This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on September 13, 2009.
Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 8:27-38
It is interesting to notice the way that Jesus questioned his followers concerning his identity. Rather than first asking them to tell him who they believed him to be, Jesus began by asking the followers to tell him who the public considered him to be. “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples provided several answers. Some people believed Jesus to be John the Baptist, resurrected. Others believed Jesus to be Elijah or one of the other noteworthy Hebrew prophets. Jesus had a prophetic reputation.
Then Jesus posed the big question. “But who do you say that I am?” That question did not seek information about his public reputation. It was addressed to his intimate circle, to the people with whom Jesus had been in closest fellowship. “Who do you say that I am?” Is that the question that Jesus would pose to you and to me? Would we qualify on account of relationship with Jesus to hear this question? If so, do our lives show that we are identified with who Jesus is?
This is not an idle quiz. We cannot correctly identify something or someone that we do not recognize. We will not recognize something or someone we do not know. We certainly will not accurately represent something or someone we do not correctly identify. You and I must answer by our living the question one that Jesus posed to his first followers. “Who do you say that I am?”
The answers we give to that question will be both personal and profound. I can best identify someone with whom I am personally acquainted. Now, in the 21st century, what does identifying Jesus mean for our living? What is it about Jesus that we are following? What does knowing Jesus mean for the way we engage the rest of the world for God?
Peter proclaimed, “You are the Christ!” Like an earnest student who responds to a teacher’s question, Peter became the disciple who first correctly identified Jesus. Yet, within minutes, Peter became the first disciple to be reprimanded after affirming his confidence in the Jesus he knew.
“You are the Christ!” Jesus is not one of the prophets. Jesus is not some great moral teacher among the ages. Jesus did not agree to be a resurrected John the Baptist, a returned Elijah, or a re-incarnation of some earlier mystic. Let us not proclaim Jesus as merely one among any number of great philosophers or moral leaders. Either we know that Jesus is “the Christ” or we do not know who he is.
Many people are somewhat content to acknowledge Jesus as a noteworthy moral philosopher. It is “the Christ” part that challenges us. The word “Christ” is Greek for anointed. The Hebrew word for anointed is “Messiah.” Anointed by whom? Anointed for what purpose?
You see, when we identify Jesus as “Christ” we affirm his divine identity and purpose. To identify him as Jesus is to affirm his humanity. Yet, the Bible does not stop there. The Word we claim as trustworthy for faith and life asserts that Jesus is not merely someone who uttered a distinct moral philosophy. Jesus is God’s anointed for God’s purpose. To know Jesus as “the Christ” is to begin to encounter God’s purpose in a way that we cannot experience it otherwise. To know Jesus as “the Christ” results in a re-definition of everything else we know and encounter in the light of knowing Christ.
And as Peter learned, the ability to correctly identify Jesus as God’s anointed does not mean we will embrace the purpose that guided his life. When Jesus “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,” Peter could not stand it. Peter, the follower who first correctly identified Jesus as God’s anointed, was uncomfortable with the purpose that Jesus declared for his life. Peter did not want a suffering Christ. Peter did not want a rejected Christ. Peter did not want an outlaw Christ, an executed Christ, or even a resurrected Christ. Peter was a follower of Jesus, but he did not want Jesus to be “that Christ.” Peter wanted an Imperial Christ, a Big Shot Christ, and a Socially and politically powerful Christ, not a Suffering Servant of God for humanity! Peter wanted Christ without Calvary, discipleship without a cross!
Peter represents more followers of Jesus than we are comfortable admitting. Like Peter, many people have been comfortable learning the teachings of Jesus but distressed by the purpose of Jesus. It seems that during the first three centuries of the Christian era, the followers of Jesus understood that to be Christian is to be identified with God’s anointed outlaw, misfit, and outcast. The early followers of Jesus identified with the dispossessed and the disinherited, the poor, workers, immigrants, and the socially rejected arising from their identification with Jesus Christ. The first followers of Jesus Christ affirmed women in the face of centuries of chauvinism and paternalism. The first followers of Jesus Christ were suffering Christians at the hand of religious and civil authorities.
