Who Do You Say That I Am?

Sermon for September 13, 2015
Text: Mark 8:27-38
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia

It is generally understood I think that a Presidential campaign is just a circus of ridiculousness. It is either too hard or too boring to campaign on issues and substance and so what we end up with, what the media delivers to us, certainly what we remember is just this episodic series of inane televised stunts and pratfalls: Nixon, sweating through the first televised debates.;Dukakis, sticking his head out of a tank; Bill Clinton, jamming on the saxophone; Bob Dole, falling off the stage; John Kerry, windsurfing across the screen; Hilary, breaking down into tears on the day of the New Hampshire primary. These moments that should mean so little — I mean, seriously, Bob Dole was in pretty good shape for a man of his age and who cares whether he occasionally loses his balance and Lord knows I’ve done the same thing! But they end up meaning so much, we see them over and over, we hear them over and over, they lodge somewhere deep in our memory, they become the first line of Wikipedia entries — “John Kerry is a renowned windsurfer, Secretary of State, and former Democratic nominee for the Presidency.”

But if I had to pick one of these moments that seemed to most perfectly represent the Looney Tunes character of the campaign season, it would have to be this, and you may remember it well: at the 2012 Republican Convention, when actor Clint Eastwood came on stage carrying an empty chair, and placed it next to the podium, and announced somewhat casually that President Barack Obama was in fact sitting in that chair and ready to take questions. And I don’t want to paint with broad strokes. This sermon isn’t about politics per se and I’ll never tell you who you should vote for, full stop. I think Mitt Romney is a good man and I suspect we share some of the same values. I think Clint Eastwood is probably a good man and I have quite enjoyed many of his films. But there is something full-on absurd about taking time in a national convention to argue with an empty chair. Which of course is what Eastwood promptly began to do. He got to ask the questions he always wanted to ask. And apparently he got the answers he always wanted to get — that is to say, the answers from the imaginary version of the President that Eastwood brought on stage with him.

Now, as far as I know, the actual President was not invited. I suspect it would have been far less convenient to have the real man there, answering those questions for himself. That’s the whole point of having an imaginary one: he will say whatever you want him to say, which becomes quite convenient for the argument you’re trying to win. Which of course is why the image of Eastwood and the empty chair struck such a chord; it represents so much of what political campaigns have become. Real people do run for office, real people just like us: they grow and change, they stumble and fall, they adapt and learn, real people are complicated. But somewhere on the campaign trail the real people get left behind. Obama himself has said just the same: “One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job,” he says, “is that there is a character people see out there called ‘Barack Obama.’ That’s not [me]. Whether it is good or bad, it is not [me].” Whether you voted for him or for the other guy, it seems like we cast our votes not for and against the men and women themselves but for these straw men we’ve created, caricatured versions of themselves, like we take snapshots of the circus at its most ridiculous moment and that’s what history remembers. It’s not a great way to run a country, but it’s a pretty good way to win an argument. Straw men don’t think for themselves. Empty chairs don’t talk back.

We’re all guilty of it, Peter included. In our Gospel story today, Peter falls into the same trap: he thinks he’s in conversation with the real Jesus Christ, flesh and blood, but somewhere along the way in his own imagination he’s started arguing with an empty chair. We’re halfway through the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus has had by now more than enough time to establish himself as something of a local celebrity. First he was playing to small crowds: a synagogue here, a village there. But as time has gone on he has drawn more and more people to his presence: he fed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread; word of his deeds has now spread throughout the land. His name is whispered on the lips of people in villages he hasn’t even been to! So now, halfway through the Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples: “When people talk about me, just precisely what do they say? Who is that character people see out there called Jesus of Nazareth? Who do people say that I am?”

