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Sunday 21st August, 2011
Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10
St Matthew 16: 13 – 20
Jesus said to the disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
St Matthew 16: 15
Jesus stands here on these steps, looking into our eyes, soul and mind, and asks
his disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Jesus stands with patience,
sympathy and, as with the woman at the well, with penetrating insight. There
is no looking away, no place to hide and no help from others. For a moment, a
single moment, it is you and Jesus alone. He asks, ‘But who do you say that I
am?’ In the Church community, we can learn from the faith and insight of
others but whatever we hear or read there is a moment when we have to answer
for ourselves, on our own. If you are uncertain what you believe or how you
would express your belief, if you have more questions than you have answers –
more doubts than points of firm faith, if you struggle to come to any conclusion,
then, at the very least, take comfort from the fact that from the very earliest
days, from Jesus’ first disciples, and for the past two thousand years, people
have wrestled with this basic question. I once heard it said that for every hard
question there is an easy answer, which is usually wrong. There is no easy
answer to Jesus’ question.
One of my favourite poets is the Welsh priest R S Thomas. In much of his
work, Thomas wrestles with the illusiveness and silence of God, but in his short
poem ‘Nuclear’ he writes about Jesus. Thomas writes:
It is not that he can’t speak,
who created languages
but God? Nor that he won’t;
to say that is to imply
malice. It is just that
he doesn’t, or does so at times
when we are not listening, in
ways we have yet to recognise
as speech. We call him the dumb
God with an effrontery beyond
pardon. Whose silence so eloquent
as his? What word so explosive
as that one Palestinian
word with the endlessness of its fall-out?
R S Thomas uses paradox to great effect: Jesus is the most eloquent expression
of the silence of God. Mark Oakley once remarked, ‘For all your doctrinal
headaches, take Paradox.’ Thomas wrote of the silence of God and of Jesus,
the one Palestinian word and the endlessness of its fall-out. We may want to
speak of the silence of God, as did the psalmist, but what do we mean when we
describe Jesus as a Palestinian word? The poem could say what you want to
say or it could mean nothing because it lacks definition.
The Revd Klaas Hendrikse, a priest in the mainstream Protestant Church in the
Netherlands, the PKN, hit the news recently following the publication of his
new book, Believing in a Non-Existent God. There have been calls for his
removal by traditional Christians but, following a special meeting, the church
authorities decided that Klaas Hendrikse’s views were too widely shared among
church thinkers for him to be singled out. Hendrikse says he has ‘no talent for
believing in life after death’ and, according to the Free University of
Amsterdam, one-in-six clergy within the Dutch mainstream Protestant
denomination is either agnostic or atheist! Hendrikse’s fellow priest, Kirsten
Slattenaar, rejects the idea that Jesus was divine as well as human. She says, ‘I
don’t think [Jesus] was a god or a half god. I think he was a man, but he was a
special man because he was very good in living out of love, from the spirit of
God he found inside himself.’ Jesus asked, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Kirsten Slattenaar answered and said, ‘I don’t think you are a god or a half god.
You are a man, but a special man because you are very good in living out of
love, from the spirit of God you find in yourself.’ Simon Peter and Kirsten
Slattenaar seem to be worlds apart.
What of the apostle Paul? Before his conversion, Saul had been a persecutor of
the Church: he consented to the stoning of Stephen and, records the Book of
Acts, ‘he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men
and women, committing them to prison.’ After his conversion or spiritual
encounter with the Risen Christ, Saul, now Paul, became one of the most
devoted followers of Jesus and it would not be unreasonable to argue that
Christianity owes not only its character but very existence to the work of Paul.
How would he have answered Jesus? Based on his many letters, Paul’s answer
is ambiguous. In his Letter to the Church at Rome, Paul says that Jesus is
‘descended from David according to the flesh’ and ‘designated’ the Son of God
at the time of His Resurrection. In other words, Jesus is adopted as Son of God
at the time of His Resurrection. With due respect to the apostle, that is a
heresy! In his Letter to the Church at Philippi, St Paul describes Jesus as ‘in
the form of God’, ‘equal with God’ and pre-existent, that is, with God before
His birth on earth. Yet, in this letter, Jesus is never described as the Son of
God: the metaphor has changed! In the Epistle of James, Jesus is the Lord of
glory. ‘Glory’ here means the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. In the Epistle
of James, Jesus is Yahweh amongst His people. To what extent Jesus is fully
human, James does not say and St Paul’s metaphors do not appear at all. In the
Gospel of John, Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God and the Word made flesh:
more metaphor!
