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Who Do You Say That I Am?
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
September 16, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark
‘Who do people say that I am?’ 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?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah. And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He 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? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
You probably know Family Feud, that game show where two families line up and have to guess at how other folks have answered some survey question. So, we asked 100 people, name something that goes on a hot dog, and then you buzz in. Ketchup. Mustard. You get it. And the thing about Family Feud is that it is not a test of being right. If you ask 100 people in Chicago what goes on a hot dog a good chunk of them are going to say “tomato slices and celery salt” and depending on your feelings about hot dogs and tomato slices and celery salt and I suppose by extension Chicago this may or may not seem acceptable to you; in fact it may seem altogether wrong; nonetheless, there it is, up on the board. The survey doesn’t lie. Tomato slices, celery salt. Ding ding. The trick to being good at Family Feud is just to embrace bad popular opinions even when you don’t want to and even when you know better and somehow, I just don’t think Jesus would be any good at this at all.
Case in point. Jesus is walking down the road with his disciples and a game of Family Feud breaks out. Who do people say that I am? he asks them. We’ve put our top three answers up on the board. And they start buzzing in. John the Baptist. Ding ding. Elijah. Ding ding. One of the prophets. Ding ding. The problem, of course, is that these are wrong answers. Which is not to say, of course, that the disciples are inaccurately reporting them. I’m sure the people do in fact circulate these exact rumors about who Jesus is and what he’s up to. The problem is that the people are wrong; Jesus is in fact not John the Baptist, and Jesus is in fact not Elijah, and Jesus is to be sure not just one of the prophets, and I don’t think Jesus takes it particularly well. They keep yelling out these asinine theological claims and Jesus just keeps laughing them off and then each time the scoreboard goes “ding ding” and Jesus starts thinking what you and I have all thought watching Family Feud at some point in our lives which is “What kind of pea-brains are they surveying for this show anyway?”
You can tell Jesus gets a little upset because his temperature rises. And you can tell his temperature rises because at the end of this litany he goes right to the disciples — okay, surely you all can get this one — who do you say that I am? — because now surely somebody will have been paying some modicum of attention — and the room I think goes quiet because nobody wants to make the next wrong answer and then brave Peter pipes up. “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus snaps. The text says that Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anybody about him, a moment that has been a thorn in the side of Biblical interpreters for centuries. I mean, it feels like terrible PR to keep this whole thing a secret. Unless Jesus is still unsatisfied with the answer. “Messiah,” after all, is a pre-loaded term for his hearers, and Jesus isn’t just showing up to meet their expectations. The problem, I think, is that Peter still doesn’t have it right. Jesus’s problem is that his followers can’t get him right. And if they can’t get him right, at the very least, they need to stop talking.
I wish I could say that we have since figured him out. But you and I both know that’s not quite the case. Not for lack of trying. Not for lack of blood. Not for lack of ink. Nonetheless two millennia later it is hard to look at the state of the church in the world and feel like we who claim to be followers of this Jesus Christ have figured out anything of substance. Or maybe it’s just hard to look at the state of the church in the world. The past few weeks have brought new devastating allegations about sexual abuse run rampant through the Catholic hierarchy, and the response from leadership seems tepid at best and corrupt at worst. So many of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters seem to have intentionally forgotten about a Jesus who welcomes the poor and the stranger and the needy and that forgetfulness has terrible consequences for our national character. And of course, it’s easy to throw rocks at the other side but the truth is that here in the same comfortable mainline progressive church we’re pretty busy being safe and comfortable and I’m not so sure that’s what Jesus would be up to either.
The truth is I’m not sure we’ve figured Jesus out at all. And if the church is truly supposed to be the body of Jesus Christ in the world then the question on his lips in this story is an indicting one for us today in 2018 — go out in the street. Ask 100 people. Who do they say that Jesus is? Who do they say that the body of Christ is? Who do they say the church is? How do the headlines read? What do the televangelists preach? How do the talking heads drone on and on? Who do they say the church is? Top three answers on the board. Religious leaders who leverage their office to abuse and prey on children with no recourse. Ding ding. Religious institutions who manipulate their followers in the search for political power and influence. Ding ding. Entire religious communities who can’t be bothered to engage with the real lives of the people at their doorstep. Ding, ding. The problem is not that those answers are wrong. The survey doesn’t lie. The problem is that the church is wrong. The problem is that we — yes, we — are still wrong about who Jesus is and therefore who we are called to be.
