“Our Answer” Colchester Federated Church, September 16, 2018, (Mark 8:27-38) Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus asks the kind of question that makes people stop in their tracks.  One of those deep philosophical questions that we need to take time to consider this morning too.  He and the disciples are going to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on the way Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples respond with common answers that they hear: “John the Baptist.  Elijah.  One of the Prophets.”  Jesus must have taken their responses all in and then asks, “But who do you say that I am?”[1]

That is still a fundamental question in our Christian faith, not just for the disciples walking alongside Jesus during his life and ministry.  Who do we say that Jesus is?  How do we explain our understanding of the central person in our faith?

Our answer to that question matters because it can shape how we live our lives.  For instance, if we understand Jesus to primarily be a peacemaker, then we would model ourselves accordingly.  If we understand Jesus to be a prophet, a teacher, a revolutionary, the Good Shepherd, friend to all, challenger of the status quo—all these deeply-held beliefs and understandings shape how we attempt to walk in the Way of Jesus today.

Going back to Systematic Theology notes from Seminary days, we differentiated between the historical Jesus (the person known as Jesus of Nazareth who really did walk this earth) and the Christ of faith (what Christians came to believe about the historical person Jesus of Nazareth.)  What we can say about Jesus as a historical figure (that people who aren’t Christian can’t easily dispute) is that he was born to a Jewish family around 4 C.E. and grew up in Nazareth, a hill town of maybe 2,000 people.  Jesus and his family were likely part of the laboring class, though he ended up getting baptized by John the Baptist and beginning his own public ministry when he was around 30 years old.  The hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry were: its itinerant and charismatic nature, a focus on fellow Jews in Galilee from the peasant class, prophetic sensibilities, preaching about the Kingdom of God, a concern for the destitute and oppressed, breaking social boundaries, miraculous activities like healings and exorcisms, and symbolic actions.  Jesus experienced conflict with some of his fellow Jews.  And he died under Roman rule and died a Roman death by crucifixion which was reserved as punishment for runaway slaves and political insurrectionists.  Though Jesus’ crucifixion was not the end of his story as we know.[2]

Now when it comes to miracles like the virgin birth, walking on water, stilling the storm, feeding the 5,000, turning water into wine, the nature of his healings, the Resurrection, and so on—that’s when our beliefs about Jesus become a matter of faith. We’re not going to all believe the same exact things about Jesus in our church and that’s not bad at all.  Because in our Gospel story Jesus turned to his own disciples and asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  This question implies having individual faith journeys and our own answers to that important question.

Peter is the one who courageously responds out loud, “You are the Messiah” though we don’t hear how the other disciples answer the question that Jesus asks them on that road.[3]  Maybe that’s on purpose.  Maybe they would have said the exact same thing as Peter or maybe their language and the primary way that they saw Jesus would have been a little different.  The emphasis in our Gospel text remains on people having individual experiences and understandings about Jesus the Christ.  We are on our journeys of faith and will have different beliefs about the Trinity, Baptism, Communion, Interfaith Relationships—you name it.  Diversity of beliefs can occur rather seamlessly when love and respect are values at the center of the community.

If we ever happen to go on the United Church of Christ website one of the central beliefs of the UCC is important to remember today.  It’s namely: “We believe that the persistent search for God produces an authentic relationship with God, engendering love, strengthening faith, dissolving guilt, and giving life purpose and direction.”[4]  The persistent search for God produces an authentic relationship with God.  This is what Jesus is striving for when he asks the disciples the question, “But who do you say that I am?”  Our answer actually matters.  Because having an authentic relationship with God is essential to living a life grounded in faith, where our words and actions are aligned and we will feel at peace.

