Who Are You?

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 8:27-38.


Not long ago Lee and I were relaxing in the Rectory after a very busy day. And, as we sometimes do when we’re just chillin’, we started to joke around, we started to get a little silly; and I started to spin out this wildly improbable tale of how strange my day had been and how many very odd things had happened and how I had triumphantly risen to them all. And Lee, of course, egged me on, asking just the right kinds of leading questions to see how far my imagination could take things – until finally I said something so far off the wall that she just stopped and looked at me and said “Who are you?” And I narrowed my eyes a little mysteriously and just grinned.

We used that question – Who are you? – as the comical game-stopper, the question too weird to be answered. But it is at heart a serious question. The question of Who, the question of identity, is central to the spiritual life. The question of Who, the question of identity, is the thread that ties together the three scenes in our Gospel drama today.

In the first scene of this drama, Jesus says to his disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am? and who do you say that I am?” The question of Jesus’ identity, the question of who Jesus really is and what Jesus really means, is the question that drives the entire Gospel of Mark. But it is a question that is not limited just to the biblical text: it is a question we each have to answer for ourselves as well.

Who is Jesus for you? Is Jesus the gentle shepherd, who carries you across the sands of life when you’re not able to walk for yourself? Is Jesus the stern judge who demands your best moral efforts and lets you know when you’ve fallen short? Is Jesus a political revolutionary, who came to start a peasant uprising in Judea, and who continues to inspire us to social justice and social change? Is Jesus Superman, the heavenly Son of God who came to earth disguised as a human so he could rescue us from ourselves? Is Jesus a great moral example, who was human like us in every way and shows us the right and good and proper way for us to live? Is Jesus God’s own Wisdom teacher, who not only speaks divine Wisdom but embodies it in his actions and person and life and death? Is Jesus your friend, who stands with you when you suffer and rejoices with you when you shine? Is Jesus the Risen One, the glorified humanity who broke the bonds of death and changed all lives forever? The church has said all these things about Jesus, to one degree or another, over two thousand years. But who is Jesus for you? Because who you think Jesus is will have a deep effect on who you think you will be when you follow Jesus.

That’s the theme of the second scene in today’s Gospel drama. When Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter answers “You are the Messiah.” And even though Peter gets the answer right, he still has a lot to learn about the kind of Messiah Jesus is. Jesus begins to explain that he must go to Jerusalem, confront the powers-that-be, and be rejected, tried, found guilty, tortured, and executed, and on the third day rise again. And Peter doesn’t want to hear that. Peter wants to hear that the Messiah will take the throne of David and reign forever – whatever else the various traditions of the Messiah had to say (and they said a lot), the one certain thing in all of them was that the Messiah would triumph and vindicate, not be rejected and put to death. To Peter, Jesus’ explanation of being Messiah just doesn’t compute; so he takes him aside and chides him for speaking so rashly, so out-of-character for who the Messiah is supposed to be. But Jesus says to Peter “Don’t be my Adversary! Don’t set your mind on merely mortal things, but fix your attention on the things that come from God.”

And for Peter, that is a challenge about his identity. Our sense of self, our sense of who we are, derives in large part from our aims and ideals and goals in life. We define ourselves in terms of what we’re striving for, where we think we’re going, who we think we’d like to be in five or ten or twenty-five years, or forever. The aims we have in life help determine how we make our decisions and choices here, in the moment; and the patterns of our decisions and choices reveal our characters, they make us who we are. When Jesus challenges Peter “On what things do you set your mind?” he is for all intents and purposes asking Peter “Who are you?”

And of course that question is not just for Peter alone. In the third scene, Jesus calls all his disciples, and the whole crowd, and Jesus teaches them “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.” When we hear these words today, we almost always think about biological “life,” and we think that it is a saying about martyrdom. But these words can also be about the inner “life,” the personal “life,” the soul, the self. These words can also be about our identity, about who we are. Jesus warns “If you try to save your self, you will lose your self”; if you cling too much to your own image of who you are, if you try to control too tightly the projection of your own identity, then you will lose it, then you’ll end up being controlled by everything that is not you. I wonder sometimes if we aren’t seeing that play out on a grand scale in our social life these days: if we are not clinging so tightly, defending so anxiously, our idea of the American self, the American dream, that we are ending up actually reducing and curtailing the rights and the obligations that make up the best of that American life. I wonder sometimes if we as a society are not letting our fears control us, and letting that make us less than we can be. Jesus says “If you hold on too hard, it will all slip away; if you try to save yourself, you self is what you will lose.”

But Jesus also says “If you lose yourself for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, then you will save it.” Who could you be for Jesus? If you could let go, right now, of all those parts of your self-image that hold you back – if you could release the fears, the anxieties, the memories of old hurts, the burdens of old shames, the guilts of hidden sins, all the ways you’ve told yourself you could never be more than you are now, all the warts you and you alone see when you look in the mirror by yourself – if you could lose all that right now, who then would you be? If you could give all that up to Jesus, and see yourself with all the love that Jesus sees you with, warts and all, then who in Jesus would you be? “If you lose yourself in me,” Jesus says, “you will find your true self.” Can you imagine right now who your true self could be?

So one way or another, each of the scenes in this Gospel drama comes down to the question Who are you? Who are you?, we ask Jesus; and Who are you?, Jesus asks us in return. Nothing is more important than knowing who Jesus is – and not just knowing Jesus as a character in scripture or a figure in church tradition, but knowing Jesus as he is with us in prayer and sacrament and service and mission, as he is with us in the faces of the people we love and care about and maybe need to learn more about and maybe even fear, as is with is in the people who love and care about and maybe need to learn more about and maybe even fear us. Nothing is more important than knowing who we are – and not just knowing ourselves in terms of our fears and limitations and failures, but knowing ourselves as the people of compassion and justice and mission and joy that Jesus knows us to be. Nothing is more important than Who.

Who are you? the Gospel asks today; and who are you willing to be in Christ?