Preached at University Baptist Church, Austin, Texas on August 22, 1999
I’m visiting Gina at the State Hospital one day back when she’s training chaplains there. As I’m waiting for her to get free, one of the patients walks up to me and says, “Do you know me?” I don’t know him, but I hesitate, because maybe we’ve met. I often introduce myself to people three or four times before my brain makes a permanent record, like a pen short on ink you have to retrace repeatedly before you can read it. “Do you know me?” he insists, a little louder. I’m wracking my brain, and now I’m wondering if maybe he’s an amnesia victim searching for his own lost self. “No,” I reply, “I don’t think we’ve met.” “Then why should I talk to you?” he says, and he walks away!
The disciples had every reason to know Jesus by the time he asked them “Who do you say I am?” So why did he ask them? Was Jesus searching for his own lost self, voicing his own inner doubts, wondering aloud if he was fulfilling his mission or mistaken about his identity after all? If Jesus was fully human, then he had to discern and develop his calling just as we do. The gospels present an evolving self-consciousness about his destiny, with several critical moments along the way like his baptism and his transfiguration, where God clearly visits Jesus and speaks in words that both confirm and direct him. At other places his sense of identity is challenged – in the wilderness where he is tempted, in confrontations with religious leaders, in those moments where people quit following him because his teachings are too hard and he expects too much from them. Between these mountain top highs and valley floor lows, Jesus ponders, prays, and discovers his path by walking it. From the time he is a child amazing the Temple teachers with his precocious spiritual insight to the hour of his trial in the garden when he prays “Let this cup pass from me,” Jesus wrestles with his unique and difficult destiny. So it should not surprise us here along the way if Jesus might wonder if he is on the right track after all.
I lived in New York when Ed Koch was elected mayor. For the first two years at almost every public appearance he would ask the crowd, “How am I doin’?” Everybody would laugh and applaud, because it made us feel he cared if we cared if he was doing the job right. Of course, Jesus wasn’t running for office, and he would not compromise his message to fit the opinion polls. He didn’t seem to be concerned with popularity like some folks nowadays who will cut the gospel fabric to suit the fashion of the times. You know, avoid controversial issues because that’s not why people come to church, make the gospel easy to follow because people have enough demands on them already, tell the people what they want to hear so they’ll think God is their biggest fan without ever a hint of challenge to the way they think and live? You can build a crowd that way, but I’m not sure if you can build a church.
No, Jesus pretty much made hamburger of everybody’s sacred cows. And he demanded a lot. And he would not compromise. So most of the crowds initially attracted by his teachings and his miracles abandoned him. It must have been lonely at times. In the mystery of Jesus’ simultaneous full humanity and full divinity we can’t possibly penetrate the inner workings of his mind, but at least from the human side we can understand why Jesus might ask “Who, me?” “Why me?” “What next?” and “How am I doin’?” along the way.
On the other hand, maybe Jesus wasn’t looking for the answer to his question, but for their answer. Maybe he wanted to know if his disciples were catching on, understanding what he was about, what he was trying to do. Obviously Jesus was a puzzle to that time, like a lot of public figures in our time. Ask someone if they know who George Bush or Al Gore really are, and you may get a smile, or you may get a scowl or maybe just a shrug. Some say “Abraham Lincoln.” Others say “Adolph Hitler.” Still others say “One of those politicians.” But they all think they have good reason for their opinion when the truth is none of us knows the real George Bush or the real Al Gore. People are complex, and not easily “known.” They are a mixture of many things and always capable of surprising, shocking, or disappointing you.
For that matter, which is the real you? The one who barked at your best friend yesterday or the one who gave assistance to a total stranger? The one who barely passed math or the one who keeps a careful checkbook? The one who partied hearty on Sixth Street last night or the one sitting sedately here in church today? Do you even know who you are?
“Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. They answer: “Some say you’re John the Baptist. Some say Elijah. Others say you’re Jeremiah or one of the great prophets.” We pigeonhole people according to our past experience. “We’ve seen this before,” they thought. And they were right. Jesus was a lot like John the Baptist and Elijah and Jeremiah and the other prophets who preceded him. These were flattering comparisons, but too limiting, because Jesus was more. So they were wrong. Still, they hadn’t been with Jesus all along, hadn’t heard all his teachings, weren’t close enough to know him well like the disciples. So much for the crowds.
