Does Anyone Believe Anything Anymore?
February 4, 2001
Mark 8:33-37 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
Today's reading is at the very center of the Gospel of Mark, and at
the center of our faith. Up to this point in Mark Jesus has been in
the Galilee area teaching and healing, gathering a following among the
poor and asking questions of the elite. After this scene Jesus turns
toward Jerusalem, and the Cross. Opposition will grow until at the end
even his closest friends will desert him. So the reading is a turning
point in the ministry of Jesus, and it continues to be a turning point for
all who would be his followers today. The pivotal question that day so
long ago in Palestine is the pivotal question for us: But who do you
say that I am? Let us listen to the reading for today.
As Carol was saying last week, "So what does this mean? Is it all up to us to struggle and try our best to make good choices? What part does Jesus play?" And then she said I would answer that question today! Humph.
This is part four of our series, Does Anyone Believe Anything Anymore? in which we are looking at some of the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith: Who is God? Why is there evil in this God's creation? And last week: who are we as human beings, creations of God, with the ability to do enormous good on the one hand and almost unimaginable evil on the other? On the back of the yellow insert today you will find a listing of articles of belief - taken, for the most part; from Confessions of Faith by our forebears in this place. You will find statements there having to do with last week's topic - the nature of humankind - and next week's as well: the doctrine of the Holy Spirt. We are offering these historical statements to remind you what has been believed in the past, to help you as you decide what you believe today.
In the past three weeks you will remember that we have said that our God is fundamentally good: a gracious God who is love, caring for us not from afar, but rather immersed in our world. But this God is also a God who meddles in our world: making demands upon us that we too be good and gracious, loving and just. And we said that if God makes those demands of us, we must have been given the awesome gift of freedom: freedom to obey or not, to love or hate, to live in fear or in hope by faith. Created as the psalmist said "a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor," we nevertheless find a war raging within - the same struggle that St. Paul talked about when he said, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?" " (Rom 7:15, 24)
Which brings us to the question Carol asked at the close of her sermon last week: What part does Jesus of Nazareth play in this faith of ours? I submit to you that it is only because of Jesus that we affirm any of the above. For Christians, it is Jesus, the Christ, who is the starting point for what we believe about the world, about God, and about who we are in the world. To use a string of biblical images, it is he who is the cornerstone of the faith, he the Great Shepherd of the flock that is the church, the head of the body. It is this Christ whom we call at Christmas Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God; the eternal Word made flesh, the Son of Man and Son of God.
And it is in his teachings that we discover ourselves, and the Way of Christ that is the way of life - the way by which we become fully human, fully all that we were created to be. It is in his resurrection that we proclaim at Easter that we see life conquering death, love triumphing over hatred. In the hope of Easter we by faith are "saved" from the war within us between good and evil. Jesus really is for us "the Alpha and the Omega," the beginning and the end. We are called by his name - "Christ's ones," Christians, and in that name we pray, that is, have access to our God. Who is Jesus? To use the most ancient of creed of the church: Jesus Christ is Lord.
But, you say, "Ralph, old buddy, where have you been? Haven't you heard about all the scholarship that has been going on these past 200 years - research by great minds probing into the records seeking the historical Jesus, debunking the Gospels, separating fact from fiction, poking holes in what we had thought Jesus to be? Haven't you read the issue of Time magazine that comes our every year, in which some scholar blithely announces that we really know nothing at all about that Jesus, buried under the hopes of his earliest followers, the "real" Jesus piously corrupted by the Gospel writers?"
Yes, I am aware of those theories. And I don't pretend to know the intricacies of the arguments, as really very few people in the world are bright enough, or have time enough to understand the thousands of pages written on it. Now don't get me wrong. Serious scholarship is important; our faith can stand up to rigorous questioning. But I do believe that this is one of those fields in which a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For it would be easy to simply read some of the more radical (and to my mind often outrageous) statements of some scholars - the kind that newspapers like to pick up - like "Scholar says Jesus never lived," and completely give up on faith, concluding that it was all simply made up.
