Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 27, 2011
WHO IS JESUS CHRIST FOR US TODAY?
Texts: Mark 8:27-30; John 1:35-46
Who is the Jesus whom I love and seek to follow, however incompletely, and name with the church across the ages “Christ” and “Lord”? Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Christ the Center writes:
“Who?” is the religious question.2
Not “What?” or “How?” but “Who?” “Who?” is the question of personal identity and personal relation. So Bonhoeffer says the key Christological question is “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
The answer is two-layered. There are the answers the church has given through the centuries out of their experience with Jesus Christ; and there is the answer we give out of our own experience. Not the same answer. The New Testament itself has a range of Christologies within it, multiple theologies about Jesus Christ.
You may be asking, “What do I have to believe about Jesus in order to be a Christian? I would answer: It is not about what you have to believe but what you need to believe. We confess about Jesus what we are led by the Spirit of God to confess as we follow the way of Christ.
In today’s text Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered with the answers circulating in the air at the time: Elijah come again, or John the Baptist come back to life, re-headed; or one of the prophets. Then Jesus put to them the unavoidable question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is the question he asks of us today.
John Frye, a notable Presbyterian preacher of the last generation, said that on the gravestones of most ministers could be written: “Barth said but Brunner said, but Tillich said, but Niebuhr said.” (Sounds like some of my sermons!) But Jesus asks, What do you say? What will I say this morning to the Jesus question? Not that our answers will be final ones, but real ones, and not borrowed ones.
“Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Bonhoeffer answered finally with his life: Jesus not Hitler was Lord.
What can I say today that is not a betrayal of Christ? Bonhoeffer wrote:
Theologians betray him and simulate concern.
Christ is always betrayed with a kiss.2
So “Help me, Christ, not betray you with my words,” I prayed as I wrote this week and now as I speak.
When Jesus put the question to his disciples, Peter answered, “You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One of God].” And Jesus answered him, “Do not tell anyone.” Why would he say that? I can think of one good answer: To name him Messiah in public would lead to more misunderstanding than understanding. Most ideas about Messiah at that time centered around a new king of Israel who would lead them to victory over Rome. Jesus would suffer the opposite fate, executed on a Roman cross. The idea “Crucified Messiah” did not, could not, compute, even for his disciples.
What names would you use for Jesus today? The New Testament said there were two essential names: “Christ” and “Lord.” The basic baptismal confession of the faith, as old as the New Testament, is “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Can we call Jesus Christ or Messiah without presuming ourselves superior to Judaism, which still awaits the Messiah? I think so, but we take care as we do. A famous rabbinic master told the story of the coming of the Messiah. All people gathered before him. Someone asked, “Are you here for the first time or have you come before?” The rabbi whispered in the Messiah’s ear: “For God’s sake do not answer!”
What about “Lord”? It is one way of saying that Jesus participated in the life of God. It is a divine name. The theological formula at the Council of Calcedon said Jesus was “fully divine and fully human,” or truly God and truly human. I like Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s translation / interpretation: Jesus was “genuine divine presence and genuine humanity.” This formulation draws a huge circumference within which we Christians pursue the questions: What does his full divinity mean and what does his full humanity mean? We answer out of our experience. Roger Haight, progressive Roman Catholic theologian at Union Theological Seminary, N.Y., who will be with us this fall as our Jesus the Christ in the 21st Century speaker. He also was the one who guided Chrissy Tatum Williamson in her Master’s thesis. (She will get her Masters of Theology degree this May!) He names Jesus “Symbol of God.”3 As Chrissy told the staff this week, by this he means that Jesus both pointed to the Divine and participated in the Divine.
But confessing Jesus as Lord has a practical sometimes even political dimension. It means we follow Jesus as our way toward God with God, into God. It means we pattern our lives as closely as possible to his. In the first century it was a life-or-death confession. Rome demanded of all its subjects and citizens the confession: “Caesar is Lord.” At the risk of persecution and death they said, “Jesus is Lord.” For some around our world today it is still that dangerous a confession.
In a few weeks youth in our 8th grade Disciple Class will be baptized. They, standing in the river, will say the confession of faith Christians have said for two thousand years at baptism: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” What does this mean?
We will discover what this means as we follow. Last week I spoke of Toni Craven’s comment about God’s giving to Moses an elusive and finally untranslatable name. In essence, she says, God was saying: “My name is Yahweh. If you follow me I’ll teach you what this means.” Stephanie Pausell, professor at Harvard, says that we take communion not because we know what it means, but rather to find out what it means. So we confess Jesus Lord: Follow me, Jesus says, and you will learn what this means.
I love today’s text from John because it opens up multiple names for Jesus. And because it invites us to our own journey of knowing and naming with the beautiful words, “Come and see!” “Come and see,” Jesus says to us. “Come and see,” we say to others about him.
John the Baptist was with two of his disciples. As he spied Jesus he said, “The Lamb of God.” Earlier he had said of Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is symbolic language, as all religious language is. It points to the divine, the ineffable, acknowledging that language cannot capture the divine, only point.