“But who do you say I am?” Jesus asks them. Simon Peter speaks for them all, blurts out what they have all just begun to dare to think. “You are the Messiah!” Christos, in Greek: “Christ.” In Hebrew: Meshiach, “Messiah.” A loaded word! It means, simply, “anointed one,” like the way a King was anointed at his coronation, as a sign of God’s blessing poured out, as a symbol of his giftedness and responsibility to rule. Israel called all her kings “Messiah” during their lifetime, but only David even came close to living up to the ideal. Then David’s dynasty was gone, and there was no ruling Messiah. So Israel came to expect a coming Messiah, the ideal King, sent by God to deliver them, sent by God to rule them as the ideal sovereign. It was both a political and a spiritual word. And it was loaded, because various visions of this Messiah had been described, and various expectations raised. Loaded more, because they had waited a long, long, long time for God’s Messiah to come. It wasn’t a word any Jew would use lightly, not even Peter. But Jesus has given him reason to venture. “You are the Messiah!” There. He said it.
It hangs there in the air. Then Jesus breaks out in joy: “Simon, you blessed Rock! God put this in your mouth, and I’ll build my church on it.” Peter gives the answer Jesus wants to hear. But somehow, it isn’t enough. For as soon as Jesus starts to speak of his destiny to suffer and lay down his life, Peter contradicts him, pulls Jesus aside, tells him, “Listen. Nobody wants a Messiah like that. This suffering business isn’t politically correct.” So Peter makes it clear that what he means by “Messiah” and what Jesus means by “Messiah” are two different things entirely. And Jesus responds to this with scorn: “Get behind me Satan!” Poor Peter! In just six verses he goes from “Blessed Rock!” to “Rock-head.” You see, you can call Jesus “Messiah,” but if you think that means calling the shots and lording it over the people around you because you’re next to God, you’ve missed the point entirely. You can call Jesus “Messiah,” but if you don’t understand that means loving and serving others to the point of self-sacrifice, you’re just taking the Lord’s name in vain. So when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he’s right. But he’s wrong. He doesn’t know Jesus yet. He just doesn’t get it.
But Jesus already knew that, don’t you think? I don’t mean because he was God and already knew everything everybody would ever say, but because Peter and the other dim bulbs had missed the point all along. Who would have blamed Jesus if he said, “Why should I talk to you?” and just walked away? But why did he ask them if he already knew they wouldn’t have the right answer?
Maybe the question is here for the sake of generations to come, for our sake, so we will have to answer it. How about it? Who do you say Jesus is? A generation later Paul describes Jesus as “all things to all people.” Already people were making Jesus what they needed him to be. The confusion about him continues in our time, doesn’t it? There are still people who say Jesus was a great teacher, Jesus was a social revolutionary, Jesus was a courageous prophet, Jesus was a wise philosopher – meaning, of course, that’s all he was. We ourselves can’t figure out whether we want to say Jesus was unique and beyond compare or typical and therefore an example attainable for all of us to follow.
The scholars of the modern church have led us through three “quests for the historical Jesus.” I have a shelf full of their musings. One book called Jesus and another book called Christ, both by the same author. Another wrote, The Essential Jesus, The Historical Jesus, and Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography. Still another gives us The Real Jesus and Living Jesus. I also have Honest to Jesus, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Jesus: God and Man; Jesus: The Man, The Mission, and the Message; A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus; Jesus the Magician; The Quest for the Historical Jesus; Jesus Through Many Eyes; and Jesus Through the Centuries, just to name a few! These scholars all read the same sources, but each comes up with a different Jesus because they all have their own agenda and they want Jesus to serve it.
They aren’t the only ones, of course. Christians everywhere have competing visions of Jesus, and you know, I just don’t believe in the Jesus a lot of them do, not the way they describe him. There’s a lot of confusion out there, and still a lot of misunderstanding and taking the Lord’s name in vain. No wonder a man asked me recently, in all seriousness, a Baptist Christian, “Who is this Jesus fellow to you, anyway?”
