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?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ -Mark 8:27-29
As I’ve been in conversation with students and friends over the last week, I’ve heard Jesus’ name used in a variety of ways. Just like the disciples, it seems that we often struggle to discern exactly who this Jesus is that we are invited to follow. Last week at Westminster Fellowship on Sunday evening (7:30-9:00–all are welcome!), we explored this question together. Having watched a variety of video clips and shared our own images and understandings of Jesus, what we discovered was a multiplicity of images and names, some well aligned and others in apparent competition. When asked, “Who is Jesus?” the list is as broad as this cloud of images:
Of course there is some truth to each claim. Of course we can offer critiques of each of these as well. If Jesus is simply my “homeboy,” what saving power does he bring? If Jesus is a “political advocate,” what does that mean for how we are supposed to live in our own political context? To say Jesus is “teacher” is true; he was a rabbi. But if his identity is limited to “teacher” it denies his divine role in our salvation history and undercuts the power of his sacrifice on the cross and his victory in resurrection. To say he is “my Savior” is good news, but our view can be expanded when we recognize that his saving power is not just for “me”. He is not simply “my Savior” but “our Savior.” Theologians have spent years dissecting and analyzing and critiquing Jesus.
When I read Mark’s gospel, I find a set of disciples constantly pondering and wrestling with this question. At least we know we’re in good company! In all of Jesus’ teaching and healing and calming the sea and breaking barriers, the disciples continue to ask, “Who is this?” Finally in the 8th chapter of Mark, Peter is able to respond, “You are the Messiah.”
Messiah literally means “anointed one.” In the Reformed tradition, we acknowledge the biblical tradition of anointing of prophets, priests, and kings. Jesus is prophet, the one who came to foretell and usher in a kingdom of justice and peace. Jesus is priest, the one who intercedes for us and prays for us. Jesus is king, the one whose kingship was embodied in servanthood.
Lest we allow Jesus to be simply who we want him to be, I wonder what it would really mean for us to proclaim, “You are the Messiah”? We would follow the prophet and engage in the unfolding of God’s kingdom here on earth. Why are you involved in that Saturday service project again? Why did you have dinner at Urban Ministries? We would follow the priest who taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” And we would follow the king by embracing a servant’s life, seeking to love and care for all those we meet. And when you met Jesus in the face of the stranger on the road and he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” you won’t fumble with a messy cloud of words but can lean on a conviction held fast in your heart and embodied in your life.