It seems that I do not know what I think until I deliver a sermon. And afterwards I wonder, "Is that really what I think?" But of course the hope is that I am not merely giving a collection of my thoughts (there are enough preachers in the world doing just that), but a faithful exposition of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is an exposition which I take full responsibility for, though I maintain the right to disagree with what I've said!
This was my last sermon in my home church before I left Galway for Aberdeen. The passage is Mark 9:30-37.
“Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
This was a question asked by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944, from a prison cell in Nazi Germany. It is a question which Christians down through the ages have asked. It is also a question which has been and continues to be asked outside of the church. Jesus has proved to be a person of interest not only to His own, but to all of humanity across time and space. And so we have ended up with many competing answers to this question, which is to say, many competing Jesuses: Jesus the communist, Jesus the capitalist, Jesus the Buddhist monk, Jesus the white, middle-class Christian, Jesus the warlord, Jesus the pacifist, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Aryan.
Bonhoeffer’s question regarding the identity of Jesus actually receives its first formulation from the mouth of Jesus Himself. “Who do people say that I am?” He asks His disciples. He follows this up with a more personal question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus asks this question of all his followers, not only then and there but here and now. “Who do you say that I am?” There is no more urgent question which we can be asked today. And what makes us the church is that we have been and continue to be taught how to answer it. We are not the church because we are more moral than everyone else – history bears witness to the church’s painfully mixed record when it comes to morality. Rather, first and foremost, we are the church because we know who Jesus is.
Yet the answer which we have given in the past to Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” cannot be repeated unthinkingly. No doubt that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but it is precisely his eternal and constant nature which makes our very human knowledge of him so open to distortion. If we learn nothing else from the New Testament we learn that Jesus is just as capable of surprising the church as He is the world, and if we learn nothing else from history we learn that the church is just as capable of bearing false witness to Jesus as is the world.
And so we read and hear this gospel story from Mark this morning not merely to confirm what we already know about Jesus, but to encounter Him again for the first time. We come to this text asking once more: who is Jesus Christ for us today?
Mark, in what should have perhaps come with a spoiler warning, tells us in the first verse of the first chapter of his Gospel who Jesus is: He is the Son of God. Mark might just have left it there. I remember asking Arden Autry – a New Testament scholar who used to teach here in Galway – what is the most important thing we learn in the New Testament. Without thinking twice he said: that Jesus is the Son of God. It could be argued, then, that Mark tells us everything we need to know in his gospel’s first sentence.
However, Mark does not end his Gospel at verse 1. Rather, it turns out that Mark’s spoiler in verse one is a trick of sorts. His statement that Jesus is the Son of God conjures up expectations of power, of royalty, of wealth, of prestige, of invincibility, of leadership. In the Roman world into which Jesus was born the Son of God title referred to the Roman Emperor Augustus. And as Son of God Caesar Augustus was the bearer of divine sovereignty on earth, ruling with an iron fist. Mark’s readers may expect Jesus to be a new Caesar when they read that He is the Son of God. As they read on, however, their expectations begin to be called into question by the reality.
In Jesus we meet not only the Son of God but also the Son of Man. This, indeed, is Jesus’s favourite way of designating Himself. We have heard this title Son of Man in our passage this morning. In Mark 9 verse 31 Jesus takes His disciples aside and tells them that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and that these human hands will kill Him.
This statement is so irrational and upsetting that when Peter first hears it in Mark chapter 8 he actually takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him! In Peter’s mind Jesus is clearly mistaken about what His identity entails. But Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that Peter thought He had to be, and He is not the kind of God that we think He has to be. For who could imagine a God who would be betrayed and killed at the hands of human beings? What kind of God would allow Himself to be so humiliated? What kind of people would even want to worship such an impotent God?
Yet this is precisely the God revealed in Jesus. This is the God who makes Himself nothing. This is the God who becomes flesh, flesh which withers like the grass, flesh which suffers and dies. Mark tells us that the disciples didn’t understand any of this, and that they were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant. We can perhaps empathise with their confusion. Who can understand how the omnipotent God becomes captive to human power? How the God who cannot suffer endures immeasurable suffering? These are great mysteries which the church still struggles to answer.
But there is one thing which the church has always and must always proclaim: that Christ became captive and suffered for us.
Judas’s delivering of Jesus into the hands of men in exchange for money is the definitive act of human sin. It symbolises Israel’s and the church’s infidelity to her husband. Judas gives the authorities Jesus, and they give Judas 30 pieces of silver. As many Christians have since discovered, Jesus can be sold for a tidy profit. Judas, we must remember, was a disciple, one of the twelve. He had heard Jesus teach and witnessed Him perform miracles. He had even been sent to do ministry in Jesus’s name. In short, he was no less a disciple than any of the other eleven. He was called by Jesus, and he was obedient to the call. He was, it must be said, a friend of Jesus. After all, it is only a friend who is capable of betrayal.
