Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies


Sunday 13th September

“Getting Personal: Who Do You Say Jesus Is?”
Mark 8:27-33

There comes a time when the relationships we have with people start to affect us deeply more than they did before (I wonder whether you’ve noticed). People start to get under your skin and while you can kid yourself that you can take or leave particular people – you actually find yourself thinking about them, trying to figure out ‘why’ for goodness-sake - because they begin to intrude more than we’re used to. And when this happens they demand that we face a fundamental question: “just what does this person mean to me.” – like it or not! It’s a watershed question in any human relationship, because once it’s asked, the relationship can never be the same. It’s a question that forces us either to move deeper in the relationship or acknowledge that there is distance between us. It forces us to search ourselves deeply decide what this other person actually means.

Well Jesus is forcing the issue in the story we have here in our Gospel reading from Mark. He is travelling with his closest disciples. They’d seen him do some amazing things: healing people’s diseases, casting out demons, feeding crowds of people from virtually nothing They’d been there as he was teaching powerful, life-changing truths. And I’m sure they’d been scared as he took on and challenged the political and religious leaders of his day.

At first, just a few people followed him, but later (we’re told) some seventy signed up as apprentices – disciples – but there would have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, on the fringe – eager to see what he’d do next and hanging on his every word. In recent weeks (with the help of St. John’s gospel) we’ve been thinking about the toughness of his teaching about being the bread of life - which put off some people from going on any further with him. Of course everyone had an opinion about Jesus. He evoked both admiration and disdain: loved by the poor; feared and hated by the establishment. Some would have said he was a saint; some accused him of being evil, or nuts (especially his own family, who thought he was mad). Everyone had something to say about Jesus. And he still fascinates, annoys, demands attention...

And so Jesus questions his closest followers – little by little. “Who do people say that I am?” Well they didn’t have to think much about that one. That’s an easy one. They heard what everyone else was saying. “Well Jesus some folks say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.

You see pretty much everyone was trying to figure him out, and they’d have relied on the only categories that made sense to them at the time. John the Baptist – well he’d been a local hero—calling the Jewish people to live righteously - and King Herod had put him to death. So some thought Jesus was John come back to life. Others believed that the great prophet Elijah who’d died centuries earlier would some day come back to life and lead Israel to victory over the Romans. (So no surprise there then!). Others thought he was a prophet—a great teacher who spoke plain truth to ordinary people. But that’s all second hand – once removed – and so Jesus digs a little deeper. “Yeah but who do you say that I am?”” It’s one thing to ask what other people think—it’s quite another to be asked what I think and feel and believe.

And there comes a time in every churchgoer’s life when we have to answer the same question about Jesus. Who do you say that he is?

And let’s make sure we understand, it’s not the preacher – it’s Jesus himself-who’s forcing the issue.  

(And it’s a question still being asked and debated over 2000 years later. Just who was or is this Jesus?)

One of my tutors from Oxford, Graham Tomlin (who was one of our speakers at the recent clergy school and has just been made Bishop of Kensington - wrote a book back in 2002 when I was just starting my theology degree called The Provocative Church (SPCK Publishing). He asked how we can evangelise those who are simply not interested in hearing what it is the Church has to offer – and his central question was this: ‘What would provoke such people to want to find out more’? His reflection was that people may not be looking for ‘forgiveness’ but they are often seeking help to live a ‘better and less superficial way of life’ – and to know where they fit in the big scheme of things. So the question that follows is ‘Do they find that people who go to church live in a discernibly different way?’ In other words are we being provocative? (in the right way, of course!) Do we awaken a desire for God in people?

Peter in his first letter says always be ready to give an answer to people who ask why you have hope - & he’s presuming that those looking on are going to be provoked to ask it. (And isn’t it encouraging that he can be right one minute and get things hopelessly wrong the next!). Tomlin argues that our role as Christians is to be signposts to another kingdom – and crucial to our witness is demonstrating a new ‘style of life’.

Yes but who do you say that I am? We have to face it – for the vast majority of something like 70% who might have ticked the “Christian” box in a recent UK Census – (a surprising figure for a so-called secular society in some ways), it’s clear that their allegiance was really only to a vague notion of belonging to the Christian religion rather than anything else – an unofficial Christianity – a kind of Christianity ‘Lite’ – meaning little more than what you want it to mean – perhaps with some sense of being a good person (however you define that)

So ‘what is Jesus is getting at do you think?

For us it certainly isn’t about being part of a so-called Christian country – it’s really not even about churchgoing, or doing good works or neighbourliness.

Peter’s answer went way beyond conventional ideas: “You’re the Messiah – the Christ.” “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for…”. Ah but hang on a minute.The Jews had been longing for a powerful military leader like their favourite king, David that would kick the Romans out of their country.

But Jesus had something a little different in mind than what was probably in Peter’s mind – not a political Saviour to deliver Israel from her enemies by military force – but someone who would usher in a whole new kingdom. Central to the gospel is the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection had brought about a completely new order where all the old divisions between people became secondary to following Jesus.

Graham goes on to say: This is the kind of teaching that is vital today. Only a strong sense of Christian identity – that I am a Christian before I am anything else – can sustain Christian witness in a competitive, brand- and image–conscious marketplace. ‘Christian’ isn’t a badge to justify causing further division – or another tribal grouping setting people apart as superior. Being ‘in Christ’ as the apostle Paul put it means becoming part of a community through which God wishes to serve and bless the world. It means a commitment to Christ’s way of love – and a calling to give oneself for others as Jesus himself did – as a servant, not a master.

‘Who do you say that I am? The willingness to let our Christian faith and identity be known  - here in the Uplands as over the hill in Waunarlwydd - is the true test of whether we really believe the gospel to be ultimately true, not just a private choice or hobby – like going to the gym – or like a secret belief in fairies or ghosts.

But who do you say I am? The question of whether we as Christians are prepared to go deeper – to be more up front about our faith – to adopt a more conscious, open and personal sense of Christian identity, is a crucial one for the survival of Christianity in our community here – with needy people close to us, let alone its survival in Wales or in Western civilization.

By calling us to a deeper relationship with himself, Jesus is painting a new picture of what the Christian life can be like if it’s a serious and radical lifestyle choice – not just a casual ‘brand allegiance’.

Okay so why then did Jesus forbid his disciples to tell anybody that he was the Messiah.

Well maybe because people need to find this out for themselves. God so wants us to know his Son in a personal way that changes us inside.

And because we need to understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is – to understand what we’re signing up for. He wasn’t going to be a spectacular, outwardly successful hero. This is a humble, patient, loving, peaceful Messiah – but a King nevertheless. Tom Wright reminds us that the word "Christ" is not a proper name, like a surname, and it doesn’t simply mean "the divine one." He says a better translation of "Jesus Christ" would be "King Jesus."

Christianity has always claimed to be a public matter with huge personal, social and political implications – not a private set of arcane rituals performed behind closed doors. 

So the question that every one of us has to deal remains. Who do you say Jesus is? Who do I...?. Simply a good teacher? Simply a man who lived and died a long time ago? Because if he is King Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, who suffered, died, and was raised from the dead,  and who now reigns eternally with God. Then oughtn’t we to bow the knee and acknowledge it? And live accordingly.