Who Are You, Jesus?

Sunday, September 13
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Focus Theme
Who Are You, Jesus?

Weekly Prayer
Wisdom of God, from the street corners and at the entrances of the city you proclaim the way of life and of death. Grant us the wisdom to recognize your Messiah, that following in the way of the cross, we may know the way of life and glory. Amen.   

Focus Scripture
Mark 8:27-38 27

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

All Readings For This Sunday
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19 or Wisdom 7:26-8:1
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Focus Questions

1. Why do you think Mark’s audience needed to hear this story about Jesus?
2. Which is better in the life of faith: clear answers, or mystery?

3. What does “carrying your cross” mean to you?

4. What does it mean to you to “believe in” Jesus Christ?
5. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)

Every way we turn in the life of the church, we seem to hear the question of “who Jesus is.” More conservative voices have a clear and compelling answer about Jesus’ identity and the requirement, first, to accept him as our Lord and Savior, and second, to convince others to do the same. More progressive voices strive to explore the mystery of who Jesus was and who Jesus is in our lives today; they also focus on Jesus’ actions as much as his words in order to understand his identity. Do you find a clear answer more compelling than a mystery? Both have their power in our lives, and perhaps we need both: clear answers and an appreciation of mystery.

Shane Hipps has written a fascinating book, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, in which he describes one experience of conversion that “can feel like a light switch has been flipped from off to on, and everything is suddenly illuminated,” while another can “feel like the gradual brightening of a long darkness–or like a long fade from clarity into doubt.” Perhaps the Gospel of Mark so far, has been about the gradual brightening of the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus is. Peter’s bold claim about Jesus might sound like the “light switch” kind of conversion, but he’s taken some time to get here, after witnessing one impressive deed of Jesus after another, and hearing Jesus proclaim the reign of God throughout the first half of Mark’s Gospel. Like us, he has stumbled and struggled at times, but today he seems to have a moment of great clarity. Hipps reassures us that “Jesus, it would seem, joins us in both the darkness and the light. In both sudden epiphany and unhurried evolution.”   

What we have heard (“Who do others say that I am?”) and what we have been taught is important, but so is the encounter we have with Jesus in our own lives and in the life of the church. Is this a question that you spend much time contemplating? Scholars agree that not only Peter but the rest of the disciples must have recognized Jesus as the Messiah (see Andrew in John 1:41); why else, they ask, would those disciples have given up everything to follow him? In a culture where most people still claim to be followers of Christ (and few of us “turn the other cheek” or give up everything to follow him), perhaps there is a second question in our own lives: “So what?” So, what will we do, today, in our lives, if we accept Jesus as the Messiah?

The response of Peter that “some” people think Jesus is Elijah, some John the Baptist, and some “one of the prophets,” is significant. According to Richard W. Swanson, “Whereas John and Elijah promise to change Israel’s position over against its enemies, the prophets of old challenged Israel’s character in the face of her enemies.” On the other hand, Morna D. Hooker notes the importance of this moment in the Gospel of Mark, when the truth of who Jesus is begins to dawn on the disciples: he’s not “a figure from the past” but “God’s anointed one” (of course, they don’t fully know what that means, or what to do with that knowledge). Marcus Borg observes that this is the first time that any “human voice” has called Jesus the Messiah, an identity that is not at the heart of Jesus’ message in Mark’s Gospel: Jesus didn’t teach doctrine or exhort his followers to believing “a set of statements about him.” Instead, Jesus, as we know, proclaimed “the coming of the kingdom of God, conveyed in stories about exorcisms, teaching, healing, parables, the sea, feeding, conflict, and ‘the way'” (Borg’s book, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, is particularly helpful for studying this text). What does it mean to you to “believe in” Jesus Christ?  

Living in the shadow of empires

The geographic setting of this passage is very significant. The “villages of Caesarea Philippi” have Jewish residents in the shadow of a town built by the empire. Surely prophets spoke to the people about the empires surrounding them, but they addressed the values and concerns of the people themselves. In this case, the people were oppressed by the Roman Empire, which tried to impose its values and worldview on everyone it conquered. In the shadow of what empires do we live? How do we conduct our lives in the shadow of these empires, and do our values and pursuits align more closely with theirs, or with the worldview and values of Jesus? What message do we long to hear?