The disciples report a whole range of answers: “He’s Elijah,” “He’s John the Baptist,” “He’s one of the prophets,” each answer an attempt to understand Jesus by reference to something they already know, like how every Democrat becomes the next Kennedy and every Republican the next Reagan. For Jews to call someone the next Elijah in 1st century Palestine is pretty high praise — even if it does come with a bit of a box around it. And Jesus doesn’t want just to hear about his public image. It’s not just about what the people out on the streets say. Jesus wants to hear from his own inner circle, from his own disciples, the folks who should know him the best, they’ve been with him since the beginning. They should know him better than anyone. He asks: “Okay, who do you say that I am,” and Peter I like to think looked him straight in the eye and saw instead of his friend Jesus Christ all the hopes and dreams of all of Peter’s people projected onto this one man. He looked at his friend and he conjured up a straw man instead. “You’re the Messiah,” he says.

Well, of course he is the Messiah. Peter’s not wrong. It says so in the first line of this Gospel: “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah.” But our text today is the first time in Mark that anyone’s ever said it out loud, and Jesus immediately puts a gag order on the whole thing: he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. This Stays Between Us. We call this the Messianic Secret — Peter knows exactly who Jesus is, but Jesus wants it all kept under wraps, and it’s hard to imagine why Jesus would want to be so secretive about Who He Is and What He’s Up To. Except, of course, that Peter’s not quite as right as he thinks. Here’s the problem. For you and I, two thousand years after the fact, when we hear the word “Messiah,” we think about Jesus. But the word itself goes back a lot further. It comes from promises made to Israel at the time of David: that God would send another king, mighty in battle, strong in victory, a great warrior to unite Israel and to help her reclaim her prominence. In the aftermath of exile, and while Israel was under the authority of Rome, the promise of the Messiah had a particular grasp on the imagination of the people, a promise of liberation and revolution and national identity: surely, God will send the Messiah to save us. Surely God will put our kingdom back together. Surely God will build us again, in power and in might.

Peter knows these stories. Peter knows these promises. This is a character he understands. “You’re the Messiah,” he says, and he’s right, of course he’s right, but he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know what he’s saying, because he doesn’t really know what the Messiah will be. It’s going to look a lot different than he thinks. And of course that’s where this story turns; in the next breath, Jesus began to teach them about what was to come: that he would be handed over. That he would suffer. That he would die at the hands of the powerful. And it may sound like well-worn territory to us, but to Peter and the disciples, this is scandal. Peter actually starts to rebuke Jesus — “No, you’ve got the script all wrong. That’s not what a Messiah does, don’t you see! A Messiah is strong and powerful! A Messiah wins!” Peter thinks he knows how this story goes. But Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah — he’s not the character that Peter has crafted together in his imagination. He’s not a straw man there just to win Peter’s argument. He’s not an invisible puppet sitting in an empty chair. He’s the real Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the real Messiah. And in this Gospel, Jesus gets to speak for himself.

There’s something profoundly refreshing in this story about letting Jesus speak for himself. I picture something like a Middle School or High School Social Studies Debate. Here’s your topic: Would Thomas Jefferson approve of the United States of America in 2015? Divide the class into two teams. One team is going to argue that 2015 America is the embodiment of Jefferson’s dream; the other will argue how far we have fallen from his vision. They’ll have a few days to prepare. They’ll read all kinds of things he wrote. They’ll prepare their arguments carefully. And then when the day comes, they’ll sit in the classroom together and argue it back and forth, teasing some new answer out of the writings of a man who has been gone for two hundred years. And this is a very helpful exercise if your purpose is to help folks learn about Thomas Jefferson. They will learn all kinds of things about the political philosophies he believed. But they will also learn that that they can find something in his writings to back up almost any claim they want to make about America in 2015. In that class Thomas Jefferson will support everything from nationalized health care to the elimination of the income tax. Whatever his actual opinions might have been will surely get lost in a sea of wish fulfillment and projection, and, of course, unfortunately, he won’t do any of us the courtesy of showing up to speak for himself.