Christianity eventually became the faith of the Roman Emperor Constantine. It then became the religion of empire and distanced itself from the purposes for which Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again.
· As the faith of empire, the religious faith of a Hebrew named Jesus became the engine of anti-Semitism.
· As the faith of empire, the religion of an anointed carpenter became the agent of slavery and other oppressive workplace practices.
· As the faith of empire, the religion of an anointed man whose resurrection was first proclaimed to faithful women was transformed into a religious system that relegated women to second-class status.
· As the faith of empire, the religion of he who refused to call down legions of angels from heaven to smite his executioners became the religion of the Crusades, Nazism, Ku Klux Klan, people who bring automatic weapons and side-arms to church services, and the war in Iraq.
· As the faith of empire, the religion of he who drove commercially unscrupulous lenders from the Jerusalem temple became identified with business practices that oppress poor people.
· As the faith of empire, the religion of the anointed Jesus who healed sick people became business partners with people unwilling to provide publicly-funded health care for people who cannot afford it.
· As the faith of the anointed one who gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan, the religion of Jesus now is identified with vilifying people who are culturally different.
Let me say it clearly. The faith of empire is not the faith of Christ! When Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from the being the suffering servant, Jesus did not flinch or compromise. “Get behind me, Satan, [f]or you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [The Message] A notion of Christianity that denigrates the suffering and servant identity of Jesus is not merely mistaken; that kind of religion amounts to kidnapping Christ for our self-centered purposes. It is Christianity without Christ. It is pseudo-Christianity, false Christianity. However religious it may be, and no matter how much religious ritual, ceremony, and rhetoric may be associated with it, any notion of Christianity that rejects the self-sacrifice that Jesus offered is a religion that Jesus explicitly condemned in Peter as Satanic, not saving; hellish, not heavenly.
That is why Jesus did not want Peter and the other disciples running around telling everyone that he was the Christ. It takes more than knowing a name to know who Jesus Christ is. To follow Jesus is to follow his anointed purpose, his redemptive purpose, his transformative and transcendent purpose. That involves more than getting the answer right on a quiz. It requires self-sacrifice for God and others.
When people reject the anointed purpose of Christ they also reject the life that Christ calls them to live by faith. That explains how the Christ who treated women as equals has been replaced by a religion that runs over women. It explains how the Christ who loved lepers, Samaritans, and political and social outcasts has been replaced by a religion that vilifies the poor, immigrants, and minority groups. It explains how the religion of Jesus, who was anointed to heal multitudes in the power of God to demonstrate God’s compassion for sick and wounded people, has been somehow transformed into a religion that fights a public healthcare option. It explains how Christianity has become identified with the religion of profit-taking, war-making, and self-pleasure rather than the religion of self-sacrifice, compassion, and righteous opposition to self-centered living in all its forms and disguises.
Anyone who would, like Peter, seek to reject the self-sacrifice, compassion, and redemptive purpose by which Jesus defined himself must deal with how Jesus answered Peter. If we will not follow the redemptive, transcendent, and transformative purposes of Jesus, we are not Christians. We have no business appropriating his name if we will not follow his leadership and living. Jesus calls us to join his anointed purposes, not replace them with our self-centered ideas about living. God’s anointed Suffering Servant calls us to identify with suffering, oppressed, and mistreated people. God’s anointed Suffering Servant calls us to live and serve in ways that confronts oppression rather than profit from it. God’s anointed Suffering Servant calls us to live for God and serve humanity in ways that promote justice, knowing that doing so will cause us to be rejected, branded as outcasts, and even condemned as outlaws. When we try to avoid following Christ in ways that risk these consequences, then we must answer this question. Are we following Jesus Christ, or we telling Christ and the world that he should follow us?
Let us follow Jesus Christ by living for God’s holy and glorious purposes, not our self-centered comfort. If we know who Jesus is, let us follow him. If we do not know who Jesus Christ is, let us learn of him. Above all, let us not present the world a religion of imperial Christianity. Judging from the way Jesus responded to Peter, it is clear that he wants nothing to do with it.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.