Look, John was saying, here is the Passover Lamb. In him God is passing us over from slavery to freedom, from death to life. Look, he was saying, here is the innocent, spotless, Sin-bearing Lamb of the Day of Atonement, the one who bears our sins and bears them away. Have you felt that liberation, that lightness of being? Jesus is the Lamb of God, but also the Light of God, the Mercy of God, the Truth of God, the Son of God, the Anointed One of God, the Vine of God, the Bread of God.
Jesus’ disciples then left John and found Jesus.
Jesus asked them: “What are you looking for?” Which was a way of saying, “What do you need? What do you need more than anything?” It may also have been a smart question: What you are looking for may have nothing to do with me, or what I am about.
They called him Rabbi or Teacher, another name for Jesus. “Where are you staying?” they asked. John’s Gospel is always and intentionally multi-layered. On the surface they are asking, “Where are you staying? Mary’s house, the Holiday Inn?” But the deeper question is, “Where have you come from? Where do you dwell? Where is your ‘true abode’?” And John’s Gospel is in the process of telling us: His abode is with God, and now he “abodes” and abides with us.
How does Jesus answer the question? He says, “Come and see!”
Now Andrew enters the picture, Simon Peter’s brother. He’s heard John’s testimony and has gone to get his brother. “We’ve found the Messiah!” he said, then brought his brother to Jesus. Most of us have been brought by someone to Jesus. We did not get to him on our own. A parent or grandparent, or friend, maybe even a stranger has brought us there.
Then Jesus gave Simon his new name, Cephas, in the Aramaic, or Peter in the Greek, which means Rock. Sometimes the name applied. Other times he crumbled into dust. He is us.
When persons are baptized or confirmed in some Christian traditions, or when a person enters a monastery, they are given a new name, a baptismal or confirmation or monastic name. There is something wondrous about this to me. Perhaps God has a secret name for us, the name of our truest self, and we are in the process of discovering it.
As we follow Jesus we are not only naming him; he is naming us. In growing, deepening relationships do not our names for one another change in some way? Do we not say each other’s names differently? George Harrison wrote, “My Sweet Lord!” African American congregations speak of “Darling Jesus.”
John’s story proceeds. Jesus found Philip and called him to follow. Philip ran to find Nathaniel and said, “We have met the one of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” So here’s another name: The-One-Who-Is-To-Come or The-One-We’ve-Been-Waiting-For.
Nathaniel says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It is a light-hearted joke. Nazareth must have been the butt of jokes. “Can anything good come out of Gastonia?” (Besides James Worthy? Oops, my Carolina colors are showing. I think I’ve just over-identified myself.)
But perhaps the line has a more serious theological, spiritual point. Can God come in any human person, dwell in any human place? It is the scandal of particularity: Dare we call this person Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth, the human presence of God and follow him and him alone?
Phillip then echoed to Nathaniel the same beautiful invitation that Jesus offered earlier, “Come and see!” Who is Jesus? Come and see! Join us on the journey with Jesus and see.
I asked the staff this week as we studied these texts: “What are your most important names for Jesus?” Around the table the names tumbled out. Christ, Friend, Beloved, Brother, Lover, Center, Lord, Light, Guide, Good Shepherd, Savior, Liberator, Redeemer, Healer.
It never ends because Jesus is the way toward God, with God, into God, and this is a never-ending journey.
The Welsh poet Waldo Williams answered the “Who” question with a striking set of metaphors:
Listen! you can
just catch his whistling, hear it?
only your heart hears. Who was it then, for God’s sake?
mocking our boasts, tracking our every trail,
the one who escapes the conscription of every army?
. . . He will arrive, the outlaw,
the huntsman, the lost heir making good his claim
to no man’s land. The exiled king
is coming home one day; the rushes sweep aside
to let him through.4
(And dogwoods too!)
What are your names? What is your dearest name for Christ? Claim it, claim it boldly but with the spiritual modesty of knowing our names can only point; they cannot capture all of who Jesus was and is.
One final question. It takes a sudden but important turn. How do we name Jesus in a world where daily religions rub shoulders with one another and sometimes kill one another? Can we name him “Christ” and “Lord” in a non-competitive, non-triumphalist, non-exclusivist way? Can we say, “In Jesus Christ I have met the true God and experienced the salvation of God.” And at the same time say, “The salvation of God has been forever at work and is now at work in all the world through many religions and spiritual ways, inside and outside Christianity.” Some would loudly say No! But I think we can, and speaking for myself, it makes my confession of Christ more joyous, less hindered, more free, and deepens my love of God and Jesus.
1 Dietrick Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 31.
2 Ibid., p. 36.
3 See his work, Jesus Symbol of God (Mary Kroll, New York: Orbis, 1998) and The Future of Christology (New York: Continuum, 2005).
4 Waldo Williams “Between Two Fields,” translated by Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams (Oxford: The Perpetua Press, 2002), pp. 91-93.