A sermon delivered on September 12, 2021 by the Rev. Patrick H. Wrisley
Mark 8 is smack the middle of Mark’s fast-paced Gospel, and it is in this chapter the whole story pivots as Jesus fully reveals who he is and how this revelation disturbs the political and religious status quo. Jesus waits until he is as far as he possibly could get from Jerusalem to directly reveal his identity to the disciples. The group is making their way up to Caesarea Philippi which is located some 20 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Like any group of people who know each other well, we can imagine the banter going back and forth between the disciples as they make their way north. We pick up in the story when Jesus lobs a question out for the group to think about. Listen to our text from Mark 8:27-33.
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
“Who do you say that I am?” It is a simple enough question. Thus far in Mark’s Story we get several glimpses of who people thought Jesus was. Who was Jesus? We have come to know he was a healer. He was a sage teacher. He was a troublemaker for the Jewish authorities. People came to Jesus because of what he could do for them. So, Jesus takes this opportunity to ask his closest friends about who others think he is.
His disciples share that some people think he is a reincarnated John the Baptist who is calling people to repent. Some people say he is Elijah come back from the dead and would be a thorn in the Roman government’s side challenging their power. Yet others felt Jesus was a prophet who spoke truth to power and foretold the actions of God. And then Jesus flips the question. “Who do you say that I am?
Have you ever gone to a party or a social function where people do not know you? What’s usually the first question you get asked? “Hi, what do you do?” People identify us for what we do. It’s hard for me to go to those situations because when I answer, “I am a pastor,” I get one or two general responses. Either the person will want to talk about their spiritual conundrums or what they think about God, which by the way, is not a bad things at all, or else their faces go pale and are thinking, “I don’t want to talk to a pastor right now…he is going to judge me,” as they excuse themselves to use the restroom. For doctors, once people know you are a doctor, they will ask you medical questions. If you are a lawyer, they hit you up for free legal advice.
Why do we do that? We go and meet someone and the first thing we do is ask them what they do. We pry to find out what function they serve in the world and then we identify them with that function. When strangers ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a pastor, they get all weird and start relating with me differently. They hide their drink behind their back. They will apologize for the off-color joke they just said. Oh, how I wish that when I go to social functions people would meet me for the first time and ask, “Tell me about who you are, Patrick.”
What a novel question! You see, I am so much more than what I do for a living. Being pastor is a function I fulfill. It is a part of who I am but I am so much more! I am a man who seeks to love God and to love others. I am a man who is deeply sensitive and feels the pain of others. To my family, I’m not a pastor to them; I am dad, a spouse who takes the trash out, and a grandfather! I am a frustrated poet and motorcycle enthusiast. I am so much more than what I do for a living.
Beloved, this is what Jesus is asking the disciples. He isn’t asking them about what function he fills as a preacher, teacher, prophet or healer; Jesus is asking them, “Who am I!? Who do you think I am?” It’s a question Jesus asks not to learn what they think he does; rather, it’s a question Jesus asks to determine who they think he is at the core of his essence. It’s about Jesus’ identity.
Church historian, Diana Butler Bass, in her wonderful book, Freeing Jesus, notes the Apostle Paul’s first encounter with Jesus following his conversion. She writes, “He asked, “Who are you?” not “What are you doing?” or “Why are you talking to me?” “Who” is a relational question, a question that opens us toward companionship…It is the question we try to answer whenever we meet someone new; if we find out “who” is sitting across from us, we might know how to proceed with whatever comes next. To know “who” is an invitation into a relationship that can…change us, often sending our lives onto a completely unexpected path.”
Peter, presumably speaking up on behalf of the group nails the answer to the “who” question – “Jesus, you are Messiah!” Messiah hearkens back to the description of God’s Son in Psalm 2. It brings to their minds the prophetic words of Jeremiah 23:5-6 that talk about the Righteous Branch that will come from the line of David and lead the people of Israel with justice and righteousness. For Peter and the others to declare Jesus is Messiah was to declare that his identity is the divinely appointed Anointed One. Messiah is a liberator who sets captives free and leads them on a path towards God. Messiahs generate followers. Did you know that Messiah, translated “Christ”, is the four Gospel’s most common descriptor of who Jesus is? Interestingly, he is only described as Savior three times in just two of the gospels.
Bless Peter’s heart. God love him. He answered the “who” question correctly; however, he completely flubbed about what that means. When Jesus tells them what is going to happen to him because of who he is as Messiah, Peter pulls Jesus aside and admonishes him; you see, Jesus’ understanding of Messiah did not jibe with Peter’s. Peter wanted a Jesus that would accommodate his needs. He wanted to mold Jesus into his opinion of what Jesus should be. And as we read in our Story, Jesus will have none of it.
So, beloved, on this communion Sunday, we are taking the disciples’ place alongside Jesus on the road. All of a sudden, Jesus stops and turns to you placing his hand gently on your arm and asks, “Beloved, who do you say that I am?” Remember, he’s not asking you to describe what he does; no, he’s inviting you into a relationship with who he is. The question for you and me is how do we answer? Do we understand Jesus to be Messiah, or do we like Peter and others try to make Jesus into who we want and expect him to be? As we share the meal, I invite you to seriously contemplate who Jesus is to you. The more challenging question, however, is whether or not the way we live our everyday lives reflect that understanding. Holy Spirit, come!
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence (New York: HarperOne Publishers, 2021), xxv.