Who, where, and with whom?
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 (NRSV)
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of God’s goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
Mark 8:27-37 (NRSV)
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.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. 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.’
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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
In my final months in California, Al, a long-time member of the congregation I served there, died unexpectedly. While the pastor was on sabbatical, it was my ministerial responsibility to cultivate a funeral service with his family. On the day of the funeral, the sanctuary was packed – standing room only. His wife assembled a cadre of friends and colleagues to eulogize Al. Someone from the university administration where Al taught for many decades spoke of Al’s contributions to university life through his many years directing the student internship center. A colleague from the psychology department spoke of Al’s scholarly contributions to the field of social psychology. Some spoke of Al’s contributions to NASA through his study of the psychological effects of long-term space travel. The director of the SETI Institute spoke of Al’s keen insight into the social implications of the search for extraterrestrial life. A member of the church spoke of Al’s deep commitment to the well being of his faith community. Al’s family spoke of him as a loving husband and father and uncle.
And after the service ended and we all gathered for refreshments, I listened to people from Al’s varied communities speaking to one another about Al. “I had no idea Al was a consultant for NASA,” his church friends said. “I didn’t know Al was a church-going man,” Al’s academic colleagues commented. “I had no idea Al wrote so many books,” others exclaimed. “I only knew Al when we were much younger, I had no idea he had such a large family now.” “I never heard Al mention his work on the search for extraterrestrial life!”
Everyone knew the same man, but all seemed to know remarkably different versions of Al. Not until his memorial service did his many and varied communities converge to share their diverse perspectives on the life of this remarkable man, who tended to want to hear more about others than he wanted to talk about himself.
As I witnessed in Al’s memorial service, significant others from varied times and places in a person’s life, see that person very differently, witnessing their presence in the world through varied vantage points. When we asked those who eulogized him, “Who was Al?,” the responses we heard were remarkably diverse – all different, all true, many surprising even to those who knew him well.
Alan Culpepper notes, “In an ancient Near Eastern culture, one’s identity was determined in community. One looked to significant others, not inward, to find one’s identity.” It’s no so different today, though we often deny the fact of our socially constructed identity with modern myth of individualism. One’s identity is determined in community. We come to know who we are largely through the eyes of others.
So when Jesus gathered his disciples around him that day and asked, “Who do you say that I am?,” it’s more complicated than it seems.
“Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
“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!’”
The question isn’t a test to see if they had been paying attention or could get the “right” answer. It’s obvious from the intensity of this text that there’s something more to it than that.
The question of Jesus’ identity has been posed many times leading up to this moment in the Gospel of Mark:
After casting out an unclean spirit in the synagogue, “They were all amazed, and kept on asking one another, ‘What is this?...He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him?’” (1:27)
After he heals the paralytic man and forgives his sins, the scribes questioned, “Why does this fellow speak in this way?...Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And the people who witnessed it were all amazed and said, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (2:7, 12)
When he broke bread at the table with tax-collectors and sinners, the scribes asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” (2:16)
When the crowds were gathering in droves, his family went out to restrain him because people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” (3:21)
When he stilled the winds and waves threatening to overturn the disciples at sea, they all asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41)
When he returned home to his own synagogue, his friends and neighbors said, “Where did this man get all this?...Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (6:2-3)
“But who do you say that I am?,” Jesus asks the disciples at Caesarea Philippi.
It’s more complicated than it seems.
“Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
“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. 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.’”
The question Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?,” it’s not an ahistorical question, then or now. It matters where you are, and with whom, when this question comes to you.
In the original context, it is not inconsequential that Mark sets this scene in the villages around Caesarea Philippi. By the First Century, Caesarea Philippi had become a center for the worship of the Roman Emperor, named in honor of Caesar Augustus. It was a locale epitomizing blasphemy to the minds of First Century Jewish people – Caesarea Philippi, where Caesar was worshiped and shrines were built to the Greek god Pan. It was a location pregnant with religious and cultural tension.
“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?’”
Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah,” was more troublesome than it now appears. “Messiah,” literally “anointed one,” has taken on a lot of religious baggage over the centuries. But, according to Pheme Perkins, “Scholars have no evidence that ‘the anointed’ designated a specific figure, since persons could be hailed as being anointed in a variety of contexts. Anointing represents God’s affirmation that the prophet, priest, or king is the divinely chosen leader of the people.”
As they entered the villages around Caesarea Philippi, deeper and deeper into this center of worship to the Roman Emperor, we hear Peter’s words a bit differently to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
“You are the anointed one of God, not the Emperor! You chosen one of God. You are our prophet, our priest, our leader. We’re in this with you.”
And as they entered the region of Emperor worship, if we read between the lines in Jesus’ response to do a little paraphrasing, it might sound something like: “Yes, Peter, and in a place like this, that kind of answer is going to get you and me both killed.”
“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.’” For what will it profit you or anyone else to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?
Who we are today as a congregation has been shaped generation after generation by how the people of Old Cambridge Baptist Church answered the question: “But who do you say that I am?”
The response to this question cannot be captured in the words of the ancient Creeds or in the myriad systematic theologies produced through the centuries of the church or even in the text of Scripture. It matters where you ask the question, and with whom.
It’s not just a question about the identity of the person Jesus. It is an invitation to look around you, take in your surroundings, notice those whose lives are on the line in your midst—those with their backs against the wall—to become aware of the dynamics of power and oppression, to imagine the possibilities for the future and then the question comes from Jesus once again: “Who do you say that I am—in this time, in this place, amid the pressing concerns of your community, your planet—who do you say that I am now?”
People have responded to this question in a myriad of ways:
Some respond with a confession of faith, believing Jesus to be the one who would save them from their sins in a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-by-and-by kind of way.
Many disciples through the centuries responded to this question by saying that Jesus is the guardian of the status quo, propping up systems of oppression and violence from the Roman Empire of old to the U.S. Empire of todays neo-colonial domination.
Others have answered Jesus’ question by saying that Jesus is one to be “believed in” for economic prosperity or for therapeutic salve for our wounds when life gets rough.
But this isn’t quite how you experienced Jesus, is it?
Again and again, you heard the call through the generations of Old Cambridge Baptist Church: “Who do you say that I am—in this time, in this place, amid the pressing concerns of your community, your planet—who do you say that I am now?”
In the 1960s, you said, “You are the Messiah, the one anointed by the Divine as liberator—a racial minority savior standing on the side of racial minorities as liberator of a people with their backs against a wall, and we will follow you full-fledged into the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Who do you say that I am?”
In the 1970s, the community here at OCBC said, “You are the anointed one, leading us to stand on the side of peace when the human and financial waste of war threatens to decimate, and we will follow you into anti-war activism.”
And again, “Who do you say that I am?”
And OCBC said, “You are Christ Sophia, the embodiment of holy wisdom that transcends the gender of Jesus, and we will follow you to challenge gender biases and the diminishment of women’s lives in our society and houses of worship.”
“But now, who do you say that I am?”
In the 1980s, you said, “You are the queer Christ of God who leads us to embrace the gifts brought into our lives by LGBTQ people, and we follow you into the practice of radical affirmation for those on the margins.”
“But who do you say that I am?”
And you said, “You are the one, showing us the way to build a sanctuary for the most vulnerable citizens of the earth – those with no home to go back to and no papers of citizenship – and we will follow you in sheltering from harm those fleeing persecution and violence the world over.”
And today, as you are invited to the Table of Grace, the question is posed once again – not because you didn’t answer it correctly the first time, but because a new response is demanded in every era, in each new place, in the midst of a journey into an unknown future, full of possibility. Where you sit this day, with those whose bodies surround you, in the midst of this time and place, amid the profound challenges we face in the world right now: “Who do you say that I am?”
 R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwis, 2007), 267.
 Pheme Perkins, “The Book of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. XI, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995),622.