Who are you? No, really – who are you? We can answer that question in all kinds of ways. You are a spouse, a parent, a child, an engineer, an artist, a student. You are chemistry major or a Teke or an Iowa native or a veteran or a grandmother or an elementary student. You are a runner or a knitter or a liberal or a conservative or an athlete or a pinball wizard. You are a Christian. A Baptist.
Who we are is complex and multi-faceted, and changing. There is no one answer to that question.
Identity has always fascinated us, and the idea of a secret identity or hidden identity can capture people’s imagination. You’ve got Bruce Wayne who is actually Batman or Clark Kent who is actually Superman. There is a TV show called the Masked Singer – the basic premise is that celebrities are dressed up in these wild costumes, their identities hidden, as they compete in a singing competition. Or something like that – I have actually watched about 5 minutes of the show. So the Bee is actually former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the Peacock is Donny Osmond, and the Flower is Patti LaBelle. It may not be riveting television, exactly, but there are those times when we have all wondered about a person, maybe someone we know. “Who is he? Who is she - really?”
Our text this morning takes up this this big question of identity. We are in the middle of a semester-long trek through the Gospel of Mark. Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has been on the upswing. Jesus has success, he works wonders, he casts out demons, he heals people, and there are growing crowds. Sure, there has been some conflict and opposition, but Jesus is The Man. It seems like the sky is the limit.
But our reading this morning represents a turning point. While there has been an upward trajectory until now, from here on out the cross stands in the horizon. We are at this inflection point just as we are about to begin the season of Lent.
It’s not an overstatement to say that everything in our reading this morning revolves around identity. We are told the Jesus and the disciples are going around the villages of Caesarea Philippi. The location is almost as important as what happens here. Just the mention of Caesarea Philippi brings up questions of identity. This area is named for Caesar – the Roman emperor – and for Philip, the tetrarch or Jewish puppet ruler. Philip was the son of Herod the Great, the king of Israel when Jesus was born – the one who had the babies killed in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus.
This region was also called Paneas. It was named this after the Greek god Pan. He is the one who is half goat, half man and who played the pipes. He was the god of wild places and nature.
In other words, this is not your everyday Orthodox Jewish village. The name of this district was a constant reminder that the Jewish nation was occupied and under Roman control. There is a Roman ruler, a Jewish puppet king beholden to Rome, and the presence of a Greco-Roman nature religion. It was all a reminder that Israel was an occupied nation. Caesarea Philippi is in the far north of Israel, the Jewish territory farthest from Jerusalem and with the greatest amount of Roman and pagan influence. Just living here could make a person question their place in the world.
This is the setting for Jesus to ask his disciples a huge question. “Who do people say that I am?” It is very interesting that Jesus asks this question. “What do they think of me?” “What are people saying about me?” It is interesting because he hasn’t seemed to care about that up until now – I mean, Jesus just does his thing. He doesn’t seem to give a rip what people think. Why does he want to know now?
Jesus is a busy guy. He’s got a lot on his plate. Why would he ask questions he really doesn’t seem to care about? Well, you’ve got to stick with him here. He actually doesn’t seem to care much about the answers to this question. The disciples respond, “Some say you are John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets.” And Jesus seems fairly disinterested in this response. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that‘s nice.” This question really just seems like a setup for the bigger question: “Who do YOU say that I am?”
It is one thing to cite public opinion, or to say, “People are talking.” It is another thing altogether to voice your own understanding and belief. In the end, what other people believe doesn’t matter for much. The question is, “What do you believe?” And Peter gives this amazing, insightful, incredible answer: “You are the Messiah.” Messiah is a Hebrew term; the Greek word is Christ. “You are the Christ.”
We have already been given a heads-up as to Jesus’ true identity. It came in the very first verse of Mark: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So when Peter gives this answer, we know that it’s “Bingo! You got it right, Peter!” Peter is the first one to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. And here is the really crazy part: Peter is the only human not possessed by an unclean spirit or working for Rome who correctly identifies Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The only one.
Peter gives this amazing answer, this seemingly inspired answer.
You might expect a party to break out. Finally, someone has revealed Jesus’ true identity. But that is not what happens at all. In fact, it is pretty well the opposite. Peter’s response begs the question: What does it mean to be the Messiah? Peter apparently expects a Messiah in the traditional sense – one with strength and power and the ability to lead and protect the nation in a concrete way. In the back of everyone’s mind, overthrowing Rome is the big expectation - or at least the big hope for the Messiah.
But Jesus sees it in an entirely different way. He began to teach that he would undergo suffering and rejection and be killed, and then rise again. And Peter could not stand for that. He took Jesus aside and the text says he began to “rebuke” Jesus. You can think of this as scolding or correcting – Peter knows what Messiah is supposed to be and supposed to do, and he wants to set Jesus straight. But I tend to read this as a very human response from Peter. Peter has developed a deep sense of love and care for Jesus. He is saying. “Friend, don’t talk that way. Don’t go down that road. Let’s have positive thoughts.” I kind of see this as a very personal reaction.
