The Thing: Who Do You Say That I Am?

So, here's the thing. I just met Rev. Alfred Williams. He's a retired UCC pastor. At 81, he's still preaching and teaching. He's still asking great questions and pushing congregations to do the same. When I am his age, I hope to be as passionate. Hell, I wish I were as passionate now. With that introduction, I want to share this sermon that he preached on Aug.18 of at Ladera Community Church. 

I think this sermon serves to blow apart some of our assumptions about generational differences within church leadership. He preached on Mark 8:27-33.

Prayer: May our minds and our hearts be open to the Spirit’s presence within and among us. Amen.

I must confess to you. I have been an ordained minister for more than fifty seven years and for the first time this week I think I have finally discovered the question behind the question: “Who do you say that I am?” The question behind the question is: “What is my name in the epic mythical saga of the external redeemer?”

Though you may not recognize the title, you know the story line: the protagonist leaves a heavenly abode, enters human space, performs a redemptive function, and returns to the heavens. You say you are not familiar with that mythical chestnut? Oh, I think you are. It is the plot of the film Superman, or Wonder Woman if you prefer. It is the storyline of both The Lone Ranger and Shane; and Star Trek if you fancy your cowboy in a space suit. (Funk; Honest to Jesus; p. 309)

Today’s Gospel reading is all about the role Jesus plays as the external redeemer in the life of Israel. In today’s lesson Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” When we get to the Letters of Paul the preferred name is the Lord Jesus Christ. John in Revelations chooses Lamb of God. Indeed within the early church, Jesus’ role in the external redeemer saga was so much in dispute that the bishops called two Councils to resolve the issue; the first was convened by no less than the Roman Emperor Constantine. If you take a copy of the Blue Hymnal in the rack in front of you and turn to page 511 at the bottom of the page, you can read the more familiar of those creedal statements, the Apostle’s Creed. Note in particular the affirmation about Jesus.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

“Who do you say I am?” The Apostle’s Creed answers: Jesus is God’s external redeemer. Which is to say: Jesus belongs to a reality not our own and is qualitatively different from us. Indeed, the created world in which we live is so basically flawed that it must be redeemed from without. In other words, evil is stronger than human power and can be overcome only by superhuman intervention. (Ibid)

Take note, please, that the Apostle’s Creed says nothing at all about the historical Jesus other than his virgin birth at the beginning of his life and his suffering, execution, and resurrection at the end. Even in those events Jesus plays a passive role. And because there is no mention of the historical Jesus, the ethical dimensions of Jesus’ message and ministry are also absent. We believers only have to believe. The Apostle’s Creed contains no injunction for us to modify our behavior in any other respect. (Funk; Honest to Jesus; p.43)

At this point I need to tell you that the substance of my message today comes from two primary sources: John Dominic Crossan and Robert W. Funk. Crossan and Funk were the first to make me aware of the significant developments in New Testament studies that have taken place in the past few decades: refinements in textual analysis; increased dialogue between New Testament scholars and non-biblical but related disciplines especially historians, archeologists, and anthropologists. Add to that the discovery of early church manuscripts not included in the canon.

With those tools in hand, Crossan and Funk sought to uncover the outline of what they perceive as a portrait of the historical Jesus. A portrait buried behind the overlay of scriptural and creedal formulations laid down in the first, second, and third centuries. A portrait markedly different from today’s conservative and even mainline Protestant portrayals. These are some of the broad strokes of the portrait Crossan and Funk provide.

Crossan and Funk suggest that Jesus was a Jewish peasant born sometime in 4 BCE. That he grew up in Nazareth, a small Jewish, largely agricultural village in Lower Galilee. That he lived his entire life under the iron fist of Roman domination. Aided and abetted by the political, ecclesiastical, and economic elite of Israel. Rome exploited, enslaved, and dehumanized the Galilean peasant farmers and fishermen. The formula was tried and true: impose heavy taxes, force the peasant famers off their land, turn them into share-croppers and then tenant farmers; eventually into poverty and homelessness.

When Jesus began his ministry in the Lower Galilee, he knew all too well the plight of the people. He was one of them. You can imagine his inner struggle: “Under occupation by imperial Rome; captive to systemic/institutionalized injustice and violence; victims of exploitation, demonization, fear, hopelessness, and despair. What am I called to say and to do, most of all to embody in my ministry?” There were two obvious options from which to choose.

One option: Lead an armed rebellion! Gather an army. Overthrow the “evil doers.” A second option: Take up the message of John the Baptizer. Say to the people: “Repent and make ready for God’s wrathful intervention when God will bring this present age to an end. Put your house in order. Stay awake. Trust God (and the external redeemer). The end is near.”

