Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Who are we really; whose are we really? by the Rev. Joel Boyd
(Edited and formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH)
September 12, 2021
Mark 8:27-38 (NRSV)1
27 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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Here’s a question we don’t often ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a person? It’s fun to imagine we’re a roaring lion, a hopping frog, or even a fire-breathing dragon. We might yet think about being alive and what that means—what being alive is all about. This can be a bit complicated—especially nowadays—when we pretend to be robots, Star Wars droids, Siri, or Alexa; all of which may seem about as close to being alive as they can without actually being alive. Yes—we can imagine all these things. But how about being a person: what do we think about that?
After all, being a person is what we’re all about. We’re people, you and I [sic]. On one level, we have the things which make us tick. We have our muscles, bones, organs, and like the Scarecrow and Tin Man a brain and a heart; we have these physical things. But we also have internal things, like our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, hopes, and dreams. We have our faith. You might say that all of these add up to make us who we are—that a person is what happens when you combine the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? But close as it may be, something is missing here. As people, we don’t live completely alone. We don’t live solely on deserted islands—though it is fun to consider what we’d bring if we were. We don’t live in outer space or a vacuum. And while the challenges of a pandemic may seem to suggest otherwise, we are social beings; we not only long for relationships, but I also believe that we need them.
Being a person means living in community. Scripture shows us a great deal about what it looks like to live together, and how we can be better for one another, and better for God.
But our “community” is more than simply those we grow up with, our close family and friends. It is also our city, our country, the culture around us. So many things vie for our attention, trying to secure our support, that it can be difficult to count them.
So, what does the world around us say we are?
Well, for one, it can judge us. The world can say we are not pretty enough, too lazy, or not up to snuff in our career or schoolwork. It can judge our illness or ability, suggesting that our knee surgery precludes any further athletic activity, that our depression is not real, or that it is something to “get over.” The world can also imply things about status. The images of the glamorous pop star on social media and obscene salaries of top-tier sports pros when provocatively flaunted daily imply that wealth is something that has value and that it is to be desired.
On another level, the broader culture can try to adopt us, claiming us to be who it wants us to be, whether it be pawns in a political game, scapegoats for a systemic failure at the top of the chain, or even siding with the bully at school for fear of being on the receiving end of the deal. The world can claim our loyalties just as it can throw us under the bus. We might find ourselves shouting false claims about the “other” group only to find that we are the victims of the same mob mentality soon.
And yet, not all false claims to our identity are borne of ill will. Sometimes the world says who we are because it just doesn’t understand the truth about us.
In the Gospel [according to] Mark, we learn that those around Jesus said he was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. No doubt any of these were among the greats of Scripture. It’d be an honor to be associated with the likes of such prophetic figures in the Bible. And yet, this is what the people around Jesus said about him, in a way, a bit of who the world thought he was, and by extension what he was about. But as Mark [tells] us (Mk. 8:29), Jesus then turned to Peter, asking him, “But who do you say I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
It’s interesting to think about why Jesus didn’t want his disciples to say anything about his being the Messiah— [messías in Greek and ha Mashiach in Hebrew]— ‘the anointed one.’ While he didn’t want it revealed then, certainly people knew it later, especially when he rose out of the tomb after dying on the cross. So, we might wonder: does this show us that it’s not just about knowing who you are, that somehow, it’s also about the timing of revealing your identity? Well, no, I don’t think so. I agree with scholars when they say that Jesus’s identity as the Messiah was not revealed too early because it would’ve hastened the arrest and crucifixion, all of which were to happen on God’s timing, not on the world’s timing. Perhaps you see something else here, but for me, this speaks to the way the Bible both shows that we have a God-given identity which is important and blessed, but also that it is not up to everyone else to control who you are or when you live into who you have been beautifully made to be, all of that takes place on God’s timing. In other words, it’s not about what the world thinks we are or how it tries to control our identity. Rather, it is about how God has made us and has given us purpose.
So maybe we feel that we’re excellent at guitar or that we’re not so hot at accounting. Maybe we feel that we’ve always longed to get straight As at school because that’s what Mom got, but no matter what we do, we can’t quite get there. Still, perhaps we even feel that we are gifted for fixing cars; that we have the skills to help families get their vehicles back on the road so they can go about their own lives. After all, that’s got to count for something, right?
And all of these do count for something. Count for what is the big question. So, we ask, who do we belong to? Whose are we? You see, cause if we don’t know our roots, then we likely don’t know where we started, making it a bit challenging to know where we’re going.
Do we belong to the lust for wealth? If so, all our energy may be directed towards that. Do we belong to the world of excelling, if so, we may find ourselves exhaustively trying to be better, but better than what? Do we belong to the world’s definition of us? Are we the limited stereotypes they judge us to be?
If we see ourselves as belonging to the world, we’ll soon find that we place our faith in the world, and that will shape who we are and who we’ll become.
After telling them to be quiet about his being the Messiah, Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man [ben- ‘adam, in the Tanakh (e.g., Daniel 7:13)] 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.” (Mk. 8:31-33)
Jesus knew who he was, and he knew whose he was. He even knew when he would live into the most challenging aspects of His calling. When his friend Peter tried to take him to task over this negative outlook, implying that surely this couldn’t be true, that there’s no way this could be who Jesus was and that it was his job to prevent it, well… Jesus chastised Peter. While Peter, as well-intended as he must’ve been, tried to define Jesus’s identity, Jesus himself pushed back, resisting the attempt of the world to lay claim to what only God has blessed.
Sisters and brothers, while we most certainly can see how Jesus’s status as the only Son of God places his identity and purpose in a category truly beyond our comprehension, I hope that today we can at least take a cue from his example. For Jesus spoke to his disciples and the crowd alike, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mk. 8:34-38)
Friends, you are blessed to be who God made you be. I pray that you may love me for who I am, just as I will love you for who you are. In[sic] Christ, we witness the calling to be his people, that with all we are we may give glory to God. May the Spirit show us the road and guide us on it. AMEN.
- Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.