Sermons That Work

You Have Seen Them Everywhere…, Proper 19 (B) – 2006

September 17, 2006

You have seen them everywhere: bracelets, key rings, and just about anything that can be marked with the logo, WWJD: “What Would Jesus Do?”

It’s daunting to wear one of those bracelets because in most situations, how would we be qualified to answer that question? How could we ever presume to know what Jesus would think or do in today’s world? Jesus was always doing the most surprising things! He was arguably one of the most unpredictable persons in all of recorded history.

If the gospels are any indication, it appears that when he was pressed by others for advice on what to do, he would (a) ask them another question; (b) tell a story or a parable; or (c) say that only God knows.

A couple of years ago, when the WWJD bracelet rage really started to catch on, people came up with some alternative bracelets:

WWDD for football coaches: “What Would Ditka do?” Or DYWFWT for McDonald’s employees: “Do You Want Fries With That?” For elderly Christians there’s WDIPOTB: “Why Did I Put On This Bracelet?” And for today’s teens, simply W: “Whatever” or “Whatsup,” take your pick.

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes his own suggestion for a bracelet slogan: WDYSTIA?

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Again, if the New Testament is any indication, the people around Jesus had a surprising number of answers for that one: the Son of God, Son of Man, King, Lord, Son of David, teacher, rabbi, king of the Jews, Son of the Living God, master, and gardener. In today’s lesson and its parallels, he is compared to one of the prophets, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jeremiah. He was also called a blasphemer, a glutton, a drunkard, and an imposter.

It is important to recognize that Jesus invites us all to answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” for ourselves. And equally important for us to consider is that the New Testament offers all of these answers and more, not limiting us to any single idea or label for Jesus.

This morning we hear Saint Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ.” Jesus responds by urging them to tell no one. Well, so much for that. Mark has spilled the beans. The evangelists Mark, Luke, and Matthew do not honor what Jesus asks the disciples to do.

The next time we are tempted to say, “The Bible says …” or “Jesus says …” we might ponder our inability to honor one of the few direct requests he makes to all of us who are his disciples: not to tell anyone he is the Christ.

Especially if we are not at all clear ourselves just what we mean by “Christ.” It is a Greek word meaning, “anointed” or “anointed one” — which is a translation of a Hebrew word we know as “messiah,” which also means “anointed one.”

Now what is interesting is that even in Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition there is not a lot of agreement as to what this word signifies. Or it is more accurate to say that it is a word freighted with many meanings. Because it can refer to individuals like Aaron, the priest who was anointed with oil and by God to be a priest in the Temple. Or it can be used metaphorically to refer to someone like Cyrus of Persia who delivered the Jewish people from their captivity in Babylon. It can even refer to the entire people of Israel as anointed by God to be a light to the nations.

In Luke’s gospel only, Jesus is shown to be reading from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (that is the Jubilee year of Leviticus). He then announces that this scripture is fulfilled, suggesting to some that he is claiming to be anointed, messiah, christos.

And at the time of Jesus, the idea of a Messiah coming to restore the kingdom was in the air. But there were many different interpretations of what that meant. He would be a warrior, a judge, a king, a prophet. None of which included the idea of being executed by the Roman government.

So what does Peter mean by “christos”? What does Mark understand it to mean? What do we mean by calling Jesus the Christ?

Decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue reveals that few Jews actually deny that Jesus could have been the messiah. What they do not see is any evidence that he is. For in Jewish terms, the world would be a much better place if he were. There would be justice and peace for all people. The dignity of every human being would be respected. And Christians, at least, would seek Christ in all people and serve the Christ that we believe is already in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

What we see instead are Christians killing Christians in places like Ireland, or unable to share bread and wine together in church, or trying to force one interpretation of who Jesus is on each other and everyone we meet, and on it goes.

The evangelist Mark reports, “And he charged them to tell no one about him,” and yet we continue to prattle on with our own ideas of who he is, missing altogether what he goes on to say: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

At the end of the day, Jews say, “Messiah is coming,” and Christians say, “Jesus/Messiah is coming again.” And most Jewish people say that when Messiah comes, if it turns out to be Jesus, they will have no problem with that. Surprise for sure, but no problem.

This causes one to wonder, however, if it is not Jesus, how will we respond?

Contemplating what that future point in history might look like inspired the great Jewish thinker and writer Martin Buber to say that if he is present when Messiah comes, and people are all asking if it is or is not Jesus, he would hope to have the courage to step forward and whisper in Messiah’s ear, “For the love of heaven, please do not answer.”

The witness of Christian scripture is that even if it is Jesus he would probably answer back with a new question, a story, or say, “Only God knows for sure.”

Six years ago a statement issued by over 170 Jewish rabbis and scholars titled Dabru Eme was made public. Dabru Emet is a call to the American and worldwide Jewish communities to reexamine how they think about and relate to Christians.

Here is, in part, what Dabru Emet had to say:

“The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture. Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition. Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition. That difference will not be settled by one community insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other; nor by exercising power over the other. Jews can respect Christians’ faithfulness to their revelation just as we expect Christians to respect our faithfulness to our revelation. Neither Jew nor Christian should be pressed into affirming the teaching of the other community.”

Sounds a lot like Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Dabru Emet concludes with what we can do together:

“Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace. Jews and Christians, each in their own way, recognize the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery. Although justice and peace are finally God’s, our joint efforts, together with those of other faith communities, will help bring the kingdom of God for which we hope and long. Separately and together, we must work to bring justice and peace to our world.”

In the end, the only thing we know that everyone can agree on about Jesus is that he worked alongside anyone who would join him to bring justice and peace to the world. He rarely, if ever, asked them to believe anything, least of all about him. He wrote no creeds or confessional statements. Instead, he always calls us to follow him.

We promise in our Baptism that we will be those people who strive for justice and peace for all people, not some people, not a lot of people, but all people, and respect the dignity of every, not some, not a few, not the ones like us, but every human being.

WDYSTIA? Who do you say that I am? Jesus wants to have that conversation with each of us, and is not overly insistent that we all have the same answer.

His only concern is that, whoever we say Jesus is, he can be seen in the way we pick up our crosses and follow him. The people he chooses to spend time with are not the people we always find ourselves drawn to be with on a day-to-day basis: tax collectors, sinners, the lame, the sick, prostitutes, and so on. That is the real challenge in our Baptismal promise: to follow him.

What Jesus did in any given situation was always surprising and unpredictable. Which is why it’s hard to presume to know what he would do today or tomorrow, and why it’s hard to adopt the kind of hubris it would take to wear a WWJD bracelet.

It might be easier, however, to wear one that says WDYSTIA, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” That way we can continue to have conversation with him as we strive to follow him in his mission to bring Jubilee, justice, and peace to all people while respecting the dignity of every human being.


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Christopher Sikkema


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