“Who Do You Say that I Am?”

Background Text: Mark 8:27-38
St. Martin United Church of Christ
Rev. Terry Minchow-Proffitt

who do you say I am.jpg

One memorable day, while walking with his disciples through Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s a good question. After all, they’d been at this a while, long enough to generate a little buzz. People like to talk. Have you noticed? We all do. 

So the disciples shared what they’d heard around the water cooler, the scuttlebutt, you know. “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets, maybe Jeremiah.” The opinions vary.

But Jesus is just getting warmed up. Next comes the question Jesus really wants to ask: “Who do you say that I am?” “You” is very different from “they,” isn’t it? “You” is personal. “You” gets your attention. One minute you’re talking in footnotes and halfway watching the game, the next you’re being asked to give a testimony!

You’ll notice, whether you’re sitting it the balcony or right down here in front of me, whether you serve on the council or just help out with the Chicken Dinner once a year, Jesus’ question still comes to you: Who do you say Jesus is? Now, be careful how you answer, because, remember, Christ knows you better than you know yourself. Christ knows you better than you know Christ. Christ is not asking for Christ’s own benefit. Christ’s asking so that we might benefit. If we don’t know who Jesus is, how can we ever expect to know who we truly are?

It’s tempting to answer too quickly like Peter: “You’re the Messiah!” Which was the technically “right” answer, and Jesus says as much. Yet, get this: when Jesus spells out in difficult detail what Messiah really means, when he points out the path of suffering love and servanthood that will lead to his resurrection, then Peter reprimands Jesus. In turn, Jesus rebukes Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan!” Clearly, Peter’s protective intent was good, but he was missing out on something very important about Jesus: Jesus’ love is a love that will absorb suffering rather than cause suffering. Jesus is about communion, not domination. Just when you think you know a guy, right? It’s difficult to see others as they are, and not simply as they are to us.

Getting to know someone takes time, even if you love him or her dearly. I’m still getting to know my son and daughter and wife, and I love them more than anyone else on this planet. I’m still getting to know St. Martin. My first impressions have changed, have deepened out. You’re full of surprises. And you’re still getting to know me, though I’ve been here for over a year and a half. And all of us are still getting to know God. Knowing is more about the other than about us. We want to see others as they are, and not simply as they are to us.

In a few weeks you’ll be voting on whether I’ll become your next “settled” pastor. Don’t sweat this. If I don’t receive 90% of the votes cast, I’ll not come. I only want to be here if you decisively want me. I’ve got too many miles on me, my time is too short to spend it trying to be liked and trusted. I want to pastor, not cater. You should have a good sense by now of who I am by now and whether you want me. But just as Peter called Jesus “Messiah” but meant something very different than Jesus meant, I don’t want you to call me as Pastor and mean something different than what I mean by it. So here are a few affirmations that spell out who I am as a person and a pastor. None of this should come as a surprise to you who know me. I have nothing up my sleeve.

1.     Since being ordained in 1982, I have served 5 churches and 3 college campuses in Utah, New Jersey, Mississippi, Maryland, and Missouri. At the end of the day, and at each day’s beginning, the litmus test is love. Christ’s love, how we are growing in this love, the risk of it, the adventure of it, the willingness to suffer for it. I want every person who dares to darken our doors to know they are loved and invited to serve. Every person.

2.     The same relates to our surrounding community. Love one, love all. That’s the call. The grace we’ve been given has been given to every single person on earth. No one’s entitled; everyone’s loved. We’re all brothers and sisters in this way, children of God. The only difference is that some of us have opened up and experienced the gift of God’s grace within our lives, while others have yet to receive and open the gift of grace. So we need to live out our faith and share the love as widely as possible.

3.     Jesus was not partisan; he was partial to matters of the heart and heartfelt compassion. He was not a Democrat or a Republican. Christ’s love is far more gracious and more just than any political party or national identity. We worship God, not our political affiliations, nor our country, as much as we might cherish our freedom, ideals, and the patriotism they engender. I am complicated, with conservative and liberal parts to my psyche. For example, I believe in the virtue of hard work, but I also believe that all the best things in life are free. Go figure. I will never tell you who to vote for. But I can be trusted to cultivate faith, hope, and love in your life—not suspicion, cynicism, or fear.

4.     I’ve had a number of you ask how I feel about the UCC. This puzzles me, because you’re a UCC church and have been for a while. I am here at the blessing and request of the United Church of Christ. If I serve as your pastor, it will only be at their blessing by granting me “dual-standing,” having my ordination recognized as both American Baptist and United Church of Christ. Let’s be clear: I choose to work through the UCC because I want a progressive denomination that values inclusivity, diversity, and champions the downtrodden. If this is not for you, I get it. My love for you is not based on your agreeing with me. But if you’re not on board with your pastor being like this, please don’t vote for me.

5.     Having said this, you should know by now that I’m also a lousy Company Man. I’m no good as a rubber stamp. My gratitude and growing affection for the UCC and for you does not mean that I can in good conscience support everything that comes down the pike. I’m not wired that way. I’m not a Company Man, but neither do I run the church as a CEO. I trust the give-and-take of healthy and courageous conversation. Now, when I do push back or resist something, I try to do so with good reason, a gentle heart, and for the good of the community and our love for God. By the way, the same holds true for the things I support!

6.     Finally, I believe in the sufficiency of God’s gracious Presence. No matter what, God can be trusted to give us what we need if we stay open and inviting to God and others despite the evidence. Life is complicated, especially when we know that we’re all entitled to our opinions but we cannot choose our own set of facts: Planet Earth is really round, evolution happens, and, sadly, the Holocaust happened too. This is the way our troubled and glorious world spins. Yet I trust a simplicity that lives on the far side of such complexity. I know less but trust more. I dig. I question. I pray. I confess. I try to love and live more wholeheartedly. But humility, not certainty, has caused me to throw lots of things into the fire of God’s refining love, ideas and issues and fears that are dead to me now. So, if you’re wondering about me, that makes good sense. I’m wondering about you too. We’re God-shaped wonders, you and I.

This is not my first rodeo—but, odds are, it could be my last. And from my very first church, University Baptist in Salt Lake City, UT, to St. Martin UCC here in High Ridge, MO, Jesus’ question remains the same, “Who do you say that I am?” Stay with it. As Rilke said, live the question. Let it not only clarify how you see Jesus, but how you see your truest self and others, held and hidden in Christ. Draw near the One who only wants to love you. Amen.