September 14, 2003   Shirley Macemon
  Who do you say that I am? Images of Jesus
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38


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, "I " Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."

How does our image of Jesus affect our image of ourselves?

I don't know if it is good news or not, but the Bravo channel is showing the West Wing. Every episode from the very beginning. I didn't start watching the West Wing until fairly late just last spring, at a time I had made a commitment that I wasn't going to get "hooked" on another television program. (I had a preconceived grudge against the West Wing. During its first season, I taught a class, Outrageous Women, Outrageous God, on Wednesday nights. A woman in my class (a good friend) left the class 30 minutes early every week just to get home to see the show. I felt slighted!

Anyway, during one episode[1] this past week, while a group of high school students tour the White House, the building is "crashed" – that means for security reasons, no one goes in or out. So, Josh, high up in the organization, is "stuck" with 20 or so teenagers during a lock-down. After a few question and answers, he herds them down to the lunchroom (apples and peanut butter have gotten me through many congressional bills…) and they continue a fairly informal discussion. Josh tries to move the kids off questions of terrorism, but the kids continue to return. Several senior staffers move through the lunch room, engaging the kids as they each come for snacks, each with very different views on terrorism.

But, the point of view that caught my attention came from Charlie, the President's personal aide. Charlie is a young African American man. He came in as one or another of the senior staffers were talking about the fact that "Muslim terrorists" weren't really Muslim, but followers of whatever extremist group they belonged to. Charlie made the point that these terrorists extremists weren't very different than kids that lived in poverty neighborhoods in any major city in the US. Faced with the choice of not having anything, or having identification with something, they chose identification. They chose identification with the force in their neighborhood that would make them strong. They didn't go around with their heads down, "I'm nothing, nobody…" They walk cool, Hey…I'm a Shark I have affiliation, I have power." Course, they aren't really very different than these high school kids on their way to college, who will identify with their college, their major, their "in" crowd, except, perhaps, in the way they wield their power.

Terrorists extremists are also really clear about affiliations, who they are, and from where their power comes. They model themselves on and become like the group they follow: "I'm the follower of a God (or the human that leads the group) who has really strict rules. I'm more holy because I follow those rules, this also gives me strict control over the people and things around me."

Who do you say that I am? Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah. This was a great revelation, but what did Messiah mean to Peter? It evidently didn't mean someone who would undergo suffering and be killed! Jesus took Peter to task when Peter rebuked him for mentioning this probable future. Even here, at Cesarea Phillipi, we have two contradictory images of Jesus. The Messiah, the Christ, – the Anointed One, who had been prophesied to bring the Jews out from under foreign rule, perhaps a Military savior. And in Jesus own words, suffering, an early death, and resurrection.

Ever since Peter, people have always seen Jesus, Jesus the Christ, through the lens of their own understanding. We identify with – resonate with some image of Jesus. Some Images are strong for us – they shape our understanding of who we are and whose we are.

Some, I suspect, leave us wondering. Despite what many might have us believe, people always see Christ and faith from their unique perspective. One age old question is: Are we informed by images of Jesus – that is, are we formed by our relationship with Jesus, or do we use images, stories and metaphors Jesus as excuses for our behavior? Going back to Charlie and the West Wing, if Jesus is our "gang leader" what are the images of Jesus that identify our "gang"? Savior, Master, Messiah, Son of God, come to mind. These are titles and terms that were rich with meaning when they identified Jesus 2000 year ago, and are rich with meaning and identification for those of us in the church – but what do they mean for someone outside the church? What other images do we use?

I'm a follower of Jesus. That is my identification, he is my "gang leader", if you will. I strongly resonate with some images of Jesus. Each of us resonates with some images and frankly, we avoid others. I know there are images we avoid in this congregation.

So, I want you to get in groups of 2 or three in the congregation, take out a hymnal and the Faith We sing, and find 4-5 really different images of Jesus. Try to find at least one that really resonates with you – one that makes your heart sing. Try to find at least one that might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

(Time to look, write down hymn images, share. Discussion – images shared with congregation from a wide variety of hymns)

We've shared royal and kingly images, Master and savior images, shepherd and pastoral, healing and peace-bringing, "outcast among outcasts", the military images of leading a strong army of God to victory over the forces of evil, doing battle....

My brother Bob frequently takes a different tack in the world. He will be in prison again this weekend. No, Bob is not an inmate. He hasn't broken a federal law. He is part of a Kairos team – an inter-denominational Emmaus Walk, specifically for inmates of the prison system. It is his second Kairos weekend. Last year, the 25 team members – that is, retreat leaders and support workers were from the Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist, and even Kairos branches of this ministry. The Kairos member had been an inmate for 17 years. released from the prison just months before this walk. While in prison, he was actively involved in showing God's love to the other inmates and to the correctional officers and staff. It was clear that he was loved and respected, and he was working for a nearby farmer now.

The Kairos talks, meditations and group prayers are for people that need agape love, but haven't ever experienced it - in fact some haven't experienced any love - even from parents. For people that can't believe that they can ever be forgiven for what they've done. For people that feel like they've disappointed God to a point that God has left them. For people that don't have any family members that care about them. For people that don't have contact with regular Christian volunteers.

Imagine the images of Jesus that Bob and his team showered over these men. Probably not the royal, triumphant glorious images. I'm frequently reminded of the quip, if Jesus is the answer, what is the question? If these men have been bereft of love, of forgiveness, of respect, of worth, then the Jesus they need is the Jesus that understands being a prisoner. The Jesus that sits down with the poor and outcasts of society, the Jesus that is tried, tortured, kept on death row, executed in front of the public and family. The Jesus that keeps on loving no matter what humanity throws at him.

The Jesus of Great compassion, Jesus, Lover of my Soul,

Bob didn't know what to expect from these men. I thought that I might feel scared, but I didn't. I decided to go in with an open mind and treat them just like I treat everybody else. I talked with them just like I talk with anybody. Our conversations covered many topics. I never asked about their crimes, or how long they had served, or how long they still had to serve. Some of them just told me anyway. All imaginable crimes were represented. Some men had been involved in church in their outside life. One was a preacher's kid. Another had studied at seminary. Another had read the bible multiple times - in English, Greek and Hebrew.

Many asked why Bob had come. He responded that he felt God had been preparing him for many hears. Specifically he mentioned that he had been drawn by scripture like Matt 15:26, Naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me...

As a musician , other musicians drifted over to Bob to check out his Tacoma Guitar and talk music stuff. He let anyone play his guitar that was interested. He had two other guitars that were available, so there was sharing music, too. He met some very spirit filled men that performed praise and worship music – two wrote music, some had instruments of their own in their cells, some didn't. During breaks, they played Christian songs with some inmates, some were fans of particular Christian groups, some were country Gospel, and other styles, Sometimes Bob just listened in amazement. He didn't expect to find the depth of Christian desire and longing there.

Bob leaves again this Thursday for a Kairos mission. I won't put words in Bob's mouth, but when he answers the question, "who do you say that I am", I suspect his answer includes "the one who showers loves, who forgives, who leads to service and mission, fills with Spirit, gifts with music, and gives strength for the Journey."

Who do you say that I am?


[1] This episode," Isaac and Ishmael", was the first aired after September 11, 2001.