Each time a new member class joins the church in central Illinois where I formerly served, the newcomers discuss three questions with the ruling elders:
- » Who is Jesus Christ?
- » What does it mean for you to be Jesus’ disciple?
- » How do you plan to live out your faith in the world?
We would always warn them at the beginning of the class that these questions were coming. We tried to lower the class’s anxiety by making sure all the speakers gave their own answers to questions. After all, not many class members had spoken out loud about their faith in Christ very regularly. Many found the first question, in particular, quite challenging.
It’s a challenging question, but it’s not a new question. After all, Jesus once broached the topic with his disciples. He starts off by asking them, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)
The degree of difficulty for this one was not that high. It’s at arm’s length. Just report back what they’ve heard from others. We can assume the disciples accurately say what others believe, but those beliefs about Jesus aren’t particularly accurate: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets.
Which is not to say that the answers swirling around us today are much better. The Baylor Religion Survey asked about Jesus back in 2005, and received answers ranging from “Jesus is a fictional character,” to “Jesus was one of many messengers or prophets of God.” While 72 percent gave the more orthodox answer of “Jesus is the son of God,” more recent surveys from other sources indicate this percentage has likely dropped in the last decade.
Who do people say Jesus is? Some today look at him as a terrific teacher, but leave behind all miracles, the Resurrection and his divinity. Others might say that Jesus is basically a cosmic Santa Claus, answering our prayers and giving us whatever we want, as long as we are good little boys and girls.
Who do people say Jesus is? The church has taken numerous stabs at answering that question over the centuries. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Word of life, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, the chief cornerstone, the righteous Judge, the Chief Shepherd, and the Alpha and the Omega, not to mention the Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, and Lord.
There are many more or less faithful ways to answer the question, “Who do people say that Jesus is?” His disciples back then gave him some interesting answers; we disciples today give some interesting answers as well.
But Jesus must not be all that satisfied with all these answers, because he immediately asks his disciples (and us) a more penetrating question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) It’s no longer arm’s-length. It’s no longer about what others say. This question asks us to say out loud what we believe about who Jesus is.
When Jesus first posed the question, Peter said, “You are the Messiah.” He might have added that Jesus was the one the prophets had foretold, the one who had come to save Israel, the anointed one sent from God.
Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” As we look back on Easter and Pentecost, it’s a good time to take a cut at an answer. Maybe the last time you answered this question out loud was when you were in confirmation. Or maybe you are a teaching elder and haven’t articulated your faith since your totally-sanitized-to-make-sure-you-got-through-the-examination statement of faith.
Write down what you believe now. Better yet, have a conversation with someone about your answer. Not because you have to, but as an act of devotion — a statement of faith as an act of praise and worship.
Who do you say that Jesus is? He’s looking forward to hearing your answer.
CHARLES B. “CHIP” HARDWICK is director of theology, worship and education for the Presbyterian Mission Board Agency in Louisville, Ky.