But Jesus would have none of it. He spoke to Peter but turned and looked at all his disciples and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter is the first and only one to name Jesus’ identity in the whole gospel. But he did not grasp what it meant to be Messiah – what it meant to be Christ. He goes from winner of the $100,000 question to being called Satan in a matter of minutes. And I might point out that Satan simply means “adversary.” Just to be clear, Jesus went on to say, “If any want to be my disciples, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Whoa, wait a minute. Did Jesus say cross? He did, and it is the first mention of the cross in Mark. The disciples had to be thinking, where did that come from? Jesus then said, “If you try to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake you will save it.” You can hold on to self-preservation so tightly, you can be so focused on yourself and your own needs that you never really live. Or you can follow me in freedom, committing your life to my mission of love and peace and justice and righteousness, and you will find what it is to truly live.
Six days later, Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter and James and John. These same confused and befuddled disciples. And there on the mountain, something happened - something mysterious and powerful and wonderful. We are simply told that Jesus “was transfigured before them.” And we are told how dazzlingly white Jesus’ clothes are. It is like an Oxy-Clean moment except that no one on earth could bleach clothes this white. It’s a nice little tidbit in the text. And with Jesus, in this dazzling light, they saw Moses and Elijah.
Peter and James and John didn’t know what to think or what to do. I mean, this doesn’t happen just every day, right? They only knew that something incredible was happening, and they wanted to capture the moment. They wanted to hold on to the glory. Peter said to Jesus, “Let me build three dwellings--one for you, Moses, and Elijah.” He wanted to bottle what they felt at that moment. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t something they could control.
Immediately a cloud came upon them, and there was a Voice. They were terrified. The voice said, “This is my son, my Beloved; listen to him.”
Peter and the other disciples had observed Jesus’ ministry. They had learned from his teaching; they had seen the healings; they had experienced his power firsthand. Peter had tried to add it all up, and he came up with Messiah. But Peter’s understanding was too limited. I think Jesus took these three close friends and followers with him so that they might have a glimpse – a glimpse of God’s glory.
Writing of the Transfiguration, Madeline L’Engle said,
Suddenly they saw him, the way he was, the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible. This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. This is the way he was—is---from the beginning, and we cannot bear it… We all know that if we really see him we will die. But isn’t that what is required of us? Then perhaps we will see each other too.How about you? Have you had a mountaintop experience? A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near?
These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced. They teach us, they remind us, they grab us with the truth that faith is not just a head trip or a set of beliefs that we sign on the dotted line; faith is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship.
The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized. The prayer concludes with these words:
Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
Jesus asks of us: “Who do you say that I am?” What we believe about Jesus has implications for the way we understand ourselves. Because if as Christians we are trying in some way to follow Jesus, we need to know who it is we are following. We need to have a sense of what Jesus is about.
Peter had in mind what it meant to be the Christ, but 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.”
This is what Christ looks like. This is a completely different kind of power than the power wielded by Caesar or by Jewish puppet rulers. God’s kind of power is very different than the world’s kind of power.
After the Transfiguration, the cloud passes, and it is just the three disciples, the three frightened and freaked out disciples standing there with Jesus. And it is time for them to move on. Time to get to work.
How we understand Jesus and how we understand the power of God and the purpose of God makes a difference in the way we see ourselves and seek to live out our faith.
I have a childhood friend. We went to church together and played basketball together and have kept in touch a bit in a recent years through Facebook. This is what my friend posted a couple of days ago:
As many of you know I have tremors and I have dealt with them most of my adult life… I have never really tried to hide them, not really able to, and have always been open with questions that anyone has had. Today for the first time I was faced with someone mocking my tremor when they thought my back was turned. This made me think that if we are going to mock a person with the slight issue that I have, then how are we treating those with more complex disabilities? These were people from the same generation as me and it makes me sad to think of the world of disrespect that we have helped in creating…. The most frustrating part of this ordeal was the main individual involved calls himself a Christian.I have been thinking about this the past few days. In personal situations such as this, and in bigger, sweeping, even national and international situations, Christians have often claimed to be following Jesus when in reality we are acting a lot more like Caesar, a lot more like Philip, seeking power over, power to dominate, power to control - not power in weakness, not the power of truth, not the power of the cross.
We are called to follow a Christ who leads through love and not coercion; through humility and not bravado; through servanthood and not demand; through embracing humanity in all of its pain, not turning his back on those in need.
Up on the mountain, Peter and James and John had a glimpse of such a Christ in glory. And like them, we are called to follow that Jesus down in the valley where we live. Amen.