If you can picture what damage that class can do to Thomas Jefferson, just imagine then what damage we in the church have done to the living legacy of Jesus of Nazareth. “He’s the Messiah,” Peter says, and he’s right, and he’s so wrong, and how many times and how many ways have we too imagined the Jesus we would very much like to follow? How many times have we gathered at the First Church of the Jesus Who Says What We Already Believe? How many ways have we encouraged the congregation of Jesus Who Asks Us To Do the Things We’re Already Doing Community Church? It’s a comfortable place. It’s an easy place. You can sing all the hymns you all love to sing. You can read all the stories you already know and love. You can hear all the sermons you already agree with. You can relax, take a load off, and enjoy yourself. You will leave worship with all the ammunition you need to win every argument you ever want to have. You will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is on your side and your side alone. You will have the confidence of being right, and all it asks of you is that you ignore the empty chair up where the cross used to be. That’s how it works at Strawman Jesus Presbyterian Church. I can see the words up on the marquis: We speak for Jesus, and Jesus is on our side.

The problem, of course, is that in this Gospel Jesus gets to speak for himself. He began to teach them about what was to come: that he would be handed over. That he would suffer. That he would die at the hands of the powerful. And of course that three days later he would rise again — and I guarantee you, that part is not in Peter’s script. That part throws a monkey wrench into this whole thing. There’s no room in Peter’s expectations — or the expectations of any of Jesus’s hearers — for the idea that he might stick around long enough to speak for himself. Prophet, Elijah, Messiah — even when they’re right, these labels don’t work, because Jesus is going to stick around long enough to upend every one of them. Jesus is going to stick around long enough to emerge something richer and more complicated and more demanding than any of them. Jesus is going to rise from the dead, and survive, and endure, and walk again with his people and speak for himself, in this Gospel and throughout the ages to follow. That’s what the resurrection means: that Jesus will not be silenced. That the Holy Spirit will keep speaking. That God still has something to say.

This morning at 9:30 we began an eight-week class on the Presbyterian Book of Confessions — a collection of historic statements of what the church believes that begins with the Apostle’s Creed and goes all the way up through the Apartheid-era Belhar Confession. The Book of Confessions is one of those things that is a bit tricky to teach just because it’s simultaneously really important and in some ways not that exciting, depending on how much you love history and the stories that make us who we are. But underneath all of the human history written on those pages is something more fundamental. Underneath all the dates and place and old political arguments is this conviction that in each moment of our history together, God has had something new to say. That when the Reformation uncapped this wellspring of theological thought and reflection and division, God had something new to say — and I believe we will read it next week in the pages of the Helvetic Confession. That when idolatry and Christian arrogance so gripped Nazi Germany that it began to rampage across Europe, God had something new to say — and we will read it in the words of the Declaration of Barmen. That when it came time for our own denomination to come together and join voices and declare what we commonly believe, God had something new to say, and we will read it in our own Brief Statement of Faith. The beauty of the Book of Confessions is in its profound declaration that God’s not quite done talking, that the Holy Spirit’s not done working, that Jesus still has something to say.

Jesus still has something to say. It doesn’t mean that we always get it right. Quite the opposite. But it does mean that we live in hope. Even those of us who like to win an argument every once in a while, we live in hope. Even those of us who like having a little ammunition in our belt, we live in hope. We live in hope for the day when the world might again be renewed by the promises Jesus has already made — for the day when his name might echo to the ends of the earth; for the day when all of God’s children might lead lives of freedom and welfare and dignity. We live in hope for the day when human sin and the brokenness of creation might truly be put under his feet. We live in hope for the day when the voice of Jesus Christ might truly echo above the noise and confusion of our own everyday lives. Even here amid the brokenness, here in the pews of Empty Chair Presbyterian Church, even here we live in hope for the day when Jesus Christ will walk through our doors, come up the aisle, and take the seat we have kept open just for him.

I know we’ve got some questions we’d like to ask.

Of course, he may have some, too.

Amen.

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