Having said that, it is extremely interesting to me that throughout the history of the church there seem to be at least two things always going on simultaneously. One the one hand there is the realm of scholarship - good, hard, tenacious, always skeptical, hopefully faithful men and women - doing serious theological work. They wonder about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. They ask tough questions of the Gospel writers, and about what faith means for the contemporary world.
And as all that activity of faith is going on in the world of the scholars, down the street at the storefront church started last week, or in the cathedral built centuries ago, or quietly at their prayers at home . . . You know what? People are praying to Jesus, the Jesus they read about in their Bibles. And you know what else? They are finding hope and comfort in that Jesus. They are hearing his call to live in love and grace and with integrity, and they are doing it. Some say they are healed by that Christ. Others say they find forgiveness in him. Still others say his example inspires them to new heights of courage. Many say that week by week at the Eucharist - Holy Communion - they are renewed by that Jesus.
And it doesn't matter to them what the latest theory about Jesus is. They just know that Jesus is Lord - their Lord - and that they are trying to live out what they say they believe. They have answered for themselves the question: Who do you say that I am?
Have you seen the bracelets or tee-shirts that have these letters on them: WWJD? It stands for an excellent, excellent question to ask oneself in any situation: What would Jesus do? It's a way of making a person stop and remember to bring the values and teachings of Jesus into everyday life - and that is, after all, what we as Christians say we want to do. You may have noticed that the title of this sermon has slightly different letters: WDJD? What did Jesus do? That is, before you can answer the question, What would Jesus do today? you have to know what Jesus did - and said - when he was here on earth. In other words: Who do you say that I am?
So who do you say Jesus is? Some say a teacher, the greatest teacher, telling us the wisdom of God, showing us how to live. That's what Ghandi saw in Jesus. Others say he was a healer, reaching out in compassion to the sick in body and in mind. Pentecostals all over the world say that Jesus still heals. Maybe this Jesus was a social revolutionary - casting down the walls between rich and poor, the "clean" and "unclean," men and women. The popular Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan has reminded us of that Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about Jesus' non-violent but powerful love. Some say Jesus was a political revolutionary challenging corrupt powers to free the people. Liberation theology sees Jesus that way, and many oppressed Christians especially in Latin America, look to Jesus the liberator, a new Moses. Others say that this Jesus was "the life-giving power of perfect love," to use a phrase from Bishop John Spong the eminently liberal Episcopalian. (This Hebrew Lord, page 040) And with John the Baptist Orthodox Christians calls Jesus the Lamb of God, dying for the sins of the world, for you and for me.
Then too people call Jesus the Risen Lord. English writer Malcolm Muggeridge says that "What is unique about Jesus is that, on the testimony and in the experience of innumerable people, of all sorts and conditions, of all races and nationalities, from the simplest and the most primitive to the most sophisticated and cultivated, he remains alive." Alive in the hearts of all who believe, risen in the midst of his church, now to free us "from the servitude of the ego and our appetites into the glorious liberty of the children of God." (Jesus, page 191)
Great teacher, miraculous healer, social revolutionary, radical liberator of the oppressed; sacrificial lamb, mystical Savior, risen Lord . . .Which is he? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Will the scholars please clear this up for us? They won't; but I will!
Jesus is all of those things, and more. This Jesus the Christ born of Mary, who "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried;" [The Apostles' Creed] this Christ who was raised on the third day continues to live anew in his followers. And he lives in many ways - in different ways depending on one's circumstances personal and political, depending even on the seasons of one's life. For just as any living person has many faces and many roles, so too will a living Christ be manifested differently to different people, meeting different needs.
As we stand at this the Table of the Lord, as each one of us takes the Bread and then the Cup, the sacramental act will mean something different to each of us because of who we are, and what our needs are this day. And that is good! We don't have to all believe the same thing about Jesus, or about Communion. But let us each as the elements are being passed answer - for today, for this moment in time - that all-important question: Who do you say that I am? In our answer may we each meet our Lord here, and by faith take one step closer to being all that we were created to be, children of the living God. Amen.