11/11/2018 - Identity Crisis - Mark 8:27-38

Identity Crisis

Mark 8:27-38

November 11, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley


For most of us, this is one of those familiar passages.  The danger with familiar passages is that we have heard them many times, read them many times, perhaps even memorized them, so that our power to hear them may have been diminished.  It seems to me that Christians in America are in the midst of an identity crisis and these words are critically important to us right now. Let us slow down and try to understand them as if they are brand new to us.

Peter’s confession “you are the Messiah” is the structural center of Mark’s gospel. We should note that because Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?”  is one that we could come back to again and again as a centering point for our own lives.

The disciples have been following Jesus around Galilee for a while now. They have seen him cast out demons and heal the sick and feed thousands of people.  They have heard his amazing parables and watched him hold his own in conversational sparring matches with well-educated authorities.  They have been listening to the crowds, so when Jesus asks “Who do people say that I am?”  they have ready answers.   “People say you are John the Baptist reincarnated, or Elijah or another one of the prophets,” they tell him.  But suddenly he asks a different question “Who do you say that I am?”  I wonder if Peter’s answer came to him in that moment, like flash of insight as he put all the pieces together or if he had already been thinking this about Jesus, but just hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about it yet.  In either case, he says “You are the Messiah.” 

This is the right answer.  We know it’s the right answer because Mark already told us so.   In my 7th grade algebra class, the right answers were in the back of the book.  Well, in Mark’s gospel, the right answer is in the first verse.  Mark 1:1 says “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Christ is the Greek word for Messiah.  So, in the first verse of his book, Mark tells us that Jesus is the Messiah.  Eight chapters later, Peter has figured that out, but does he get an A+ or a gold star?  No, not at all. When he says that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus shuts him up in the very same way that he told the demons to shut up and commanded the winds and waves to be still earlier. 

Peter says the exact wrong thing a lot, so it seems really unfair that this time, when he gets it right, he still gets told to shut up.  Jesus does not say the answer is wrong, just that he should not tell anyone.   

We know that Jesus is the Messiah or the Christ and we don’t understand what the big deal is. But those words are mostly just church words for us.  We don’t hear them like the first century folks did.  Messiah is a Hebrew word.  Christ is a Greek word.  They both mean “anointed.”  “In ancient Israel, [centuries before Jesus,] both kings and high priests were anointed as a sign of their office and of having been chosen by God.  To declare Jesus the Messiah or the Anointed One was to declare him king and high priest—a challenge to both the political and religious establishments.”[1]

Last week, a billboard went up in St. Louis. It featured the face of a well-known politician, whom I am not going to name, and under that face were the words “The Word became flesh” and the reference John 1:14.[2]  When I saw it, I said something I almost never say.  I said, “Blasphemy.”  The message I took from the billboard was that the supporters of this politician were equating him to Jesus, the word made flesh according to John’s gospel. For them, I guess this earthly politician is anointed by God as a leader in the political and religious realms.  God’s claim on this one is so strong that they see him as a divine Savior.  I found that blasphemous.

To declare Jesus the Messiah in the first century would be to label him with a scriptural title which the first century clergy would likely have also found blasphemous and also to label him with a political title that the Roman empire would have found treasonous. 

So it’s not that Peter’s answer is wrong, but that his timing is bad.  Jesus silences him because he does not want any more  attention from the authorities than he already has.  They will kill him soon enough.  He wants more time for his teaching and ministry to take hold before that happens. 

The other reason he silences Peter is because of the popular understanding of Messiah.  The Messiah was the one that everyone was expecting to overthrow the foreign domination and restore Israel’s glory.  That was not the kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be.  It was not Jesus’ intent to be one more in a series of earthly rulers.  He did not want the title of Messiah bandied about because it might increase the number of military revolutionaries among his followers and  that was not his mission. 

So he silenced Peter and he changed the narrative about himself. Instead of claiming the title “Messiah”, he referred to himself as the “Human One” or “the Son of Man” depending on your translation.  The Human One refers to a figure in the book of Daniel.  Daniel was written two hundred years earlier, as a manifesto of Jewish resistance to oppression by Greek rulers.[3]  In Daniel’s vision, the beast-rulers of the earth wreak havoc on the world until they are dragged before the divine court of the true judge, God.    The Human One is then vindicated and receives dominion and glory and kingdoms.   