Also, God has never wanted us to check our minds at the sanctuary doors.  Our faith may be 2,000 years old but our thinking doesn’t have to be.  Questions and doubts can lead to making the faith one’s own.  Moreover, coerced love or loving someone out of fear doesn’t seem like God’s angle in this universe either.  Not when Jesus tells us about the nature of God by reminding his disciples in Luke’s Gospel, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.  But even the hairs on your head are all counted.  Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”[5]

God sees us, knows us, and loves us.  We are not forgotten in God’s sight, it was Jesus who taught us that.  And to truly love someone, we have to actually know them.  To strive for authenticity in any relationship is to know and to be known.  God sees us and seeks to be seen by us.  God knows us and seeks to be known by us.  God loves us and seeks to be loved by us.

One of the best contemporary examples of someone coming to faith by persistently searching for God and finding God on their own terms is from the movie Forrest Gump.  Now Forrest saves his commander Lt. Dan and some fellow soldiers during combat in Vietnam.  But Lt. Dan must have his legs partly amputated because of his battle wounds.  He loses them from the knee down on both legs and becomes embittered—turning to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.  He once asks Forrest in frustration, “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”  Because Lt. Dan is dealing with people at the VA all the time who talk about “finding Jesus.”  The question rings hollow for him in the midst of his physical and emotional pain.  Forrest endearingly responds, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

So once Forrest is a shrimping boat captain honoring Bubba’s memory (skipping over a lot of things here), Lt. Dan shows up to be his First Mate as he had promised.  In the beginning of this venture, they’re having absolutely no luck in finding and catching shrimp.  Lt. Dan sullenly suggests that Forrest just prays.  Forrest attends church often and sings in the choir.  Occasionally Lt. Dan comes too, sitting in the back pew just looking angry.  One night, they get caught in a hurricane (with Hurricane Florence bringing destruction in the South this week we know how scary that could be.)  Though in the movie this hurricane showdown is when the storyline of Lt. Dan and God gets really interesting.  Lt. Dan sits on the mast of their boat and screams at the top of his lungs in the middle of this storm, laughing and seemingly taunting God.  He says, “It’s time for a showdown, you and me, I’m right here—come and get me!”

At the end of the hurricane, only one boat survives—Forrest and Lt. Dan’s.  They end up catching tons of shrimp in the days after the storm and having a successful shrimping business because everything turns around for them that night.  This story can remind us of that time that Jesus told Peter to go out into the deep water and let his nets down for a catch.  And they catch so many fish that their nets begin to break.  You see, Lt. Dan faced up to God and his own demons that night and somehow came out of that experience a different person.  And all of a sudden there’s more shrimp than they can imagine.  Lt. Dan finally thanks Forrest for saving his life in Vietnam and jumps off the boat into the water, swimming peacefully with a beautiful sunset above him.  Forrest narrates, “He never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God.”

It wasn’t enough for Lt. Dan to be at the VA while Christians questioned him about “finding Jesus” or possibly even shamed him for not “finding Jesus” yet.  That language, that style, whatever rubbed him the wrong way and wasn’t going to lead him to an authentic relationship with God.  Instead, Lt. Dan needed to face God, his painful past, his anger, the war in that literal storm in order to move on with his life by finding the peace that Christ always promised us.  The response was ultimately gratitude for the life he still had ahead of him on that bright horizon.

When Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am” he actually cared about their answers.  He seems to still care today.  How do we understand who Jesus was and is and ever will be?  How does that individual understanding effect how we live our lives as people of faith?  Because it ends up that the persistent search for God produces an authentic relationship with God.  So we can always take heart as we question and seek and find on our own journeys of faith.  We don’t have to settle for walking a path that just doesn’t feel right, not when we may actually find Jesus by going on down another road. Thanks be to God for the journey.  Amen.

[1] Mark 8:27-29, NRSV.
[2] Dr. Benjamin Valentine, Systematic Theology II, Andover Newton Theological School, Spring 2008; Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, 17.
[3] Mark 8:29.
[4] “What We Believe,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/about-us_what-we-believe.
[5] Luke 12:6-7.