Who Do You Say that I Am?

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” – Luke 9:18b-20 (NRSV)

Two thousand years later, and the Christian faith hasn’t really changed much: at the end of the day, every person still has to answer the question, “who do you say that I am?”

It remains both a very public discussion and a very private decision. Earlier in Luke 9, we read that Herod had speculated about this very topic. Jesus had essentially “gone viral” as grapevine gossip exploded in the region:

“Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.”

Exactly who Jesus was became the trending topic of the day, from politicians to peasants.

Who is Jesus? Speculation was running rampant.

When Jesus asked Peter, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter responded – the Messiah; Christ. (All the more painful, then, later when Peter met Jesus’ eye across the courtyard after swearing he didn’t know Jesus personally, or who Jesus really was.)

Luke continues: after Herod speculates, after the crowds gossip and wonder, after Peter affirms in private that Jesus is the Messiah, then we find Jesus up on a mountain.

“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”

In a spectacular Old Testament-level theophany of thunderous, speaking cloud, God proclaims to Peter, James, and John just who Jesus is. In the transfiguration, God the Father shouts the divine nature of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Word Made Flesh.

If you continue to read Luke 9, you’ll encounter just what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. It’s not all crowds and buzz, he quickly clarifies to the disciples: it will mean taking up your cross to follow him. It will mean setting your face to Jerusalem and being turned away from certain towns. There will be a cost to recognizing in Jesus’ face the face of the Christ.

Next door to the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John also plumbs the question of just who Jesus is. In John 18 we pause at a tragically odd rhetorical encounter between Jesus and a jaded politician:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

“‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’

“‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’

“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

“‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

“Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

“‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate.”

Again, a politician attempts to untangle a complex situation. And when Pilate asks Jesus who he is, Jesus parries with a question of his own. “Is that your own idea?” Pilate, whose cynicism almost drips from this passage, probably sighed as he said, “am I a Jew?” In other words, he answered, “how should I know? I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this debacle. Another day, another angry people group to keep contained for the empire.” When Pilate nearly smirks, “ah, so you are a king, then!” Jesus merely replies – “you say so.”

But then, quite quickly, subtly, brilliantly, Jesus slips the dynamic on its head: instead of this being a question of whether or not Jesus was an insurrectionist challenge to the empire, it becomes a question of whether Pilate is on Jesus’ side.

“Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus is inviting Pilate, not to support insurrection against the empire, but to be on the side of truth: to be on the side of Christ.

And the cynic, who sees only dynamics of power, or promotion, or gain, sneers, “what is truth?”

“Who is this about whom I hear such things?”

“Who do the crowds say that I am?”

“Are you the king of the Jews?”

“But who do you say that I am?”

“What is truth?”

Two thousand years later, and the Christian faith hasn’t really changed. It doesn’t matter whether you attend to the scriptures in a Latin mass or on a seeker sensitive mobile app, there is no dodging the most basic question of the Christian faith:

Who do you say that I am?

Discipleship follows; all theology flows subsequently. But it all begins here, and you don’t have to have a single Bible verse memorized, you don’t have to know the words to “Amazing Grace,” you don’t have to know any classic church jokes or sermon illustrations: the most basic affirmation of the Christian faith is the answer to this question: you are the Messiah. That is an assent of faith. That is a proclamation of who God is. You don’t have to have a seminary degree to affirm it. A world leader, a Kindergartener, a tech innovator, a remote tribal leader may all hear this question and affirm: you are the Messiah. Or they all may shrug and ask, “what is truth?”

And this question – “who do you say that I am?” – is in the forefront again. For all the discussion in the United Methodist Church on human sexuality, there is a five-alarm fire on this most basic question of the Christian faith. How you answer this question doesn’t just determine if you’re United Methodist; it is a simple line of the Christian religion.

And you may be a decent person, a responsible citizen, a caring neighbor, a gifted leader, but friend, if you answer this question in any way other than, “you are the Messiah, you are the Christ, you are the Son of God – not just as I experience God, but as God actually is and affirms at the Transfiguration,” then you may be a valued colleague and precious human, but you do not affirm the Christian faith. You affirm a general spirituality, a unitarian/universalist sentiment, but not the faith that Jesus described as hard, costly, and simple.

Recently an ordained Elder in good standing in the United Methodist Church verbalized what many laypeople know is not uncommon belief among United Methodist clergy. In a kind of un-credo, a statement of what is not believed, the Rev. Roger Wolsey declared the following:

“Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. God didn’t write the Bible. Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ). Christianity isn’t the only way for humans to experience salvation.”

Wolsey peppered these declarations with other statements that are not up for theological debate or would garner widespread consensus: racism is a sin. Women are equal with men. Faith and science aren’t incompatible. But we are compelled to rewind to his opener.

Jesus isn’t God.

Who do you say that I am?

Christianity isn’t the only way.

What is truth?

Two thousand years later, and the Christian faith hasn’t really changed.

Wolsey concludes his manifesto in praise of progressive Christianity with the statement, “I do believe that Jesus was divine (in the way that you and I are), and that he’s the 2nd [sic] person of the trinity. Christians rightfully honor and celebrate Jesus as a unique and fully incarnate manifestation of God. I don’t believe that he’s literally God (at least not what most people tend to mean by that word). We live and move and have our being in God, so did Jesus. The trinity is a beloved Christian poem of who God is to us. But poems don’t literally define things.”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

There is plenty to debate theologically. What we answer about who Jesus is simply isn’t one of those things.

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”

This isn’t a Methodist question; it’s a question for Pilate and Peter, for Popes and Protestants, for everyone who lives and breathes.

Who is Jesus? If we don’t agree on this, we can’t possibly have a united Methodist Church.

Who do you say he is? What in your life testifies to that belief? Are you ready to take up your cross?

It is not an easy or convenient faith. But it is the path of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. 

Elizabeth Glass Turner is a frequent and beloved contributor to Good News. In addition to being a writer and speaker, she is Managing Editor of www.WesleyanAccent.com. 

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Perspective e-Newsletter