“Have you heard about Jesus?” I thought about leaving this cliché out. It’s almost too cliché! It’s the cliché of bad movies and TV shows. Sandlin’s blog response to it was not really helpful. He responded with a one word question, “Really?”
“Have you heard about Jesus?” Well, who hasn’t heard about Jesus? I suppose there are a few people on the planet who have never encountered Christianity and the “news about Jesus.” But they’re pretty rare. And, even in our diverse culture, people have heard about Jesus. So, the question doesn’t make sense.
Think about asking this question. If someone says, “Yes, I’ve heard about Jesus” is the conversation not done? If, by chance, someone says, “No,” what would you then say? We know that it is tempting to have a bumper sticker answers to convince people of Jesus’ importance. “Jesus saves” is one popular short statement. You see it on bumper stickers, billboards –even on tractor trailers. “Jesus saves.” That short statements always makes me want to ask, “What does he save? Green stamps? Bubble gum wrappers? Money?” “Jesus saves” assumes particular knowledge and a particular theological bent.
Our gospel lesson gives us a similar question, except, here Jesus is the one asking. “[Jesus] asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they responded, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” People had heard about Jesus, but they weren’t sure what to think about him. Charles Hambrick-Stowe wrote, “People are saying various things about Jesus, trying to understand what is going on in their encounters with him, identifying him with one great prophet or another come back to life.” They defined him, they labeled him according to the rubrics of their faith and experience.
Jesus then pushed his disciple further. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Peter had the answer. He knew exactly who Jesus was – the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Except…except…we learn very quickly that although Peter had the title right, he didn’t understand what the title meant. He could say that Jesus was the Messiah, but as Jesus began to explain what would happen to the Messiah, as his journey toward the cross continued, Peter and the rest of the disciples rejected Jesus’ teaching – and, ultimately, turned in fear and left him.
This morning’s passage ends oddly for all of us who want easy and quick answers. Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, Jesus ordered his disciples, including Peter, “not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
“Have you heard about Jesus?” One of the problems with that question is that it seems to expect that the asker will have quick answers to define who Jesus is. Faith is reduced to having the right answers ready when we are challenged by someone – or when we ourselves might challenge someone else. A seminary classmate complained that she was constantly asked by others, “Have you been born again?” She, the daughter of a minister, would respond that she was always being born again, anew, from above. She saw it as a day to day, moment to moment, gift of God’s grace. She refused to look back to one moment because she saw the need to continue to be born from above, transformed by God’s grace and God’s love. She thought the question “have you been saved” was inadequate.
Jesus said not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. There would have been a danger in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah with little or no comprehension of what that meant. The Israelites were hoping and looking for a conquering king. Even the disciples hoped for the one who would sit on the throne and let them share in his glory and power. They needed to journey to the cross and through the crucifixion to begin to understand more completely who the Messiah wasn’t and who he was.
• He was not the all-powerful political king who would, by their proximity, make them great. He was the servant.
• He was not the conqueror who would rid Israel of their hated occupier. He was the One willing to be faithful to God at even the cost of his own life.
The disciples believed, at that time, in the Messiah they wanted. It was difficult to accept and believe in the Messiah God sent them. Jesus cautioned them about rushing out to proclaim the truth that he was the Messiah because they didn’t fully understand what that meant.
Is it any different today? Our understanding of the Messiah is shaped by our own experiences, our own prejudices and biases, and our own hopes and fears – and years, if not centuries, of tradition. Sometimes we choose to believe and proclaim the easy answers, the quick answers that appear to satisfy our own needs and desires, yet may fall short of who the Messiah is. We might ask how our image of the Messiah has been shaped by centuries of the Western Christian Church being close to the powers of the day and, thereby, having the ability to shape societies, sometimes forcing Christian values on others. In many ways, the Messiah we proclaim is often very much like the Messiah for whom the disciples longed – the king of power and glory who will set all things right. The world hears the church speak of the great enforcer who punishes evil-doers. The world hears us speak of the angry king, ready to venture out and destroy enemies.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” These declarations are central to our faith. But how often do we examine what we mean by them? My friend’s problem with the question “Have you been saved?” was that the desired answer would point to a particular time, a moment when she made a decision to “let Jesus into her life.” She said the looking back was not sufficient. Being a follower of Christ meant continually growing in understanding – and being continually reborn because human beings fall short of God’s call.
“Have you heard about Jesus?” Yeah, most people have. But, what have they heard? I would guess that often the message proclaimed does not reflect the Biblical witness. We, like the disciples, want a Messiah who is on our side, who endorses our values and ways. We want the triumphant Christ, not the crucified one. We might accept the servant – who serves us. But what about the one who serves others – even our enemies? What has the world heard about Jesus?
For me, this gospel lesson is a cautionary tale. We, too easily, misinterpret and, therefore, poorly proclaim who Jesus is. It is no wonder that the question raises people’s hackles! As one of the “frozen chosen” I guess I’m pretty comfortable with Jesus’ command to tell no one. It sounds like a great scripture to quote if we want to stay off our soap boxes to yell “good news” to the people going by.
Yet, the disciples did eventually find their voice. They did tell others who Jesus was. Jesus didn’t send his disciples out with the good news that he was the Messiah because the disciples had yet to learn more fully what that meant. They needed to be “discipled”, disciplined, taught. They needed to grow as they continued their journey with Jesus. It was only after the resurrection that they began to more fully proclaim who Jesus was. And they didn’t do it in sound bites. They did it through deeds and words, through the example of new communities that were inclusive and welcoming. They did it as students of the tradition and students of the journey.
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked his disciples. Isn’t it interesting that he asked. He asked – he invited their reflections. As I was thinking about this story I wondered if it might not teach us something about sharing the good news. Jesus asked! He didn’t declare. He didn’t proclaim truth and demand that others accept it. He invited them to reflect – on what they had heard, on what they had experienced. And even when Peter followed his declaration with another that showed a complete lack of understanding, Jesus did not turn him – or them – away. He taught. He challenged them. And he continued to welcome them as part of his community. He understood that it is no easy thing to comprehend who Jesus is, who the Messiah is. He understood that all human understanding is limited – and, oftentimes, inaccurate.
“Have you heard about Jesus?” I agree with Sandlin. It is a cliché that the Christian church needs to lose! It sets up division at the outset. The asker assumes possession of a superior knowledge to impart to the one asked. It assumes the possession of truth, without the awareness of that truth’s limitations, biases, prejudices, or inaccuracy. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves first, “What do people say about Jesus?” Maybe we ask others, “What do you say about Jesus?” We ask ourselves, “What do we say about Jesus?” We ask to learn. We ask to be challenged. We ask to be stretched. And we study – the Biblical witness, the witness of the tradition, the witness of the history of the Christian church with its successes and failures.
Then, we can witness. Through deeds that embody the life to which we are called through Christ. We can witness in and through sacred conversations that begin with listening and respect.
Christmas Eve Service
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