Yet before and above Judas’s human act of betrayal is a divine act. It is true that Judas handed Jesus over to sinful humanity. But it is even truer that Jesus handed himself over to these same sinful humans. What Judas meant for evil, however, God meant for good.
God’s powerlessness – if I can use such a phrase – was in this very moment of weakness and vulnerability shown to be stronger than any human power. The human act of subduing Jesus, of making him a religious and political prisoner, of putting Him to death, was in its full truth an act willed by God out of His freedom and love, an act through which God brought about liberation to captives and forgiveness to sinners.
And so Jesus can say that the Son of Man must suffer because He has freely and graciously chosen this way to save us. And this choice itself reveals the character of God. God chose not to overwhelm us into submission with a dramatic display of power. Nor did God choose simply to destroy us, as one might expect an all-powerful ruler to deal with his enemies. In the death of Christ God’s omnipotence is revealed to be not the brute power to subdue or destroy but the power to embrace at all costs. Paul calls this the power of the cross. It is the weakness of God which is stronger than human strength. It is the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom. It is the faithfulness of God which overcomes human infidelity.
And so at the end of Mark’s gospel, as Jesus hangs from the cross, seemingly forsaken by God, the perhaps sarcastic remark of a Roman centurion reveals the deep truth of Mark’s Gospel: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” This man, and not Caesar. This man, the carpenter. This man, the Jewish prophet. This man, a condemned and defeated rebel. This is why Paul, writing to the Galatians, can describe Christ as “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or as others translate it, “the Son of God who loved me by giving Himself for me.” He is the Son of God precisely in His giving of Himself for us.
But the Gospel is not a tragedy. It is, in fact, a divine comedy. Jesus predicts in Mark 9 that He will rise from the dead. His gift of Himself to us was not in vain. This is the proclamation of the early church: you killed Him but God raised Him from the dead. God saw to it that His servant would not see corruption. But this servant did not come to serve Himself. This one who gave Himself for us even to His own death was also raised to life for us. The cross and resurrection of Christ therefore mark the beginning of a new history for humanity. As in Adam all die so in Christ all shall be made alive. The old order of sin and death has been ruptured. It continues to have a present, but it has no future. The time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God – a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit - has broken in to all our human kingdoms. God will be all in all. The resurrection is the first fruits of all of this, and we meet here each Sunday in anticipation of its fulfilment.
Now resurrection in and of itself is not good news. For example, if I stood here this morning and told you that just last night the resurrected body of Adolf Hitler was seen walking around the streets of Berlin, there would most likely be panic and dread among us. This would be terrible news. But when we learn who Jesus is, when we see His compassion and mercy, his love and justice, his faithfulness and holiness, his judgment and grace, his being always for us even when we are against Him, his resurrection is good news indeed, for it is a vindication of everything that He is and does.
For this reason the gospel is not the good news about eternal life, or salvation, or moral improvement, or church community. It is, first and last, the good news of Jesus Christ. He Himself is the content of the Gospel.
But what does it mean to know Him? What does it look like to give an answer to the question: who is Jesus Christ for us today? The next part of our passage in Mark gestures toward an answer.
The disciples and Jesus head back to their base in Capernaum, and Jesus asks the twelve, “What were you arguing about on the way?” The disciples remain silent, embarrassed by the content of their argument. As someone who studies theology this little snippet from the Gospels unnerves me. I can imagine Jesus gathering all the theologians together in the age to come and asking us: “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” The church’s theologians are suddenly silenced. The arguments about infant baptism and paedobaptism seem trivial now. The arguments about what actually happens around the communion table lose all their meaning when one is confronted by the risen Christ Himself. The arguments about whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son seem like needless hairsplitting. That is not to say that theological arguments are not worth having. They can and must be had, and other arguments can and must be had also. But the first duty of the church is not to speak; it is to listen.
In the story of Jesus’s transfiguration which comes at the beginning of Mark 9, we hear Peter speaking even though he didn’t know what to say. He says to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The response of God the Father to Peter is emphatic. But it is not only directed at Peter, but at all those who would be disciples: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We are faithful disciples of Christ to the extent that we listen to Him, and pattern our speech in accordance with His word of grace and truth.
But as we learn throughout Mark’s Gospel, disciples of Jesus are in the habit of getting things badly wrong. In this case, after hearing about the Son of Man’s humiliation at the hands of man, the disciples proceed to argue about which of them is the greatest. They had turned following Jesus into a rat race, a competition for power and prestige. In other words, they had completely misunderstood who Jesus is and what it means to be a part of His community.
Much like Peter, we may be able to confess the right things about Jesus, we may be able to proclaim Him as the Son of God, but our lives can so easily betray our confession.
The extreme but instructive example of this is the Christian crusaders of the West. As they fought Muslim armies during the middle ages, the crusaders would shout “Christus est Dominus”, “Jesus is Lord” as they cleaved the skull of one of their enemies. While the sentence “Jesus is Lord” is eternally true, we can see in this instance a failure to understand the true nature of Christ’s lordship. Their violent, merciless actions bear false witness to Christ.
