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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Mark 8:27-38

48-ORD24-G-Year B

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

September 14, 2003

OK. There’s really no way to work this “elegantly” into the sermon, so I’ll just go ahead and get it over with right now.

Yes, I truly did win a Food City contest, and yes I really did drive twenty laps of NASCAR at the Bristol Motor Speedway last Sunday afternoon. I know some of you thought I was just making that up in order to get a laugh two weeks ago. I didn’t make it up, and I had no idea you’d laugh so hard. I keep remembering Dustin Hoffman in Rainman: “I’m an excellent driver.” If you remember in the movie how the mentally challenged Rainman drove in circles around the driveway… substitute a louder, faster car – and me – and you’ve pretty much got the picture. I want to say that I have a newfound respect for NASCAR. We’re not gonna sell the house and buy an RV so we can follow the Winston Cup, or anything. But it was definitely cool. And yes, Kristen truly does have video and photos of the event. Right now they’re being held as evidence in a really minor pit row accident, but when they’re released, I’m sure you’ll see them, on CNN. Actually, I did OK. Didn’t hit the wall. Didn’t hit any cars. Didn’t hurt anyone. I don’t know how fast I was going, but I did pass another driver. Followed like glue behind an instructor in the car in front of me. I think he thought my name was Peter, because at one point he shouted into his headset, “Get behind me, Satan!” I told you there’s no elegant way to work this in. The teacher led me up high by the wall on the straightaways, down low on the curves. It was a great adrenaline rush, and I highly recommend it. Seeing it on TV, or hearing about it, doesn’t come close to actually getting strapped into a car, taking a deep breath, and hitting the gas for yourself.

Jesus went on his way with his disciples to the villages of Kingsport and Johnson City; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” When I was in seminary, the very first question on my very first Theology exam was this: “Who is God? Be concise.” Jesus was putting an exam before his disciples. “Who DO people say that I am?” Be concise. And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do YOU say that I am?”

There comes a point when it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. There comes a point when it doesn’t matter what anyone else says about Jesus, or about God. There comes a point when the only thing that matters is what YOU have to say about Jesus… how YOU answer the question. The secondhand repetition of someone else’s belief doesn’t pass the test.

In the scripture today, Jesus leads his disciples along a particular track of thought. He starts out wide, having them think about what other people say. Then he narrows it down to who they think he is. But Jesus doesn’t let their thinking get too narrow, as Peter finds out. And then, having strained out the gunk of worldly thinking, he expands their minds to heavenly thoughts.

As we try to figure out who Jesus is to each of us, in a personal sense, scripture gives us this model of wide to narrow – but not too narrow – and then wide again. Like expanding our chests when we breathe, and then letting the air back out again, scripture gives us a model where we take in a range of understanding, then let out what isn’t healthy for us. And so the Breath of Life, Jesus, gradually begins to live in us, and we in him.

I ask you today to think about where you are in the process of understanding who Jesus is, for you. Are you taking in a wide breadth of information? Are you filtering out ideas that aren’t necessarily healthy? Have you narrowed your ideas so much that you’re in danger of rebuke? Or is God opening your mind to heavenly thoughts? I offer these not as end-points, but as signposts along a road of understanding that we travel again and again. Never mind what the other people are saying, who do YOU say Jesus is, for you? And who might you say he is tomorrow?

“Who do people say that I am?”

Part of our Presbyterian Book of Confessions, The Westminster Confession, says this is Jesus: “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, The prophet, Priest, And king; The head and Savior of his Church, The heir of all people to be his seed, And to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.

The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and Man.”

Perhaps this isn’t the most comprehensive definition of who Jesus is that’s ever been written, but it’s close. The Westminster Confession bounces off the walls of church tradition. It covers just about all the ground good Presbyterian theology will allow. Mediator. Prophet, priest, and king. Head of the church. Heir of all people. Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, Very God and very man, yet one Christ. A person could spend a lot of time, wrapping her thoughts around all of these pictures of Jesus.

And even in scripture, there’s a range of ideas about Jesus -- four gospel pictures alone -- and not one of them describes him fully. Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, but he’s not conducting a public opinion poll. Jesus wants the disciples to think. He wants them to consider what other people are saying in order to better understand what they themselves would like to say. After all, the people are all a little bit right. There’s a bit of John the Baptist in Jesus. And there’s a bit of Elijah, and the other prophets, too. But there’s also much more.

Take a deep breath and consider the number of ways you’ve thought of Jesus over the course of your lifetime. Now take an even deeper breath and multiply those thoughts by the number of people who’ve ever lived. From people who have been injured by the church to people who have found deepest love, opinions of Jesus range from worst enemy to best friend. It’s not a question of shopping for the one Jesus that’s just right for you. It’s about finding that Jesus is bigger than you, and infinitely bigger than your experience.

And so in trying to say who Jesus is for us, we start by remembering that there’s a lot of “usses” in the world. And not one of us is completely right in our opinion or our experience.

Having cast his net wide, Jesus then asks the disciples, “But who do YOU say that I am.” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Peter narrowed his answer, which was good. But then he went too far. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. “Um, Jesus. You’ve gotta stop saying all this stuff about suffering and rejection, and being killed and rising after three days. Really. You’re scaring us. You’re scaring away potential converts with this kind of talk. Honestly, it’s kind of disturbing.”

To which Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you’re setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Which seems to say that Peter’s sin wasn’t so much the rebuke of Jesus, although rebuking the Son of God does qualify as a really bad idea. To me it says that Peter’s sin was in getting his mind so set, was in getting his mind so set on HIS idea of Jesus, that he didn’t leave room for God’s ideas.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I think for most of us, this comes a whole lot closer to a statement of faith than something like the Westminster Confession. Jesus needs to be personal, and not so big, in order for us to get our arms around him. But, as with Peter, the danger comes in holding him so tightly that neither one of us has room to grow.

“Jesus loves ME, this I know,” but does Jesus also love the people who betray and deny him? “Yes, Jesus loves ME,” but does he also love people who don’t love me? Does he also love the people I don’t love? Does he love them enough to suffer and be persecuted and die for them? This is where faith gets hard. This is where things get complicated because these are the questions that rebuke the little Jesuses that we want to hold onto. “Yes, Jesus loves me,” but does he love my actions that consistently deny and betray his trust?

After narrowing down to a personal level, and after confessing that our personal levels could use a good rebuking most of the time, an infinitely bigger, heavenly picture of Jesus begins to focus. This is the point where all words fail, even the big Westminster ones. This is the point where awe and praise begin. This is the point where we give ourselves over to following something we can’t express, yet something we feel to be irrefutably true.

This is the point in the gospel story when Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Like Mary in the garden on Easter morning, no we can’t hold onto Jesus. But we can follow his lead. We can’t define him, but he can give us definition. He’s beyond our words, but we can tell people about him, through the way we live, certainly, and through our words, if necessary.

Take a deep breath and think about who gave you that breath. Think about what you want to do with that breath. That breath of life belongs to God. You’ll have to let go of that breath. You can’t hold on to it for very long. But that breath will give you enough life to take another breath, and another.

In the same way, you have a perception of who Jesus is. But even your perception belongs to God. As you travel the road of faith, you’ll let go of that idea, because God won’t let you hold onto it for too long. But that sense of understanding of Jesus will give you enough life to look for another, and another. And it’ll keep you going until the day when you see Jesus face to face, and in fullness.