Lent 4 – Who Do You Say That I Am?

“Jesus as Boundary Breaker and Movement Founder,” Bob Ryder

Mark 8:27-30
Jesus went with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and others say you’re one of the prophets.’ Then he asked, ‘And who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone what they knew.

Richard Rohr “We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path.  We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else.  This shift made us into a religion of belonging and believing instead of a religion of transformation.”

During Lent we’ve been looking at Jesus’ ministry from different angles.  Mark tells that story about the conversation between he and his disciples listing all the various ideas going around about Jesus’ identity, surveying what people made of him.  So impressive was Jesus’ work that people surmised he must be the reincarnation of a prophet like John the Baptist or Elijah.   Then he asks the disciples their opinion.  “What about you, who do you say I am?  What do you make of me?”  The story finishes with something of a dramatic flair as Peter declares his belief that Jesus is none other than the Christ, and Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves.  You might be interested to know this imaginary conversation is part of a literary strategy Mark employs in his gospel called “the messianic secret.”  It’s a subtle way of causing the reader feel involved.  It draws you in making you feel like you’re on equal footing with the disciples, being privy to inside information.

Still, the main idea for our purposes is that question, “Who do you say that I am?” and we’re using Lent to cultivate informed answers to that question.  So far we’ve thought about Jesus as a spirit-person, a social prophet, and a healer.  This morning we look at Jesus as someone who broke down social barriers and was the catalyst for a movement.

As I wrote those words for my manuscript, they seemed anodyne.  To say Jesus broke down barriers is certainly accurate, but it misses the edginess of the work.  It doesn’t articulate the risks involved, the personal transformation that’s being prescribed.  Social barriers aren’t just theoretical – they inflict a lot of damage on society.  Injustices such as racial profiling or unfair housing or employment practices, marriage inequality, gender pay disparity, income inequality the rich and the middle class and the poor, white privilege, male dominated workplaces and industries and on and on – all the ways we relate to one another as resources or obstacles or issues instead of as persons worthy of respect – that mode of interaction causes a lot of suffering and stress for all concerned.  They lead to litigation, civic unrest, mental health issues, wasted potential and often violence.  So one might think that any effort to challenge and take down such barriers would be widely supported. One might suppose practically everybody would be in favor of getting past such issues if only we know how, but of course that’s not the case.  The prejudices and inequalities that exist to a greater or lesser extent in almost society serve the interests of some subset of the population.  Those who benefit from them defend social barriers not only as tolerable but as legitimate and necessary for the greater good, and they’re quite ready to be violent about it.  Consider the infamous words of Alabama Governor George Wallace in his 1963 inaugural address, “…segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Likewise think of the predictable, nearly inevitable backlash against almost any movement that advocates for equality.  From the way men close ranks at the office to prevent women from gaining status to the withering criticism against organizations like “Black Lives Matter” or the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High; from carefully cultivated suspicions about a hidden “gay agenda” to countless campaigns against immigrants from Central America or the Caribbean or Africa or Ireland, against Jews and Catholics, the list of those who systematically separated out from full inclusion in our society is a perpetual work-in-progress.  Consider the opening theme of Donald Trump’s campaign.  “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [sic] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”  Social barriers aren’t theoretical and they’re not ancient history – they’re human nature.

Now I wanted, indeed I expected, for this reflection to advance a portrayal of Jesus as a liberal fire-brand decrying injustice and indicting the social elites who cynically perpetuate it for their own benefit – and he surely was that.  Whatever you might think of Christ, however you might relate to the Jesus portrayed as having meekly died to save us from our sins, understand that the historical person was a brilliant and provocative and fearless social activist.  If Jesus ministry had taken place in the 21st century, Fox News would have loathed him.  The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board would have a special column dedicated to criticizing his politics.  There’d be Facebook pages dedicated to trolling him and his followers.  In our reflection a couple of weeks ago we noted that Jesus was a had strikingly clever wit – he was going to get the better of anyone in a debate and was not at all shy calling out the authorities on their hypocrisy.  Think of the historical Jesus as something like a hybrid of Elizabeth Warren and Bill Maher that way, except he spent his time among commoners – in that respect he was more like Cesar Chavez.  This is why traditional Christianity gravitates so persistently toward understanding Jesus as a blood sacrifice to atone for a sinful world – all of the responsibility for justice and redemption is in God’s court.  It distracts from Jesus’ insistence that those at the top renounce their privilege and work for a more just sharing of the world’s resources.  Make no mistake, Jesus was a very present thorn in the side for the wealthy and powerful.  To those who think he was crucified because a vengeful God required an innocent sacrifice and not because his politics were a threat to the same status quo we benefit from… think about that a moment.  Some might say that’s not very Christian, but neither was Jesus.