It is not until the fifth century, in other words, some four hundred years after
Jesus’ death, that the Church defines Jesus in a doctrinal statement and that
statement remains the Church’s official view to this day. Had Jesus stood
before the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD and asked, ‘But who do you say that
I am?’, they would have said this:
You are the one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the
same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God
and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial
[co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and
consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things
like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according
to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born
of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one
and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two
natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the
distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but
rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one
Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but
one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus
What Jesus would have made of that I do not know! In short, the Church
believes that Jesus is fully human and fully God and this statement is an attempt
to explain a perfect union of difference natures. Charles Wesley did not
understand this. In his Christmas hymn, Hark! the herald angels sing, we have
that memorable line, Veiled in flesh the Godhead see: veiled in flesh? Is He
not fully human? Veiled in flesh is a well-documented ancient heresy!
In Islam, Jesus is a prophet, a very significant one. In a dream, the Prophet
Muhammad is taken by Gabriel on a horse to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
and is greeted by Abraham, Moses and Jesus. For Muslims, Jesus is not a twonatured Person but a spiritual giant who stands alongside Abraham and Moses.
Jesus stands here: he asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Each successive generation, on its own terms, using its own philosophy and
language, tries to define Jesus. In the Bible, we have different language and
perspectives from the writers of the four gospels, Paul and James and we have a
quite different philosophy and language applied to Jesus in the fifth century.
Not a single one of those statements is necessarily wrong but, most crucially,
every single metaphor or doctrinal statement is a human construct of its time.
It is right that we respect those who have gone before, that we listen to their
insights and let ourselves be inspired by their faith and witness, but, it falls to us
to speak of Jesus according to our philosophical thought and using our own
The Church in the West, never mind the Church of Scotland, is in mortal
danger. We do not live in the pre-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment age: the
scepticism of David Hume is here to stay. In the twenty-first century postmodern society, the philosophy and language of the fifth century is going to
persuade no one. The response of the churches, ‘like it or lump it’, is not an
effective evangelical strategy. It is a tragedy of the greatest order that the
community committed to the life, teaching, death and faith of Jesus of Nazareth,
that most beautiful of human beings, has got itself into a position where it is
considered anti-intellectual, superstitious, literalistic, self-righteous,
judgemental, bigoted, sexist and homophobic! Many young or midlife
professionals are embarrassed to tell colleagues and friends that they go to
church because of the assumptions they believe their colleagues will make
about them. Many, many people speak of their spirituality, their spiritual
journey, but would never turn to Christianity. The biblical scholar, Marcus
Borg, says ‘The greatest obstacle to Christian evangelism in our time is
Christian evangelists.’
In answering the question of Jesus, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ the Church
today must take God out of the box. We must move from the philosophy and
language of centuries ago to that of our present day. We can listen to the
saints, learn from them, soak up their goodness, but use our own words to
express our experience of God and God in Christ. The Church has become a
religious body, a body of doctrine, instead of a spiritual organism, a place and a
people where encounter with the spiritual is both mystical and rational. The
Church is an institution which gives a privileged authority to tradition but must
now learn to acknowledge the healthy place of scepticism and shy away from
claims of absolute truth: we are on a journey and God, Who is the centre of all
things, is beyond our best definitions. In my own faith journey, what made the
most impact and the greatest difference to me was reading the Bible and, in
particular, the Gospels for myself. It was in that most intimate and private
encounter that Jesus came alive for me as never before, but no one in their right
mind will ever pick up a Bible or listen to a sermon or read a Christian blog if
they believe the Church to be what we, in truth, know it has become. The
dominant ideology in the West is the unrestrained accumulation of wealth: it is
destructive, divisive, poisonous, dehumanising and it is a sin. Jesus had much
to say about the poor. He had more to say about the poor and political and
economic oppression than He did about almost anything else, but would you
know it? He liberated women and children in the way He treated them, but
would you know it? He cared for the most broken in society, but would you
know it? The Church of Jesus of Nazareth should have much to say about the
way lives and livelihoods are being blighted, even destroyed, by debt, the
market and the obsession for growth, but would you know it?
To believe in Jesus means to give one’s heart to Him, to give the self at its
deepest level, to be like Him, live according to His values of compassion,
justice and humility, to bring those to bear each day, in each encounter, and to
live knowing that we live from the hand of God. God is not in the Church’s
doctrinal box: He inhabits living flesh; women, men and children. Jesus asks,
‘But who do you say that I am?’ For me, Jesus truly came alive through the
written word, the preached word and the faith of the Church. To Jesus, I say,
‘I’m not sure what words I would use to describe you, but whenever I look at
You or listen to You, my heart burns within me, I feel alive and at one with the
Source of Life, with the Holy. I have no doubt, God is in You and I can think
of no better way to live than to have You at the centre of my life.’
Now, it’s your turn to answer His question.