the temple at age thirty-two, was God on earth and is now the ruler of the universe?
To affirm this is to be outrageous, but that is what God wants us to be. ” When in the wisdom of God men by wisdom could not know God it pleased Him to save those who will believe it, by the foolishness of what we preach…Christ a joke to the intellectuals and a scandal to the pious, but to us who believe it, Christ the Wisdom of God and the Power of God (1 Corinthians 1: 23-25, paraphrased). This is what the Apostle says and I believe him. We are the bone in the throat of the world, the uncouth dinner guest; we poke fun at their pomposities and we weep for their futility, and for our own faithlessness. “Who do you think I am?”
Note that the emphasis is on the “you;” the disciples responded to the question just as many intellectuals do by rehearsing the opinions of others, “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets” and thus showing that they were educated in the tradition and in touch with current opinion, …and out of touch with themselves. Do we recognize our selves here? How often have we avoided being put on the spot by this ruse? Jesus, however, wants us on the spot; “I know what others think; what do you think?” So now we have here to answer with our hearts as well as with our minds.
Why do you think Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah? Was it because he would have been inundated by crowds and become a political threat to Rome? No, it was because his way of being Messiah was so different from the tradition that it could not be appreciated before it was uncovered on the Cross. In this world he is not the conquering king of tradition but the suffering servant of prophecy.
It is certainly because of this humility and apparent fecklessness that my academic friend’s friends find the Christian view of Jesus unacceptable, but though fecklessness may be a necessary cause of this special difficulty of faith in Jesus, it is not a sufficient cause. There are other reasons – like the thorough discrediting of Jesus by his professed followers down the years and to this day. Who can keep from vomiting at the shameless exploitation of that name of Jesus by political parties, fomenting righteous rage in the name of Jesus against fantastic fictions like “death panels,” “pulling the plug on Grandma,” and “socialism in Washington,” to make sure that, in the name of Jesus, 60 million citizens remain without health insurance. Who can keep from vomiting at the Christian jihad being conducted by that deeply dishonored, cruelly dysfunctional political group of the red right, which is the mimetic double of Islamic jihadism. We do not need to go to Afghanistan to fight religious terror, we can do that in Washington, and Tennessee, and South Carolina, – where the governor and a congressman are so fastidious about liars, – and on the talk shows of redneck radio. We can fight jihadis here at home if it’s a fight we want.
The dishonor and discredit poured on the name of Jesus by the Christians of this country is so great as to make the risk of embracing the scandal of the Cross unacceptable for the time being – only a bona fide miracle could breech this wall of shame. Since I believe in the possibility of miracle I continue to preach the possibility of faith in Jesus, but the only doctrine of the faith we can convincingly deploy at this time is the doctrine of sin, in its stringent form of total corruption. (Don’t panic! The Apostle tells us that total corruption is trumped by total grace).
So, who do you say that Jesus is? “My Lord and my God” says Thomas the doubter, “Christ the Son of the living God,” says Peter spokesman for all of humanity, “… the Way the Truth and the Life,” says the Lord himself. And what do I say? I say “All of the above!”
I have lived a long life with this possible impossibility of faith in Jesus, and the older I got the clearer it became how really impossible this faith is. In my imagination this young Jew became more and more like other young Jews and less and less like God, more and more human, ordinary, disarming, feckless, just like the rest of us. A homeless person who hung out with eleven male friends, fed by their mothers and aunts and served by at least one young woman of doubtful respectability. Yet, and here’s the miraculous thing, in proportion to this advancing ordinariness in my imagination grew an indefeasible conviction and a joyous experience of his absolute extraordinariness, and I am now carried by a strong conviction of God’s presence in the trivial things of my own life, just as He was present in the life of Jesus, and so as old age advances I make the descent to terminal triviality rejoicing every step of the way down that God can be trivial too, and with me even terminally trivial …and die.
“When I survey the wondrous Cross.
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride
Forbid it Lord that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God,
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.”
— Isaac Watts
“Who do you say I am?”