November 11, 2018: "Who do you say I am?"

November 11, 2018                                           Rev. Rhonda Blevins

Who Do You Say I Am?

Mark 8:27-33

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

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 “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I love this quote from Anne Lamott. There’s one problem with this quote, however. We’ve all created God in our own image. Let me explain.

 To do so, let me start with a little story from my week.

 I pulled into a gas station, and all the pumps were occupied except one. Wouldn’t you know the one unoccupied pump was opposite the tank on my car? So I did that thing where I backed into the pump. There was a man with a pickup truck at the pump behind mine. When I got out of the car to pump gas, this gentleman let out a loud expletive—you might call it the mother of all curse words. I refrained from looking—I find it best to ignore grown men throwing temper tantrums. I had no reason to think his expletive was directed at me. With my back turned to him as I was pumping gas, I heard him get in his truck and close the door. Within a few seconds, he was driving his truck around my car. His window was down; I noticed he was an older gentleman. He began to yell and curse at me as he slowly drove by. (Turns out, his expletive had been directed at me after all!) “This is a small gas station,” he yelled, calling me a not-so-nice name. “You’ve got to leave room for people to get around!” As the enraged man drove off, the guy pumping gas from the other side of my tank remarked, “Funny he was mad at you for not leaving him room to get around as he was driving around you!”

 I tell you this story to introduce the idea that perception and reality often aren’t the same thing. The man perceived that I hadn’t left him room to drive around. The reality was I had. His driving around me proved his perception inaccurate. His inaccurate perception provoked his anger, even rage. His blood pressure probably increased. He may have gone home and kicked his dog or done something else to release his rage—which was all the result of an inaccurate perception.

 In Jesus’ questions to his disciples, “Who do they say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”, Jesus is getting a read on perceptions. This isn’t about reality. This isn’t even about truth. Jesus isn’t trying to figure out who he is (he already knows). This is about perception. “What are their perceptions? What are your perceptions?” I want you to notice something—when his disciples answered that some thought him to be Elijah, others John the Baptist, and still others “one of the prophets,” Jesus didn’t laugh or scoff at these misperceptions. He moved on to the next question: “Who do you say I am?” Peter (so often the first to respond) said, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus didn’t laugh or scoff—nor did he affirm this answer. Something I discovered this week about this text—my perception about has been inaccurate for all these years. My assumption/perception has been that Jesus agreed with this answer because he didn’t try to correct it. Not so! This text doesn’t suggest whether Jesus agreed with Peter or not—Jesus simply tells them they better not go around using the word “Messiah” to describe him.

 Messiah, in the perception of most First-Century Jews, including Peter and other followers of Jesus, would lead a military revolt to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jesus would not be that kind of Messiah. So after that, he began to tell his disciples that he would suffer, that he would be rejected by Jewish leaders, that he would be executed, and that he would rise after three days. This is not what Peter wanted to hear. They wanted to fashion the Messiah in their own image. Peter tried to correct Jesus. How did that work out for Peter? “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Jesus rebuked. Strong language from Jesus, who had experienced Satan first-hand in the desert. Satan tempted Jesus to claim power another way. Peter tempted Jesus to claim victory without the cross. That would be more comfortable for Peter . . . more in line with Peter’s perception about who Messiah would be. Jesus would have nothing of it.

 Not to be too hard on Peter, Christians have been projecting their own ideas onto Jesus for over two millennia. We’re no different today. “Who do you say I am?” is a question just as relevant now as it was at the time Jesus first asked it. It’s a question for all time:

  • · His first century followers believed Jesus would lead a military revolt.

  • · The crusaders of the middle ages used the name of Jesus in an effort to seize land and power.

  • · In the 1930’s many German Nazis imagined Jesus was on their side.

  • · Today we see Christians spewing hate toward minorities and marginalized people of all kinds . . . all in the name of Jesus.

 How have Christians so often been so tragically misguided? How do Christians continue to be so misguided? “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” It’s all about perception. It’s all about the answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?”

 Projecting our ideologies onto Jesus is something all Christians have in common. Psychologists from Freud to Jung and on teach us about “projection,” which is an automatic process by which we project our unconscious thoughts and beliefs onto others. This can be positive or negative. For example, maybe you wake up one morning with a huge pimple on our forehead. Maybe you try to cover it with makeup or a bandaid. Then you go through your day imagining people are looking at it, when really they aren’t. You’re being self conscious, projecting that insecurity onto another person. On the other hand, you’re got a skill, let’s say a computer skill. You’re good enough that it’s second nature to you. Then you go to help someone, and you assume they should have a base level of knowledge they just don’t have. That’s projecting your competency onto another person.

 Many psychologists teach that you can’t perceive a quality in someone that doesn’t exist in you, at least at the subconscious level. You know someone who is lazy? Guess what. You know someone who is rude? Guess what. You know someone who is brilliant? Guess what. You know someone who is generous? Guess what.

 This is one of the concepts taught by Ken Keyes. Keyes was a psychologist who wrote and sold millions of books. At the age of 25 Keyes contracted Polio, and ended up a quadriplegic. This didn’t stop him! From his chair he penned dozens of books, including one entitled Discovering the Secrets of Happiness. In another book, Keyes describes what we’re talking about, about how we project our thoughts and beliefs on the world around us: “A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world; everyone you meet is your mirror.”

 Back to that guy yelling at me for blocking him in as he drove by. You think his world is loving or hostile? I’d say hostile. And because I recognize hostility in him, what does that say about me? There’s some repressed hostility going on up in here. Beware: don’t mess with this. J

 What does all of this have to do with Jesus? Because we’re all walking around projecting our own thoughts and beliefs onto others, we all create Jesus in our own image. Jesus knew this when he asked the disciples about perceptions of him. After they revealed their perceptions of him, Jesus began a process of deconstructing those perceptions.

 Here’s what preaching professor Karoline Lewis writes about this passage, and about the question Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?”:

 Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be. You can’t answer Jesus’ inquiry without revealing who you are. Or, we could switch it around. Who you are reveals who you have decided Jesus to be. Jesus’ question is not a test. It’s not about getting the answer right. It’s the moment when you come face-to-face with your own commitment, your own discipleship, your own identity. It’s the moment when you have to admit to what extent how you follow Jesus actually connects with some sort of confession of who you believe Jesus to be.

 Remember the story about the older gentleman driving around me, cursing at me for not leaving him room to drive around me? I didn’t tell you how I responded. My first thought was that he was so full of rage . . . he might have a heart attack! So I said to him, “Take a deep breath, sir. Deep breath. Deep breath.”

 That’s the invitation I offer you today as well. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, imagine releasing any inaccurate perceptions about God and/or Jesus. As you breathe in, consider your perceptions about Jesus anew. Is it possible your perceptions about Jesus are a little off? In what ways have you created Jesus in your own image? Understanding the inevitability of projecting ourselves onto Jesus—that simple awareness—opens up the possibility of Jesus revealing himself more fully. This exercise requires a bit of humility. It requires us to do what my old seminary professor taught: “Dare to think you’re wrong.” This humility is exactly what the Lord requires, according to Micah 6:8 (one of my favorite Old Testament verses):

He has shown you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you:
But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Debbie Wilson