That’s where I expected to wind up this reflection, until l I recalled that we addressed that topic two weeks ago when we consider Jesus’ credentials as a social prophet.  If we’re going to understand still more about Jesus than that, if we’re going to develop a more complete answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am,” we need to acknowledge that Jesus larger goal was not just to tear down injustice, but to build something better in its place.  Jesus’ goal was reconciliation, his purpose was to build connections between those who were estranged.  His vision was for people to experience each other as extensions of sacred mystery we try to experience in worship.  This is why the practice of communion is so important, and so radical.

Social barriers are sustained by misunderstanding and antagonism.  Such is the evil genius behind the Russian efforts to sow discord on social media.  A society at odds with itself is impotent, stuck in an endless loop of insecurity and indignation.  Left to our instinctive defense mechanisms, we reduce those of differing backgrounds and political views to something less than human, something easy to despise.  To counteract those most caustic of human behaviors, Jesus deliberately ate and drank with the “wrong kinds of people.”  He visited the homes and of social paraiahs.  He gathered the respectable and the outcasts, the ahves and the have nots, the conservative and the liberal, the “Black Lives Matter” and the “Blue Lives Matter” to share the bread and cup so enemies could experience one another directly as people with the same basic needs and vulnerabilities and aspirations.  The term social scientists use for the phenomenon is commensality, which means the rules a society observes for when and where and with whom the people of a society share their food.  I think it was John Dominic Crossan who said something like, “tell me who eats with whom in any given culture and that’s all I need to know to understand them.”  Jesus most powerful and controversial approach to breaking down social barriers was the practice of open commensality – which is to say ignoring the usual rules about sharing food.  In a way it might sound charming, but it’s a very edgy thing to do.  Think of black civil rights activists sitting at with lunch counters in the 1950s and 60s and you’ll get the feel for how not-benign Jesus ministry was.

Now the theme for this reflection is to consider Jesus as a movement founder as well as a barrier breaker, and it seems to me that his status as a movement founder remains an open question.  If one thinks of communion as the church usually practices it as a movement perpetuated in Jesus name, then yes – technically – Jesus founded a world-wide movement.  But the interpretation of taking the body and blood of a sacrifice to save us from our sins probably wasn’t the main thing Jesus had in mind.  Any movement carried on in reverence for the historical person begins with reconciling people to one another and making peace in the face of entrenched opposition

Who would it be difficult for you to sit down with and share a meal with?  You probably don’t need to think very hard about it – we all have people on our “no way” lists.  Some of them are specific personalities, some are categories of people.  If we’re going to take this meal seriously – if we’re willing to be influenced by Jesus’ ministry even all these centuries later – it has to include beginning to wish them well.  It has to include setting aside our dislikes and disagreements and criticisms as valid and accurate as they might be and realize that our enemies have the same insecurities and hopes and needs as we do.

This is not easy, and it is not quick.  It would be much easier if communion were just about being saved from our sins. If we’re going to be honest about who Jesus was, sharing this meal requires more of us.  To follow Jesus as a barrier breaker and a movement founder is a practice, a journey, a transformation that unfolds with a lifetime of dedication.  There will still be people we don’t like, and don’t trust.  There will still be a competition of ideas.  But our default way of relating to others – even those we don’t like or agree with – is to experience them as fellow human beings.