Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Inescapable Question” (Mark 8:27-30)
September 16, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Throughout the past two millennia there have been many theories about the identity of Jesus Christ.  Debates about exactly who Jesus was and is continue to this day.  Some believe Jesus is in fact what scripture asserts, the Son of God whose death and resurrection is the definitive expression of God’s love.  Others believe Jesus was not divine at all but rather a brilliant philosopher and teacher whose ethics, especially maxims like “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) would make the world a better place.

Others view Jesus as simply an influential religious figure akin to Abraham or Mohammad.  Still others dismiss Jesus as a fraud or charlatan or imposter—as either completely misunderstood, or completely misguided.

Hollywood has portrayed Jesus in many ways as well, some favorably, some not so much.  In the controversial 1999 film Dogma George Carlin plays Cardinal Ignatius Glick, who in an effort to make the Catholic Church more “hip” and “relatable” leads an effort called “Catholicism Wow!”  He stands in front of a gothic church before an applauding audience and explains the new symbol of “Catholicism Wow”:

Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic Church.  They think of us as a passe, archaic institution.  People find the Bible obtuse, even hokey.  Now in an effort to disprove all that, the church has appointed this year as a time of renewal both of faith and of style.  For example, the crucifix, while it has been a time honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified.  Christ didn’t come to earth to give us the willies.  He came to help us out.  He was a booster.  And it’s with that take on our Lord in mind that we have come up with a new more inspiring symbol.

A veiled statue is wheeled to the front—and Cardinal Glick continues, “So it is with great pleasure that I present you with the first of many revamps the “Catholicism Wow” campaign will unveil over the next year, I give you…the Buddy Christ!”  The veil is taken off to reveal the Buddy Christ statue, which portrays Jesus with a huge grin on his face winking at you while pointing at you with his right hand and giving you a thumbs-up with his left hand.  The crowd applauds its collective approval with oohs and aahs, and cameras flash.  It is an absurd scene, and deeply offensive to some.  While some interpret the scene as just plain blasphemous, I interpret it as a powerful statement about the danger of watering down the gospel, the danger of exchanging the truth about who Jesus actually is for something more palatable or relevant.  Did Jesus, as Cardinal Glick put it, simply come to “help us out” and be “a booster”—or is there more to it?

Scripture identifies Jesus in many ways: the Word (John 1:1), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), Friend of Sinners (Matthew 11:19), Head of the Church (Ephesians 4:15), Firstborn of all Creation (Colossians 1:15), Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:25), Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8), King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16)—on and on it goes.

Jesus identified himself in many different ways: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35), “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12), “I am the Gate” (John 10:7), “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25), “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).

Scripture asserts that Jesus was both fully human, the Son of Man, and fully divine, the Son of God—that Jesus is Lord.

But in today’s passage Mark writes about Jesus asking his disciples one of the most important questions in all scripture, an inescapable question about who he is:

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 (Mark 8:27-30).

Peter was right.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior of the world to whom the entire Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets, point.  In Matthew’s account of this episode Peter’s response to Jesus’ question takes it a step further: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

And after Peter answered Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” what did Jesus immediately begin teaching about his being the Messiah, the Son of God?  Did he talk about being your Buddy Christ to help you out and be your booster?  Did he talk about being the kind of Messiah that Israel, after many years of oppression at the hands of the Romans envisioned—a mighty military leader to lead a revolt against Rome?  Not exactly.  Mark continues, “Then (Jesus) 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 this all quite openly” (Mark 8:31).  In other words, Jesus began talking about his imminent death and resurrection.

Peter was emboldened by his correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and “took (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him” and was unpleasantly surprised to have Jesus in turn rebuke him, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:32-33).

Peter did not understand that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, was born to die.  It simply did not make any sense to him.  And throughout the past two thousand years this has not made sense to many people.  This is nothing new.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul put it this way:

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18; 22-25).

Scripture always links who Jesus is—the Messiah, the Son of God—with his death and resurrection.  Jesus was and is much more than a wise philosopher or teacher, certainly much more than a Buddy Christ to help us out and be our booster.

During World War II, C. S. Lewis, who is best known for authoring the famous children’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia, compiled a series of radio talks into his classic book, Mere Christianity.  In this book C. S. Lewis makes his famous trilemma argument about Jesus being a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.”  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to (Mere Christianity 40-41).

When it comes to Jesus being anyone other than Lord, C. S. Lewis would have none of it.  If Jesus claimed to be the Son of God but knew he was not, he is a liar.  If Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and really thought he was, but was not, he is a lunatic.  If Jesus claimed to be the Son of God because he is, then he is Lord.

More recently biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has offered a fourth option to C. S. Lewis’ trilemma, one that also begins with the letter L, asserting that Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is itself a Legend.  But why would the apostles who were actual witnesses of the Risen Jesus suffer martyrdom for a legend?  Wouldn’t you think at least one of them in order to avoid a brutally painful death would have admitted that the idea of Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of God was a hoax?

What did the Risen Jesus do for Thomas, who doubted his resurrection, who did not believe his fellow disciples who claimed they had seen him?  Scripture tells us Jesus personally appeared again to his disciples, including Thomas, and said, “Peace be with you” and to Thomas directly, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”  And how did Thomas respond?  “My Lord and my God” (John 20:26-28).

The Risen Jesus pointed Thomas to his scars, scars that attest to the good news of the gospel that God’s love for Thomas, God’s love for the world, God’s love for you, is a love so great that he willingly died on the cross for all of us.  And Thomas responded exactly how C. S. Lewis wrote, falling at his feet and calling Jesus “My Lord and my God.”  Can there be any other appropriate response?

This personal response to the love of God is mirrored by Paul as he wrote to the Galatians, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

But enough about Cardinal Glick, and Peter, and C. Lewis and Bart Ehrman, and Thomas, and Paul…what about you?  The same inescapable question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi he asks you today, “Who do you say that I am?”

Remember what Jesus did after Peter correctly answered his question?  Mark tells us, “(Jesus) sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”  This is known as the Messianic Secret, that during his earthly ministry Jesus, even after performing miracles, did not want his identity as the Messiah, the Son of God, revealed yet.

Why?  Because Jesus himself would fully reveal his identity as the Messiah, the Son of God on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

When Jesus died Mark tells us that the Roman centurion who stood guard at the cross turned to face him when he drew his last breath, and then proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s son!” (Mark 15:39).  Moreover, scripture tells us that Jesus “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).  The death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, means the Messianic Secret was no longer a secret.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is who he claimed to be, the Son of God, and that this same Jesus indeed loved you and gave himself for you, and he still bears the scars from that.  The unconditional love of God for you is no secret at all.

Today may the Holy Spirit quicken your heart to respond to Jesus’ inescapable question—“Who do you say that I am?”—like Peter and Thomas, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God…my Lord and my God.”