Date: November 29, 2015
Title: “Jesus Who?”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 9:18-20
Imagine, just for a moment, that you have been contacted by a major publishing house and have agreed to write an autobiography for them – your own personal life story. And you’ve gotten a sweet deal. They have already sent you a substantial advance, but now your first deadline is right around the corner. Tomorrow morning you are to submit to the publisher the title of your book, along with the first five chapter titles. What would you write? How would you sum up your life so far? Who do people say that you are?
Years ago I posed that question to a group of United Methodists on retreat with me at Camp Magruder. One of the young men at camp was a bit uncomfortable with any kind of personal sharing. He told me later that his palms would begin to sweat each week at the beginning of every Disciple Bible study session when we would go around the circle to “check in” with each other. So this is how Keith responded to that question about what he would send to the publisher:
Book Title: “Just the Facts, Ma’am”
Chapter 1: “I was Born”
Chapter 2: “To School and Back Home”
Chapter 3: “Love and Marriage”
Chapter 4: “Daddy”
Chapter 5: “The Working World”
It was the bare bones, but somehow it was enough. In that moment, it was all Keith could muster, all the self- revelation he could stand. And it was enough, because it gave us a place to start. And it allowed us the chance to fill in the blanks as it invited us into relationship with Keith in order to know more.
There is great power in our stories as we tell them to each other. William Barnwell understands this. He is a retired Episcopal priest who spent much of his ministry working for racial justice and reconciliation. In his retirement, he chooses to volunteer at Louisiana’s Angola maximum security prison. This prison houses violent offenders, often for decades at a time. It is there that Barnwell runs a different kind of Bible study, guiding the men in conversations about their own lives by asking questions raised by stories from Jesus’ life. These study sessions last about four hours each time, and they are beginning to make a difference.
Barnwell says he has seen the beginnings of reconciliation, as white men with swastika tattoos meet with black men with gang tats, and begin to call each other friends. All because of the power of storytelling.
Their stories are not easy to hear, but Barnwell insists they are holy stories, tales of finding faith and fighting hard to keep in the midst of wilderness lives. He says they have discovered that their true treasure is found in their own stories of their lives.
Jesus asserts this same truth – the treasure of our stories – in Luke’s Gospel (and similarly in Matthew and Mark), when he asks his friends what names people are calling him. He is asking them to name his publicly recognized treasure – the stories of his life. And in response, the disciples tell him, Some say you are John the Baptist. Others think you are Elijah. Still others imagine you to be an anonymous ancient prophet, miraculously brought back to life.
It doesn’t seem to matter that much to Jesus what the crowds think of him, because he immediately goes on to ask the disciples, But who do you say that I am? It is as if Jesus wants to make sure they get it, that they understand the peculiar treasure which is the story of Jesus’ life, and by extension, the story of their own lives. How we see Jesus – how we imagine his life story – influences how we live our own.
If we see Jesus as John the Baptist, we will forever consider him a forerunner of something yet to come, and we may not pay attention to the here and now. If we see him as Elijah, we might insist upon a recitation of an established prophecy and totally miss the new world order he initiates. If our primary image of Jesus comes from hymns like “In the Garden”, where he walks with me, and he talks with me… we might never get beyond the intimacy of Jesus and me against the world. And then we are going to be hugely challenged when the Jesus of liberation theology or the Jesus of social justice or the Jesus of missionary zeal shows up and calls us by name!
How we see Jesus and how we imagine his life story, influences how we live our own. It is easy to fall back on a limited perception of Jesus or to thoughtlessly repeat our own cultural assumptions as if they were the sum total of God-with-us. But the season of Advent, this time of Christmas preparation, asks us to look a little further, to think a little deeper, and to experience a little fuller image of Jesus.
Who do you say Jesus is? This is not only a quandary, a word problem to be defined and categorized into a solution for modern minds, it is also an invitation. When Jesus asks you Who do you say that I am?, he is inviting you into a question which can only be answered through relationship. He is inviting you into a faith which can only be defined through your own lived experience.
The question Jesus Who? cannot really be answered by some rote recitation of identities we have all heard through the ages: Messiah – Christ – Annointed One – Lord – Incarnate Word – Savior – Redeemer – King – and as the prophet Isaiah put it, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Maybe this is why the Gospels tell us that Jesus wants to keep “Messiah” out of the public imagination. Peter correctly identifies him as “the Messiah of God”, and then Jesus says “keep that to yourself.”
Why is that? Is Jesus afraid of the danger it might imply, if he is well known as “Messiah”? Hardly. Jesus walks into danger in every sermon he preaches, in every town he visits, in every healing he performs, in every offering of love and acceptance he gives. Does he keep “Messiah” secret because he’s humble and embarrassed by the glory? In my reading of the Gospels, I can’t seem to find anything that embarrasses Jesus – not hanging around with lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes; not dining with the rich and powerful; not even hanging on a cross. It is because he is waiting for the right time, the dramatic moment when all will be revealed? No, Jesus’ whole ministry has been a revelation of grace, and every moment is a chance for us to see God.
Perhaps Jesus pushes aside the name Messiah simply because it stops the conversation. What more can you say about him after you’ve said “Messiah”? It stops the conversation, and Jesus wants us to answer the question for ourselves. Jesus wants us to continue to tell the story. Jesus wants us to make his story a part of our own story, from the manger to the cross, and beyond. Because ultimately, Jesus wants God’s Realm, God’s Kin-dom, to become a part of our lives.
Who do you say Jesus is? It’s the question of the day, but more than that, it is the question of the season. This Advent, God is asking you that question. This Advent, God is inviting you into a deeper relationship with Jesus, and into a faith which can only be understood- really understood – through your own life experience. For then, Jesus story becomes our story and God’s reality becomes a part of our lives. Thanks be to God! Amen.