To know Jesus as the Son of God, to know Jesus as Lord, is to know Him as the Servant. And to know Him as the Servant is to know ourselves as fellow servants. Not conquerors, not oppressors, not leaders, not those with their hands on the handles of power, but servants. Jesus makes this clear in Mark 9:35: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Jesus had said something to this effect in Mark 8: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Indeed, each time Jesus predicts His suffering and death in Mark 8, 9, and 10, this prediction is accompanied by a teaching on what it means to live as His disciple.
We can only know Jesus as the Son of God when we stand at the foot of the cross and see Him as the One who was crucified for us, and not only for us but for all. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.
When we have been taught to see in the death of Christ the event of the world’s reconciliation to God, however, we do not then remain detached from Him, as if we can observe Him and follow Him from a distance. Rather, we are summoned by Him to participate in His mission which is ongoing; we are called and empowered by the Spirit to be witnesses and ministers of this cosmic reconciliation. We bear witness with our words and also with our deeds, embodying a life together that is shaped by the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does this life look like?
In order to demonstrate it, Jesus calls over one of the children that had been playing in the house and puts the child among the disciples. Jesus then takes the child into his arms and says one of the most remarkable things in all the Bible: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."
In order to understand the full force of this statement, let me read out to you a comment on this passage by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:
“In a Greco-Roman milieu, children were the least-valued members of society; they were considered not yet fully human. According to the institution of patria potestas, children had no legal rights. A father had the right brutally to punish, sell, pawn, expose, and even kill his own child. Newborns could be exposed—abandoned in a public place—where they would generally either die or be picked up by strangers and raised for profit as slaves, prostitutes, or beggars.”
The child which Jesus takes into his arms does not symbolise cuteness or cuddliness, but absolute vulnerability and weakness. Moreover, taking a child into one’s arms is a stereotypically feminine act. By doing so Jesus was confounding his male audience. He was showing them a way of discipleship which was best modelled by the nurturers and carers in the community. In other words, he was saying that his most faithful followers were in fact women. The Gospels demonstrate the undeniable truth of this. It is women who supported the work of Jesus financially. It is women who stayed with Jesus to the end, while all the men fled in fear. It is women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and the first preachers of the gospel. The church has of course mostly tried to suppress all of this, but Jesus gives women and children a dignity and prestige which runs against the grain of earthly kingdoms but which manifestly runs with the grain of his own kingdom. The stereotypically masculine forms of leadership and service are completely subverted. The welcome of a child becomes the standard by which disciples of Jesus are measured.
Yet Jesus says even more regarding the status of children. I asked at the beginning, who is Jesus Christ for us today? In Matthew 9:37 Jesus hints at one answer: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus identifies himself with this vulnerable, helpless kid. This is not the only place Jesus makes such an identification. When the risen Christ confronts Saul on the road to Damascus he asks him, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul of course did not know that that’s what he was doing, and we also do not really know that that’s what we’re doing when we either do harm to another or care for another. But Jesus is unequivocal in his insistence that that is what is happening, whether we know it or not. In our daily interactions with our neighbours we are acting for or against Him.
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 makes this even clearer. There Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger. When did we see you as any of these?, they ask. And Jesus replies: whatever you did or did not do to the least of all my brothers and sisters, you did or did not do it to me.
Who is Jesus Christ for us today? We need not look very far in order to find out. He is among us in veiled form as those we are in the habit of ignoring, as those who we think do not merit a welcome, as those whose needs impinge on our precious time and energy. As we cannot love God without loving our neighbour, neither can we know Christ without knowing these ones.
Yet it is not only others who display Christ, but we ourselves are also identified with Him. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins tells of this truth beautifully in As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Let me read the final six lines:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christ “the man for others”. We here today are a tiny portion of these others who Christ is for, and in whom Christ wills to be formed. He is for us not as a distant, abstract idea or concept, but as the One who dwells among us, if we would only have eyes to see and ears to hear. He will not be who He is apart from us, and we cannot be who we truly are apart from Him. He will not be the Son of God without His brothers and sisters, who are collectively called His body, the physical manifestation of His presence in the world and for the world. This identification is not our own working but a gift of God made actual by the Spirit of God. Christ’s being for us can neither be earned nor grasped but only received in faith as a truth which we have no control over, a truth which is true even when we are false to it. Our faithlessness does not nullify the faithfulness of God. He will be who He is: the God who loved us and gave His only Son for us. And so we can say with Paul:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
We as the church are witnesses to this Son of God. And as Christ is for us we are called to be for him. And if we are called to be for Him we are called to be for others. The life we now live in the flesh is a life of openness and attentiveness to those for whom Christ died and rose again. As we live such a life we may be surprised by where we encounter the presence of Christ.