Proper 19

September 17, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Proverbs 1:20-33
Reading 2: 
Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
Reading 3: 
James 3:1-12
Reading 4: 
Mark 8:27-38
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 116:1-9
Alt Reading 1: 
Isaiah 50:4-9a

The selection from Mark gives those who dare a chance to preach on the most central Christian doctrine, Christology, which simply means, who do we think Jesus was. Indeed, it invites them to do so. According to Mark, Jesus wanted to know what the disciples were thinking about him. Now the passage as a whole has all the marks of reflection by the church later on, but Mark, at least, wants to consider how the people who knew Jesus personally thought about him. It is quite possible that Jesus was curious too! And probably your congregation is curious about you.

The risk, of course, is that some people will be shocked to learn the truth. The shock can come from several directions. No doubt some people suppose that every Christian knows that Jesus was God, so that any equivocation on the part of the preacher is shocking. But probably there are others who assume that Jesus was a human being and would be shocked to find any equivocation on that. The church tried to say both /and, but it had a hard time holding to that balance, and even if we say both/and today, we may have an equally hard time communicating what we mean.

This passage, in any case, gives very little support to the later orthodoxy. John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets were not God. They were remarkable human beings who were used by God in remarkable ways. Peter was not satisfied with that and confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. But no Jew supposed that the Messiah was God. For some, he was a supernatural being, for others, not. In any case, there is a great gap between supernatural beings in general – such as angels – and God.

Although the Greek translation of Messiah, Christ, has stuck, that designation is far from unproblematic. To say that Jesus was the Messiah is to say that Jesus was the one for whom many Jews waited. But despite extensive efforts of the early Christians to show that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations, they could have little success. Clearly, Jesus did not fulfill Peter’s expectation. He was not what Peter understood the messiah to be. He moved quickly to explain that his mission, whoever he was, involved going to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed by the authorities. To try to fulfill some other expectation, one associated with being the Messiah, would have been to yield to temptation.

After his resurrection, Jesus’ followers knew that he had not fulfilled messianic expectations in his lifetime. To do so, he would have to come again, this time in glory. Mark attributes that expectation to Jesus himself. That seems very doubtful. It seems more like a refusal to accept Jesus for what he was and to reshape him to fit expectations he rejected. There has been a lot of that in Christian history. And much of it has come, as this does, from imposing a title on him and then reimagining him to fit that title. But this passage speaks strongly against that process.

This problem became worse when the titles assigned Jesus became more exalted. He became finally, the Son of God. In that capacity, it was supposed that he must have all the attributes of deity, and of course people already knew what they were. God was immutable, omniscient, and omnipotent. So Jesus must have been all that too. His apparent suffering was only apparent. His apparent ignorance and weakness, also, were only apparent.

There is another way those titles can function and to some extent have functioned. Instead of fitting Jesus into pre-established categories, Christians have reimagined what those categories meant. If we say Jesus was the Messiah, we may mean that the true savior of Israel must be a humble teacher who shows that true leadership is expressed in service. If we say that Jesus is the Son of God we may be led to change our notion of God to conform more to what we know of Jesus. Then, instead of attributing coercive power to Jesus, we may attribute gracious calling to God. We may allow the kind of love expressed by Jesus to reshape our understanding of God.

Who, then, will we say Jesus is? Not the Messiah as expected but the One through whom we Gentiles have been engrafted into Israel, the one in whom we come to know God and to understand ourselves and our place in history, the one who is our Lord and Savior. Today we try to be careful to make this confession existential. To say that Jesus is the Lord and Savior could mean that the Jews rejected their Lord and Savior. Christians have often thought so and acted vengefully on that thought. To say that Jesus is Christ, should also be to say that Jesus is for Christians Christ, that is, the anointed one, not that he fulfilled Jewish expectations.

To witness to who Jesus is for us is, at the same time, to indicate that Jesus may be that for others as well. We commend to others that they find in Jesus their Lord and Savior. He clearly is not their Lord and Savior unless and until they accept him as such.

Do we believe that the Word became flesh in Jesus, that God was incarnate in him? For process theologians the answer must be an emphatic Yes. But that says less than others suppose about who Jesus was. God literally participates in the constitution of every creature. There can be no actual entity in which god is not embodied. So for us the question is not whether God was incarnate in Jesus, but whether God was present in Jesus in a distinctive or unique way. There again the answer is Yes. But we differ in how we understand that uniqueness.

Some argue that Jesus conformed in some ideal way to the initial aim that was God’s presence in him. I prefer to think of the distinctive way in which Jesus self-hood was co-constituted by his prehension of God and of his own past. I think of that as a distinctive structure of existence, quite different from what I find in myself. But, of course, like all the other ways God is present in the world, however unusual, even unique, it was quite natural. God did not interrupt the course of events in order to incarnate in Jesus. Jesus is not less human because he so fully incarnates God. On the contrary, the more fully God enlivens and empowers and directs us, the more fully we are human.

The passage in James is on a topic that seems quite disconnected with these Christological reflections. James is back to his preoccupation with speech. He must have heard Christians saying many things that seemed to him quite inappropriate. He was also impressed by the amount of harm that could be done when people said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

James was certainly not wrong. In recent decades language has come to center stage in much of the reflection in the university. We understand now that language forms the world in which we live. Our use of language gives us our distinctive humanity. How we use the wonderful gift of speech is largely determinative of who we are and how we affect others. Learning to say the right thing and the right time is an important part of growing into Christian maturity.

James is not very optimistic about success. He says we can tame all kinds of animals, but not the tongue. As most of us think back about words we wish we could recall, we find it easy to agree. We can be glad that he does not follow Jesus’ extremeness in the Sermon on the Mount and command us to cut off the offending member. Fortunately, he recognizes that the same tongue that refuses discipline and says spiteful and hurtful things also praises God and comforts the neighbor.

The practical meaning is, of course, watch it! Remember how easily others are hurt by what we say. Try hard to use the power of speech, given to us all, to heal and strengthen others and build community. Use it also to express gratitude to God.

Perhaps here we can tie this into Mark’s little essay on Christology. Through most of its history, the church has taken our speech about Christ very seriously. It has had good reason to do so. What we say about Christ to one another in the community of faith deeply shapes who we are together. As I noted above, it has often led to persecution of Jews. It has also led to devoted ministry to widows and orphans and the marginalized of every generation. It has led to heresy-hunts and to open doors to those who differ. All depends on just what is said – and how.

Theology is more important than our generation has supposed.

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