Lections: Proverbs 1:20-33 ; Psalm 19; Mark 8:27-38

Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy … were any who they seemed to be?  The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker: knaves, all three?

Last week I was at a brunch, and everyone there was asked to introduce himself to the others, by saying his name, what church he served, and an interesting fact about himself.  “Hi,” I said, “I’m Chico Martin.  I serve the Moretown Methodist Church.  I enjoy reading and writing poetry.”  Then I began questioning myself.  There have been many times when I have enjoyed reading and writing poetry, but now I read mostly theology, biblical studies, and church history. Occasionally I pick up a book of poems and leaf through it, but occasionally I do many things.  How steadfast and directed does an activity need to be to distinguish a person’s identity?

The images we have of ourselves – and who we say we are – change over time.  Perhaps I was at some time accurately pictured as a poet; at other times, I might have been better pictured as a bookseller, an educator, or an economist. A person’s occupation is a simple, important, but incomplete understanding of his identity.   Usually we are more concerned about how successful we are, how much money we have, and how healthy – or attractive – we look and feel.  Where we live can make a difference, how we raise our children, and our values. We can view ourselves as fun-loving or serious, as civic minded or socially withdrawn.  Our identity can be a composite of many things at once.

In the passage we read in Mark today, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” The disciples answer, “Elijah, John the Baptist, one of the prophets…” In other words, people are saying Jesus is someone else.   Imagine how the introductions would go around a table.  “Hi.  My name is Chico Martin, and an interesting thing about me is I’m Ethan Allen.”  To which someone might respond, “Oh, nice to meet you Chico.  From all I’ve heard about you, I thought you were Jim Douglas.”  The sense I draw from this is 1) a person’s identity isn’t fluid, 2) it’s singular, and 3) it’s not unique.  Jesus can be either Elijah or John the Baptist or another prophet, because identity isn’t unique; Jesus can be either a carpenter or a rabbi, but he can’t be both, because identity is singular; and whatever he is, he must be just this one person for a lifetime, because identity doesn’t change.  And that’s very different from how we think.

So when we hear Jesus ask his disciples, “But who do you say I am,” and Peter answers for them, “You are the Christ,” nothing more needs to be said: “Hello, my name is Jesus, and I’m the Christ.”  Unlike all other personal identities, the identity of the Christ is unique:  there can be many prophets, but only one Christ.

The word Christ in Greek means ‘word’ or voice’ and translates the Hebrew word for Messiah which means ‘anointed.’  Prophets, kings, and priests were all anointed, as a sign of divine election; however, by the time of Jesus, Israel expected the Messiah to be specifically a Davidic king.  This is one reason why Jesus wants his identity kept secret; he will fulfill all three divine offices of prophet, king, and priest, but not in the expected way. Unlike the Davidic king, who comes with an army, as a battle warrior, to free an occupied nation from its foreign rulers, the Christ comes as a Suffering Servant, to save Israel from the twin spiritual enemies of sin and death.  This is the Messianic secret that Jesus urges his disciples to keep; he wants to complete his mission without provoking the people with expectations that won’t be met.  So Mark begins his Gospel by identifying Jesus as the Messiah, but there is no more mention of Jesus’ identity until here, and Jesus himself only acknowledges his Messianic identity at his trial before the Sanhedrin, when his “thou hast said it” is equivalent to “you are right.”

“I saw in the night visions,” Daniel says, “and behold,with the clouds of heaven there came one like the son of man,and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14).

Christ, The Messiah, is called by several names: Son of Man refers to his heavenly origin, for he is “the heavenly sovereign incarnate,”[i] a claim considered blasphemy by Jerusalem’s Temple authorities; he is the Logos, emphasizing the pre-existence of Christ and his incarnation as the divine Word, “the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-16); Christ is judge of the nations (Matt 25:31-32); He is the Pantocrator, that is, the Almighty; he is the Mediator, “for he will save his people from their sins;” and he is called The Last Adam, because redemption and salvation are the fruit of the cross (Irenaeus). [ii]

Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, said Jesus “had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”  Once Jesus communicates his identity to the disciples, he begins teachings his disciples about the implications of his identity for them.  He explains to them what his his death and resurrection will mean, and when Peter challenges this understanding, Jesus rebukes him for “not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

This morning, when we hear the word disciples, we must not forget that Jesus is directing his words to us also, for we are all disciples of Christ.  All of us, I think, tend to set our minds on “the things of man” rather than “the things of God,” not only when we try to say who Jesus is, but also when we try to answer the related question, “Who am I?” …which depends on who Jesus is….  Maybe it is hard for us to set our minds on God, because, despite all our efforts to the contrary, we still want others to notice us.  Look at me, we say, I am fun-loving and attractive, successful, and comfortably well-off.  Look at me, we say, because we want our identity to confirm a sense of self-worth that eludes us.

No way, says Jesus.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his great book The Cost of Discipleship, writes, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”   Our identity is to come from God.  Instead of saying, “Look at me,” we are called to say, “Look at God.”   We are to take our identity from God, and he has spelled it out for us in Scripture.   We are His adopted children (Jn 1:12, Eph 1:5), made in His image (Gen 1:27), part of His bodily form, with Christ as the head (Cols 2:9-10). We were slaves of sin (Rom 6:6); now we are neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew or Greek, for we are all one in Christ (Gal 3:27-28).  We are dead to the world (Col 3:1-3) and our body is a holy temple (1 Cor 6:19-20).  We are a Royal Priesthood from a Holy Nation (1 Pet 2:9).  And we are loved by God (Jn 3:16, 15:9).

Tragically, many of us continue to call attention to ourselves, often because we don’t feel loved, and we blame ourselves for being unloved. The identities we construct for ourselves are aimed at gaining the love that’s missing from our lives, by building into them the value we imagine belonging to persons with success stories to tell about themselves. We toss these identities out to the world like lifelines; we are, by and large, a desperate people, and all too often our desperation becomes for us a fascination.  Our life lines are too frayed to save us. Sometimes they are sheared by the self-centeredness and pride that can emerge out of our lack of self-worth; other times they snap from self-destructive behaviors that are more difficult to diagnose but less difficult to recognize.

The decision to follow Jesus doesn’t get easier over time; it cost Dietrich Bonhoeffer his life and at times consumed Brennan Manning. We will almost always find it nearly impossible to embrace a self- renouncing and cross- bearing discipleship for the sake of Jesus and his gospel (Mk 8:34). Yet there are moments when we will let go of all the baggage that comes from maintaining a personal identity, and instead embrace our total dependence on Jesus.  In seeking to save ourselves, we will lose everything.  And in those moments we will experience the peace of Christ, the peace that passes all understanding, and the assurance of our eternal salvation.

Jesus, the Word of God, tells us who he is, even as he tells us who we are.  He tells us he loves us, and he tells us he will raise us from the dead.  Trust me, he says, and follow me.  Our challenge is to keep him in sight.  God’s perfections are revealed in his handiwork and in his Word; let us look to God when panic strikes, when calamity, distress, and anguish come, when we are at a loss for understanding.  Let us recommit to prayer and reading our bibles.  Let us take care of each other, and love one another, as we too are loved.  Let us rejoice in the Glory of the heavens and the voice of wisdom. Amen.


[i] Expositor’s Bible Commentary

[ii] Rikk E Watts, Mark 31.  The identity of the Messiah makes reference to Dan 7, Ps 118:22, Isa 53: 4-10, and Hos 6:2.

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