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In my first semester of college, I took a creative writing course. Though I can’t remember what our first essay was about, I think I must have included something about faith or belief. When the professor handed our papers back to us, he included with mine a little book, saying that he thought I might find it interesting. I don’t know if he thought it would shake me up, or what, exactly, but I don’t think he imagined how the book would only encourage me more to keep thinking about God in unconventional, creative, and personal ways.
The little book was called Jesus Christs, written by a man named A.J. Langguth. Langguth was an author and journalist whose view of the world was surely influenced by his having been the South East Asian correspondent and Saigon bureau chief for “The New York Times” during the Vietnam war.
This little book, Jesus Christs is a compilation of Zen-like appearances, episodes, and conversations that Jesus has with various people, across time, culture, and geography. It’s unorthodox, unconventional, and I’m sure to some– blasphemous. But for me, it deepened my sense of prayer. It encouraged me to imagine Jesus not so much in a first-century-Palestine kind of guy, (a bearded Jesus in sandals, wearing what looked vaguely like a bathrobe), but instead, to imagine even more vividly a Jesus in the grocery store, the library, the street, and everywhere I might go or imagine.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is walking along with his disciples and he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” We just heard some of their answers. People then (as now) connect to Jesus based on their own background, their own projections and hopes, their own experiences and expectations. “Some say John the Baptist,” they tell Jesus. Some say the prophet Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. But then Jesus gets personal and asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Whenever we have a baptism or renew our baptismal vows, the bishop or priest presiding asks us, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” In the Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304), we hurry along and answer that question in a way that has developed over two centuries of scripture, reason, and tradition. But I wonder what would happen if we paused right there? What would happen if we stopped and thought a little about that question.
Do we believe in Jesus Christ? “Well, yes,” I might say. But then if you asked me to say exactly WHO Jesus is for me, my answer (my honest answer, my true answer) would be different depending on the day and the circumstances in which you asked me.
Sometimes Jesus is the fullest divinity I can imagine. All the superlatives of scripture seem to fit with my understanding of him and my answer would sound orthodox in the first century, the tenth century, or the twenty-first century. I can agree with Peter, who speaks up to Jesus and cries, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
But other days, I would answer differently. Sometimes Jesus is more of a teacher for me. Sometimes a stranger. When I meet people who are suffering or read about people undergoing incredible hardship, I see Jesus as one of them, among them, suffering with them, not in some special category of divinity. Sometimes I feel Jesus almost as an opponent, as someone who challenges me in ways I really don’t care to be challenged. At times Jesus is like a buddy, sometimes a sibling and sometimes a parent. Like some of the medieval saints, I’ve sometimes imagined Jesus in romantic, erotic, and sensual ways. And I sometimes see Jesus as a jokester, the kind of Divine Jester who spoke so deeply to St. Francis and others. For me, sometimes Jesus is a Jewish rabbi who I imagine looking on the Christian Church was great sadness, shaking his head and saying, “That’s not what I was talking about.” Other times, I see Jesus more like a Hindu holy man, or a Zen master, and my Jesus is not always male.
Who do I say Jesus is? Well, it depends. But my belief only gets stronger as I allow Christ to fill my imagination and make himself known in new ways.
Jesus reveled himself to his friends, family, and disciples in new ways. Just when they might think they understood him, he’d show up in a slightly different way. No wonder people questioned whether he was God, a prophet, a holy man, or a prankster.
The Gospel writers continue this tradition by presenting to us four very different portraits of who Jesus is. Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus as a heroic man of action. He heals, he casts out demons, he works miracles, and while he’s the Son of God, he insists that this be kept a secret. Luke shows a compassionate and justice-oriented Jesus, who always takes the side of the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden. In Matthew, we have the most human Jesus, a Jewish teacher, a good rabbi, but one who is as human as we are, though also divine. And then John gives us the opposite of Matthew, a Jesus who is more divine than human, who’s always in charge, knows exactly who he is, and has total power of everything and everyone.
Who do you say Jesus is? It’s an important question—perhaps the most important question, if you think of yourself as a Christian. But the sad thing about much of Christianity, is that we’re so seldom encouraged to ask and live the question for ourselves.
Isaiah gives us a hint at one way to begin to answer the question of who Jesus is. Though Isaiah is writing in a very different context, we understand Isaiah in the light of Christ. We heard in our first reading,
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
In other words, dig deep within yourself to ask who Jesus is for you. Who was he when you first met him? How have you changed since? How might your sense of Jesus have changed since? What provides the “rock” in your spirituality and how does this relate to who Jesus might be for you?
Paul tell the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Evangelical Christians love to ask strangers, “Do you know Jesus?” or “Have you met Jesus?” That question is really just another way of asking what Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” While I’m asking you and myself today, please also hear that I believe God wants us each to answer that question honestly for ourselves. My Jesus might sound like blasphemy to you, and yours might sound simplistic, or judgmental, or foreign to me. The Holy Spirit is large enough to embrace us all, gathering up all our images, hopes, experiences with those of scripture, tradition, and reason, to bring us into deeper life in Christ.
In that little book, Jesus Christs, which was so important in blasting open my understanding of Christ, there’s a section in which Jesus is in prison. The jailer offers to give Jesus a tour of the place and show him one section in particular. The jailer explains, “We have a cell filled with people who think they are Jesus Christ.” Jesus replies, “They might be right … I would not be surprised to meet myself here, and when you began to speak so urgently to me, I wondered whether you were a Christ.”
Who do you say Jesus is? Can you see him in others? Can you see him in yourself?
May the Holy Spirit bless us with eyes to see, hearts to love, and spirits to soar with the Risen Christ this day and always. Amen.