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A couple of months ago, while I was visiting my friend Julie in the Bay Area of California, I tagged along to the wedding of one of her friends. To say that it was a church wedding would be a gross understatement.
The bride, you see, is an Episcopal priest, just like my friend Julie. She was married in her own parish; five other priests (one of them the very reverend dean of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral) and a UCC pastor participated in the ceremony; and several other priests (and at least one UCC pastor) sat in the pews.
I am happy to report that, despite the dense concentration of clergy involved, the wedding was a delightful and joy-filled affair.
It helped, of course, that plenty of normal people were there, too. Seated directly behind Julie and me, for example, was a couple and their three children, including a girl who looked to be about three years old. We became aware of the family’s presence the first time the presiding priest said something about our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed the three-year-old. “He said Jesus Christ!”
“It’s okay,” whispered the girl’s mother. “We’re in church.”
And yet one got the impression that the little girl was much more accustomed to hearing—and being told not to say—“Jesus Christ”—than she was to being in church. Sure enough, every time the name above all names was uttered—and, given that this was the churchiest of church weddings, that was a lot—a smattering of giggles erupted from the children behind us.
It was hilarious—and, at the same time, deeply troubling. Did this little blonde-haired girl even know Jesus as anything other than an expletive? Did she have any sense of Jesus as our brother or Jesus as the Word Made Flesh, Jesus as God’s love revealed, as God walking beside us as one of us, as Power and Might made vulnerable, as the Suffering God?
Now, I’ll grant you: all of that is a bit much for a three-year-old.
And still it makes me wonder: Do we have any sense of who Jesus was and is? Do we know what Jesus means to us? Do we have any clue about the Christ?
Beyond the expletives? Beyond the awkward giggles and downward glances? Beyond the squirming in the pews and the desire to change the subject? Is it something we even think about?
Who do we say Jesus is? Who do you say Jesus is?
I’m talking less about theology here and more about our own personal understandings. I’m not trying to move us toward some “right” answer so much as to get us to think about the question. I don’t want to make us uncomfortable or embarrassed so much as to help us get more comfortable, more clear, more conscious of our conceptions and preconceptions and aversions, more closely acquainted with the one we say we follow, more like the one who shows us the unconventional, countercultural path to the fullness of life.
This is easier said than done, of course. Jesus of Nazareth is certainly the most appropriated and misappropriated, used and abused person to have ever walked the face of the earth. I speak not only of the blue-eyed, white-skinned Jesus of countless portraits, not only of an apolitical Jesus meek and mild, not only of the Jesus used to justify everything from slavery to economic inequality to sexism, not only of a static, one-dimensional figure we worship more than follow, not only of the self-serving creation who hates and judges all the same people we do.
I speak also of the caricature used by Christians and non-Christians alike to justify a more progressive form of politics. I speak also of the poster printed a few years ago by a non-religious political organization. A defense of President Obama, it said, “Obama is not a brown-skinned, anti-war socialist who gives away free healthcare. You’re thinking of Jesus.” I’m speaking of any and all manner of using a certain image of Jesus for our own ends.
We get into trouble when we, consciously or subconsciously, reduce Jesus to something or someone easily understandable, controlled, and manipulated. We rob ourselves of life’s fullness whenever we ask “What would Jesus do?” and are sure we know the answer. We limit our own capacity for healing, growth, and transformation when we stop considering Jesus, when we stop asking what he would do, when we make our faith more about politics or good works than the practice of following the one who was executed by the political powers for trying to show all people the way to true life.
We risk becoming nothing more than a self-help organization when we consider Jesus as nothing more than a good teacher. We sell ourselves short of our true nature and purpose—created in the image of God to be as extravagantly loving and forgiving and creative and just and harmonious and powerful and vulnerable as God is—when we sell Jesus short of his true nature and purpose.
None other than the Jesus Seminar fellow and influential progressive Christian theologian Marcus Borg said that “how we see Jesus affects how we see Christianity—it shapes what we think the Christian life is most centrally about.” Borg posited that “what makes Christianity Christian is centering in God as known in Jesus.”
So how do we know Jesus? Who do we say Jesus is?
It was Jesus himself who first asked the question!
Already, while he was still walking the earth, people were both trying to figure out who he was and trying to use him to further their own ends. The crowds of people who followed him around—hoping, perhaps, for a healing, for a free lunch, for direction and wisdom, empowerment and revolution—had swelled to the thousands. Most of them were poor and oppressed, some of them were relatively privileged and curious, a few of of them were religious and judgmental, and some of them worried about what he might do.
So while Jesus and his disciples were walking along, he asked them: “Who do people say that I am?”
They answered: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”
(Notice that all their answers involved great teachers and prophets who had gone before. It makes me wonder if they, like us sometimes, had a hard time imagining a new thing, allowing the Great Mystery of God to work in a new and different way than they had seen or experienced before. Notice, too, that Jesus did not analyze these responses or launch into a discussion of whether they were right or wrong. Notice that he seemed more interested in the heart than the head. Notice that he seems more interested in our engagement with the question—engagement with the reality of him and its implications—than with so-called right answers.)
“And what about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter, God love him, showed us as clearly as possible how we can have the right answer and still be all wrong.
“You are the Christ, the Messiah,” he answered.
But Peter was coming from a very traditional understanding of what that meant. He was coming from an orthodox understanding of power—top-down, one-sided, privileged and set apart, distant, coercive, sometimes abusive. Peter was coming from a very limited concept of God.
But Jesus was a whole other story. Jesus was—and is—a whole other way of being: relational, compassionate, embracing, loving, self-sacrificing, more concerned with the well-being of others than his own, more grounded in the wide-open heart of God than in the narrow ways of this world.
“Who do you say that I am?” he asked.
Who do you say that he is?
For me Jesus is so many things: Teacher and friend, savior and Lord. He is for me God’s love revealed in human form, a flesh-and-blood image of the unseen God. For me Jesus is the expression of God’s love for the world and God’s love for me, the embodiment of God’s desire for me and God’s hopes for the world, the way to a world where the last are first and the poor are rich, where all are privileged to live for God and one another, where all live in peace, and all are held in God’s heart. For me Jesus is the way to healing and wholeness and life abundant. He is love for all—no exceptions. He is justice for all—no difference. For me Jesus is the wide-open door to love, the invitation to union with God, the manifestation of partnership and community, the model of transformation and fulfillment, the incarnation of creator, redeemer, and sustainer, the triumph of life over death. Jesus is the promise of new life.
I don’t believe Jesus is the only way to God. But because I am a Christian, it is his way I commit myself to follow. Not the way of wealth, not the way of consumerism, not the way of individualism, not my way—but the way of Christ.
Jesus is the boss of me. He is not the object of my faith; he his the exemplar of my faith. He is not American or male or white or black or rich or poor; he is the complete human—and fully divine. I can choose to follow his way because I know it leads to life, because I know his yoke his easy and his burden is light.
I know Jesus loves me.
That is just some of who Jesus is to me.
Who do you say Jesus is?