Sunday, September 16, 2018

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

There is nothing quite like a good disguise.

And no where is this more obvious than in films. Think Tootsie (1982) where Dustin Hoffman plays a notoriously difficult actor who must dress as a woman in order to find work. Or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), where Robin Williams plays a divorced father who dresses up as a nanny to spend time with his children. Or Some Like it Hot (1959), where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon dress as women to escape the mob, or to lounge around with Marilyn Monroe. Both, really.

And disguises, of course, are not limited to famous actors putting on dresses. In The Parent Trap (1961), twins Susan and Sharon (both played by Hayley Mills) meet at Miss Inch’s Summer Camp for Girls and discover that they are literally “twins separated at birth.” Adopting the same hairstyle and mannerisms they switch places, a simple but effective disguise.

And there is the disguise we also call “slumming.” A famous example is Sir Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V (yes, I know it was a play before it was a film) where King Henry puts on the cloak of someone of lower rank and moves among his troops to learn how they feel about their king and the looming battle. He uses the not-very-convincing name Henry Leroy (French for Henry the king) and tells people he’s Welsh (well, he was once the Prince of Wales). I love the film, but recognize that it’s really just Sir Kenneth’s excuse to make the famous speech:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

That’s the closest I’ll ever get to the stage. I share all this because the reading Bob shared is all about disguises. Listen again:

On the way [Jesus] asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

It’s an odd little exchange, really. It appears almost word-for-word in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with the only real difference being a sort of conclusion added in Matthew whereby Jesus rewards Peter with the “keys to the kingdom.” Otherwise, they maintain the dialogue we heard this morning. There is no parallel in John—where there seldom is—with John’s Jesus being more vocal about who he is through a series of “I am” statements familiar to us.

But in our passage, Jesus wants to know what people are saying about him. In some ways, the disciples become a sort of focus group, sharing the most common responses they have heard. The first most common response is also the most unexpected: “Some say John the Baptist.”

Unexpected because Jesus and John the Baptist are together at the beginning of the gospels, John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, and John the Baptism even seems to help Jesus craft his early message (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”). Even Herod (who is responsible for the Baptist’s death) decided that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life, saying more about his remorse perhaps than any theological insight.

Others, the disciples then suggest, say Elijah. This suggestion is both logical and plausible: Elijah multiplied bread and oil for the widow of Zarephath, he raised her dead son, he confronted Baal in the same way Jesus confronted the Adversary. Elijah is even predicted to come at the last, “during the great and terrible day of the Lord.” The parallels are irresistible, and by the time Jesus is transfigured, Elijah will appear (with Moses) before Jesus in glory.

But he’s not Elijah. We know this because the focus group continues, as Jesus—unsatisfied with the answers so far—says “yes, but who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks first and for the rest and says “You are the Christ.” Mark remembers it as “the Christ, son of the living God” and Luke simply “the Christ of God.” With this, Jesus says “tell no one.”

I can tell you that a lot of sermon ink has been spilled on this statement “tell no one.” Most often it’s the contrast to John, the Jesus who introduces himself as “the light of the world” or the “Good Shepherd” or “the way, the truth and the life.” It’s hard to overstate the contrast, but it’s also hard to discount John’s recollection, since so many of these “I am” statements have brought so many to faith in Jesus. So we live with the tension.

I can also tell you that “tell no one” is a vain hope. If the somewhat thick-headed disciples can figure it out, then so can everyone in the next row of followers, and those who experience some miracle or healing. The disguise becomes increasingly thin until it’s no longer a disguise at all. Near the end of Mark, as the trial begins, he High Priest examines Jesus and says “tell me, are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus has finally embraced the spirit of John’s Gospel and says simply “I am.”

But the disguises will continue. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener asking “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me, and I will get him.” Two disciples have an extended conversation with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, only recognizing him when he breaks the bread before the meal. And again, after his death, the disciples are fishing and he appears on the beach, saying “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they say, and he encourages them to try fishing from the other side. Only in the context of the miraculous catch that follows, do the see it is Jesus, who then grills some fish and shares some bread and instructs them one last time.

And the disguises will continue. One of the most pervasive heresies in the early church was docetism, the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human at all, they it was merely ‘God-in-a-Jesus-costume’ that came to earth and walked among us. It seems a convincing way to explain all the miracles and all the wisdom, and it also became a simple way to explain the bodily resurrection: Jesus was never really here, just God visiting in the form of a man.

The problem with this idea was immediately obvious. It reduced the Christ-event to theatre, and it eliminated the vital link we have to God through the humanity of Jesus. It makes Good Friday, Easter and all the resurrection appearances false, along with very identity of the Lord and Saviour that continues to walk with us down to today.

Most importantly, the heresy denied Jesus his humanness, the very means by which he experiences the pain of human living and the suffering we experience in the face of death. The deep well of pain that God holds is only present to us if Jesus knew pain, if he felt betrayal, if he drew a last breath, and returned to God with the totality of human suffering. He can only save us because he knows that from which we need to be saved. He can only forgive us if he experienced our failure first hand.

And the disguises never end. The famous passage in Hebrews says “Don’t forget to entertain strangers—for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.” In Matthew 25, we are reminded that what we do for the least and last we also do for Jesus, perhaps the verse that most animates those who serve and seek to see Christ in others.

Imagining everyone in need as perhaps Jesus in disguise is a revolution in thinking—it creates a realm of concern and empathy and it destroys the very human impulse to serve only our kin and clan and those who can provide some sort of reward. Our service becomes a way to meet Jesus—it becomes a spiritual encounter—and an act of faith that returns him to our midst once more.

May we find Jesus in everyone we meet. And may God bless every act of kindness, Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home