Jesus uses this title for himself.   Jesus will become a defendant in the courts of the earthly authorities, will be tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  The oppressive rulers will appear to prevail, but a deeper look, like in Daniel’s vision, will reveal that the Human One is establishing justice.

For Peter, Messiah necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor.  Jesus argues that for the Human One, the path inevitably requires suffering.[4]

The thing is that Peter wants Jesus to win the election.  There is no time for a long-term, kinder, gentler solution.  His people have suffered long enough. The right answer is that Jesus is Messiah.  If Jesus doesn’t know that yet, he needs to get with the program.    He wants Jesus to displace and take over the government that is abusive and offensive and malicious and mean.  If you have ever felt that way, then you might have some sympathy for Peter.

There’s a kind of identity crisis going on, not for Jesus, but for Peter and the others who have been following Jesus.  This crisis becomes apparent here in Caesarea-Philippi, which is the seat of Roman  government for that area.  The crisis is a challenge to the disciple’s identity as Jewish people living in the shadow of empire and their identity as people who have left everything to follow Jesus.  The challenge is to determine which allegiance has the higher claim. 

It seems to me that Christians in America are in the midst of a similar identity crisis.  I say that from my observations of the last two years in particular.  It seems to me that American Christians who occupy the left side of the theological and political spectrum have put their trust in government to enact policies that will bring about the kingdom of God on earth.  I don’t think this is conscious or intentional.  It only comes to my awareness as I see Christians in despair over their current impotence to prevail upon many government leaders.  Many of those on the left seem to have been dumbfounded and dismayed at the reality of the evil present in our structures and our citizenry.

On the other hand, Christians on the right side of the theological and political spectrum, those who have historically claimed to uphold high standards for personal morality, sexual purity and integrity  -- they seem to have sold that birthright for access to political power.

I wonder if one of the issues in this identity crisis is our response to Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?”  I wonder if we are faced with a similar challenge to that faced by Jesus’ first disciples – to determine where our primary allegiance lies. Are we Christians first or Americans first?  Who is Jesus to us?  And how does our answer to that shape our self-understanding?

The disciples have been following Jesus for a while.  You might think that they would understand more about him than they do.  But you know, I have been following Jesus for 44 years and I sometimes still catch myself confusing what I want Jesus to be and who he really is.

We all need regular ways to check ourselves, to answer the question “Who do I say that Jesus is?”  Each of us can only answer that question for ourselves, but it seems reasonable for you to know how your pastor would answer. 

Who is Jesus for me?  Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior.  He is the one I seek to follow in my daily life, the one who has forgiven me and continues to extend grace to me because I fall down and fall short of my own expectations and desires to be more like him all the time. 

Jesus is my Lord, but also Lord of all.  Jesus of Nazareth is God in human form, the demonstration of God’s profound love for the kosmos, including, but not limited to, human beings.  What Jesus did with his time on earth shows us the heart of God, the mind of God, as much as we humans can begin to grasp it.

Jesus reveals a God who is angry at injustice and oppression and exploitation – also called sin.  God is generous and understands that humans are weak and broken, that we are damaged by the sinful systems in which we live; therefore God is abundantly forgiving, always, always willing to receive us when we turn back to God, always ready to welcome us home.  

Choosing to identify as the Human One, to take the path of suffering instead of the way of triumph, Jesus put himself in solidarity with all who suffer.  I understand his call to take up my cross as a call to also choose to identify with all those who suffer under the present order of the world.  Jesus’ first disciples lived in the shadow of empire and so do I.

That is my answer, at least part of it, at least today.  You and I will continue to wrestle with it.  Who do we say that Jesus is when our candidates win elections and when they lose?  Who do we say that Jesus is when our neighbors are mistreated?  Who do we say that Jesus is when we create a church budget and set priorities for how we will do God’s work together?  Who do we say that Jesus is when a loved one is in pain?  Who do we say that Jesus is when we have more than we need . . . and when we don’t have enough? Who is Jesus in every aspect of our lives?

This is the question at the heart of Mark’s gospel and I believe, the question at the center of our lives.  Who do we say that Jesus is?  And, in light of that, who are we?



[1] [1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 120.

[2] https://www.christianpost.com/news/pro-trump-billboard-quotes-john-114-the-word-became-flesh-make-gospel-great-again-228363/

[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988, 2008), p. 243

[4] Ched Myers, p. 244.