How does it feel to contemplate denying yourself in the midst of “empire,” to take up a cross, the most shameful way of all to die? Even the phrases, “denying yourelf,” and “taking up your cross” have been interpreted in many ways. John J. Pilch interprets “deny yourself” in a communal way that is in harmony with Jesus’ command to deny brother, father, sister, and mother: we are to put our identity and our loyalty as followers of Jesus before all other loyalties. To Pilch, this is what Jesus is commanding when he instructs the disciples to deny themselves. We think of self-denial as an ascetic lifestyle, but this discipleship is far deeper, down to the very roots of who we are and what we value most in our lives.    

Is self-denial good news?

It is a challenge today to connect “self-actualization,” self-esteem, and claiming our identity with “denying ourselves.” Perhaps they are in conflict, or maybe they aren’t, if we find our deepest authenticity, our truest self, in following Jesus. Perhaps these values live in creative tension with one another. For example, how would you respond to feminist and liberation theologians’ critique of an emphasis on denying “the self,” when historically oppressed people have lived their lives being denied their full personhood? Martha L. Moore-Keish wonders, in that case, if “‘self-denial’ [is] really good news”?

The same might be said of “carrying our cross.” Many women, people of color (especially slaves long ago, listening to their “good Christian” owners), and poor people have been told to accept their suffering as “carrying their cross.” We trust that Jesus would rebuke such a misinterpretation of his words. Of course, there is no question that faithfulness to the gospel is costly: we remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “the cost of discipleship,” a cost that he surely paid with his own life. Rather than identifying our small (or large) burdens with “carrying our cross,” would we be willing to be embarrassed (shamed) because of our relationship with Jesus? How does this fit with our belief that religion is something we must never discuss in polite company, and that religion should not affect politics? What price, what cost, are we willing to pay as disciples of Jesus?

Peter comes face to face with reality

Peter was clearly distressed at Jesus’ talk of death; if Jesus was the Messiah, good things should be happening, not bad ones. In fact, this passage indicates that it’s finally sinking into Peter not only who Jesus is but also what it could cost to follow him. Charles Cousar says that Peter’s “fleeting glimpse” of what is going to be required in true discipleship is behind his rebuke of Jesus in verse 32, a protest that may represent “good common sense,” but is nevertheless “a human perspective,” while Jesus sees and understands things differently, as God does.

Megan McKenna eloquently calls the Gospel of Mark “a summons to discipleship,” which “calls us to sink further and further in the waters of our baptisms, which are mysterious, fearful, and wondrously filled with grace.” Mark has been describing the disciples’ slow progress toward opening their hearts and minds to who Jesus truly is, which is one stage of conversion, and now Jesus speaks “a second call to conversion” that leads to self-denial, suffering, and even a cross. And then, like Jesus’ retort to Peter, McKenna’s reflection questions make us acutely uncomfortable: “What if everything we have done in our religious living and personal relationship with God has been for the wrong reasons?” Are we seeking reward for our actions, and to avoid “suffering, rejection, persecution, and death?” In struggling with those questions, we experience more deeply the discomfort Peter was expressing in his objections to the words of Jesus about suffering, rejection, and death. What do you expect of life as a follower of Jesus; what do you expect of the promises of God? Where does the path of your faith lead you?

According to Nathan G. Jennings, this text demands “a decision: will we follow this man to the place that he is going?” This is a decision that is urgent in our personal lives and in the life of our congregations. What, then, will your decision be?

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found on www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”

Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, 21st century
“We need to shed our unearthly and nonsocial and idealistic and romantic and uber-spiritual visions of kingdom and get back to what Jesus meant. By kingdom, Jesus means: God’s Dream Society on earth, spreading out from the land of Israel to encompass the whole world.”


“Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it.”

N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 20th century
“Tell someone to do something, and you change their life – for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life.”    

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 19th century
“‘I am an average good Christian, when you don’t push my Christianity too far. And all the rest of you — which is a great comfort — are, in this respect, much the same as I am.'”

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 20th century
“[Jesus] had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”

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