Fortunately, us being wrong has never stopped Jesus before. It doesn’t stop him in this story. In one sense it doesn’t stop him because he’s a teacher and he’s committed to the cause; none of the previous answers work, neither John the Baptist nor Elijah nor one of the Prophets nor even Messiah, and so Jesus sits them all down and begins to teach, about how he will suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise again. There is some grace in seeing Jesus push their understanding of him past anything that would have fit in those earlier labels. But of course, the real grace isn’t in how he answers but in what he says. That he will be suffer and be killed and rise again. That he will continue to be in the world. That he will continue to work in the world. That the work he began in the world for healing and mercy and justice and peace will not be left entirely in our hands but will also continue in his resurrected hands because he himself will rise from the dead which means that the work of defining who Jesus is always first and foremost the work of seeking Jesus where he may be found and finding Jesus working in the world and letting Jesus speak on his own behalf.
Just recently I was in Atlanta with a free afternoon and I decided to spend it with a visit to the Martin Luther King library and historic site, which includes the original building of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King’s father was the longtime pastor, where King was baptized, and where King himself ultimately joined his father in ministry. The congregation itself has moved across the street into a new modern building; the old Ebenezer has come under the management of the National Park Service, which has restored it specifically to its 1960s look and feel. It’s not a large sanctuary, nor a fancy one, but still, it’s not hard to imagine how it must have looked, with King in the pulpit, during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, how it must have looked, when so much of the movement for justice and equality was packed into those pews any given Sunday morning, how it must have looked when King’s funeral wound its way into that building, gathering to hear him preach one more time on a recording piped through the speakers. I found my way into one of the front pews just to imagine myself into that place. And then I looked up, and noticed, hanging above the pulpit, hanging above the choir loft, built into the side of the building, one small stained-glass window, one of the whitest pictures of Jesus I have ever seen.
It stopped me in my tracks. For one, if history is your thing, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jew, and the chances that he therefore had skin that looks like mine are about negative three hundred percent. But more than that. Because not only are pictures of white Jesus historically wrong; they’re actually damaging; we have every reason to suspect that if you pry away the floorboards of the house which is racism in America and white supremacy in America that one of the cornerstones you will find in the foundation is a picture of white Jesus, a picture brought by colonizers and evangelized by preachers and bequested to slaveholders and used generation to generation to tell young boys and girls of color that the God they should worship looked a lot like the person holding them captive. And so successful was this enterprise; so successful was the project of injecting white Jesus into the American imagination that when the small congregation of Ebenezer Baptist moved into its newly-built sanctuary on Auburn Avenue in 1922, there it was, waiting for them, built exactly to specification, white Jesus, hanging over the pulpit.
It was there when they baptized him. It was there when they buried him. It’s still there, hanging over the pulpit, hanging over the church, and I have to admit that when I saw it part of me wanted to find a blunt object and storm the barrier and smash it to pieces. In this place of all places. And then I thought. And yet. See what God has done here, in this place, despite everything. See what the Holy Spirit hath wrought, here in this place, despite everything. See what Jesus Christ has been up to. See what the risen Christ has been up to, here in this place, here where protesters found their voice, here where boycotters found their courage, see what the risen Christ has been up to, marching alongside them, boycotting alongside them, imprisoned alongside them, see what the risen Christ has been up to, fighting the good fight for justice and mercy and the equal worth of all God’s children here in this place and every place, see what the risen Christ has been up to even in a church like every church that gets him wrong all the time. Who do you say that I am? And yet Jesus is Lord, whether we say it right or not.
In that church and every church. We get it wrong and Jesus is still Lord. In this church and every church. We say it wrong and Jesus is still Lord. In every corner of God’s church. We get to be wrong and holy at the same time. Of course, I wish we were right more often. I still want to know the answer. I still want us to know the answer. And more than that of course I want the world to know — I want to go ask 100 people and have each of them tell me that what the church is of course the sinful broken people who God nonetheless calls as part of God’s unfolding promises for all creation and I want more than anything for us to earn that exact reputation but in the meantime. As far removed as we may be from that day. In the meantime, this is the Gospel. Jesus can still use a wrong church. Jesus can still use a broken church. Indeed, it’s the only kind he’s ever used, thanks be to God.