The truth is, we lack even the basic information about Jesus you would get from a driver’s license: height, weight, eye color, and whether he might need corrective lenses before operating heavy machinery. We have no photographs, no paintings, no life size statues, not even a description of his appearance, though I once heard a preacher describe Jesus in perfect detail as “a rugged, handsome, blond haired, brown eyed man, with short hair and clean shaven, a man’s man, tall and strong.” Jesus had to be handsome, he reasoned, because nobody would have followed him if he were ugly. On the other hand, we have more information about Jesus than we do about most ancient historical figures, but all of it has come to us through the filters and agendas and imaginations of people who either already believed he was God or absolutely rejected the idea. There’s no such thing as unbiased history, and the Jesus of the Bible lends himself to a variety of plausible interpretations. So, how can we know Jesus?
In the Bible, there are two ways of knowing. You can know about someone: facts, information, data. Or, you can experience someone. Thus, you can know people without knowing everything about them. And you can know about people without ever really knowing them at all. But the mystery always remains. You can never fully comprehend who a person is because a person is dynamic. Do you know the people sitting around you today? Can you claim really to know a single soul on this planet? Yes, in some cases, very well. But no, not entirely.
Do we know Christ? Not if we merely try to bend him to our own agendas, especially not if those agendas are incompatible with the gracious savior consistently revealed by the scripture. He is not hateful, violent, or abusive. We can say what he is not. But can we say we know him? Yes, very well. But no, not entirely. Perhaps it would be better to say, “We are getting to know him.” In fact, as Elizabeth O’Connor observes, we do not follow Jesus because we know everything there is to know about him. We follow Jesus in order to know him. It takes a life time, nothing less. And because he is alive and his Spirit is present in our midst, we can never claim to know him entirely. He is still capable of surprising us. He is still revealing himself to us.
The Incarnation – that Jesus was God in human flesh – is the heart of our Christian faith, because we believe God still unites with our flesh, dwells in our hearts. None of us has ever looked upon Christ, so how can we know him? We know him as he is embodied in each other, however imperfectly. You and I are the body of Christ, Paul says, the church, through whose bodies and gifts Christ’s Spirit continues to work in the world. I have never seen Christ, but I have seen Christ in you. And the Bible is like an artist’s sketch of someone you have never seen. But you hold that picture up to each person you meet and in every circumstance of life, and you notice the resemblance, you keep glimpsing him everywhere. Think about it. Who has been Christ to you? More importantly, who has encountered Christ through you?
We should not be troubled by the confusion about who he is. We are still getting to know him ourselves. As we follow him and do his work and embody his love, we know him better. The Bible says, “We shall all see him.” Meanwhile, I think our own lives and destinies answer who we think Jesus is, if not also who the world decides he is. So how are we doin’ Lord?
Writes the poet/pitcher Dan Quisenberry:
Who are you
they asked through the ages
a song of blessing
full with child
Christ the Son of God
before he heard the rooster’s crow.
a silent man
a political hot potato
says pontius pilate
by the wash bowl.
with fingers on wounded flesh
a reason for war
to cut off more ears
say the crusaders
marching towards palestine
my authority to grab land and money
say the medieval popes, and televangelists
flowing purple robes and heavy coffers.
a mystery of beauty say the artists
limestone dripping in their eyes
our ground of being
say the theologians
thick glasses and heavy books.
my road to votes
say the politicians
with powdered faces and hands out
my savior, my redeemer
say the poor in spirit
humbled by hardship.
my mentor in peace and justice
says martin luther king
marching to birmingham
too confusing, I’ll take the silver
with a kiss
who was and is and is to come
trembling with his vision
my slipstream to the Creator
of the universe, to infinity
with graying moustache
He is right. Maybe the reason there are so many different pictures of Jesus is that Jesus allows us to make him what we need him to be – within limits, of course. Maybe the reason there are so many different pictures of Jesus is that each of us must answer the question for ourselves. So. Who do you say Jesus is? May we pray?
Jesus, Friend, be near to us, that we be strangers no more.
Jesus, Savior, be clear in us, that others might see your love.
Jesus, Sovereign, be free in us to do your work and will.
Jesus, Messiah, be revealed through us that finally the whole world might know you and rejoice in salvation and in peace. Amen.
Senior Pastor Emeritus of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune served as its senior pastor from 1987 to 2017 and made headlines after UBC ordained its first openly gay deacon in 1994, resulting in the church being disfellowshipped by multiple conservative Baptist organizations including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Having formally retired from active ministry, in his current role he works at the state capitol advocating for social justice and inclusion of all Texans. He has also served as president of the American Baptist Churches of the South and president of its Ministers Council.