The Gospels inform us that Jesus rejected both of those options. Instead he chose a third, which Mark’s Gospel summarizes in these words: Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Which is to say: God’s Kingdom has come near and is among us now insofar as we accept it, live it, and thereby establish it. In other words, it is time for us to stop waiting for God to act. God is waiting for us to act.

Jesus proclaimed the presence of the Kingdom by inviting all to come and see how he and his companions had already accepted it, had already entered it, and were already living it. The message that Jesus preached is the message Jesus lived. He promulgated a praxis, a communal program, that he himself followed and that he invited others to follow. (Crossan; God and Empire; p. 95)

Jesus did not settle down at Nazareth or Capernaum and then instruct his companions to bring people to him. Jesus went to the people where they were and the stories he told were right out of life: the victim of a mugging on a lonely road; day laborers sitting around on their haunches waiting to be hired; hungry beggars at the city gate; people taking each other to court; homeless, demon-possessed people without caretakers; being rejected by neighbors in his hometown; bankers making loans at usurious rates, a friend banging on the door at midnight. (Funk; A Credible Jesus; p. 11)

The two essential components of Jesus’ praxis were free healing and an open table.(Crossan; Jesus a Revolutionary Biography; p,198) The Gospels tell many stories of Jesus healing, Unlike other healers in his time, Jesus did not charge. Rather, Jesus invited those who were healed to heal others. In that sense you might say that Jesus followed the “franchise model.” Indeed, Crossan suggests that a person healed by Jesus was not truly healed until that person had become a healer. Jesus did not consider healing as his own unique, special gift. (Crossan; God and Empire; 9.95)

You know of course that there is a difference between being cured and being healed. Crossan references Arthur Kleinman’s 1980 book Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture in which disease and illness are contrasted. “Disease refers to a malfunctioning of biological and/or psychological processes, while the term illness refers to the psychosocial experience and meaning of perceived illness. (Crossan; God and Empire, p.96)

Tragically, in the past decade wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the number of paraplegics. Modern medicine cannot cure those young women and men — if by cure, you mean restoring their limbs. Thanks to a host of advance[ments] in a host of related fields, those women and men can be healed in the sense that they can live a more fully human life. In that sense, I would guess we all know people who have been healed of their illness even though they have not been cured of their disease. Thankfully, when curing may not be available, healing is still possible. The testimony of the Gospels is that Jesus was a great healer.

Coupled with Jesus’ healing is his insistence on an open table where no one is excluded. It has been said that in Jesus’ day – and maybe today as well – the function of a table was to map in miniature the cartography of social hierarchy and discrimination. Places assigned according to status and for many no place at all. Hence Jesus’ parable of the king who sends his slaves into the street and gathers any and all to the feast: rich and poor, friend and stranger, male and female, slave and free, pure and impure. At God’s table all are welcome. No one is turned away.

Robert Funk once wrote: “The proper object of faith inspired by Jesus is to trust what Jesus trusted. For that reason I am not primarily interested in affirmations about Jesus but to the truths that inspired and informed Jesus. Jesus pointed to something he called God’s domain, something he did not create, something he did not control. I want to discover what Jesus saw, or heard, or sensed that was so enchanting, so mesmerizing, so challenging that it held Jesus in its spell.” (Funk; Honest to Jesus p. )

“Who do you say I am?” Before you give your answer I suggest you reflect on words written by John Shelby Spong.

Look at him! Look not at his divinity, but look, rather, at his freedom. Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power, but look, rather, at his infinite capacity to give himself away. Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him, but look, rather, at his courage to be, his ability to live, and the contagious quality of his love. Stop your frantic search! Be still and know that this is God: this love, this freedom, this life, this being; And when you are accepted, accept yourself: when you are forgiven, forgive yourself; when you are loved, love yourself. Grasp that Christpower and dare to be yourself! That is, I believe, the pathway to God, the God whom I have encountered in the profoundly human Jesus. Shalom! (John Shelby Spong; Jesus for the Non-believer; p. 282)

And I say, “Amen.”

Well, there you go. This thing that churches are wrangling with, this reasoning about why to gather, who we follow as we gather, and what our lives in the world should proclaim, is not a question for a bunch of Gen X malcontents or Millennial upstarts.No. This is actually a conversation that includes the young and old and everyone in between. Al is working it. I found my time with him to be inspiring. Add his voice to the cacophony of men and women who are trying to answer the same question, "Who do you say that I am?"

After receiving a Master of Divinity Degree in 1956 from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Alfred Williams served as a pastor for 11 years in Illinois, as Associate Conference Minister in Illinois and then as Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. In 1991 he moved to Foster City, Calif. He served as transitional pastor at Almaden Valley United Church of Christ in San Jose, First Congregational Church in Santa Cruz, First Baptist Church in Palo Alto, Ladera Community Church in Portola Valley, and Arlington Community Church in Kensington.  

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

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