Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
September 16, 2012
Exodus 3:9-15; Mark 8:27-38
“Jesus Christ, Superstar”
A name can be a powerful thing.
My father was christened Nicholas Augustus Frescott.
He was named after his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather before him.
As the fourth generation first born male to be given the name Nicholas, my father had big shoes to fill, as he walked in the shadow of the hard-working, strong-willed men who came before him.
But my father never had the chance to be a Nicholas.
When he was a baby, his mother took to calling him “Bubby” – a nickname that sprung from her southern upbringing – and she and the rest of the family continued to call him “Bubby” for the first five years of his life.
And as fate would have it, when it came time to register my father for school my grandmother inadvertently reversed his first and middle names on the registration form.
So when his teachers called him by his middle name "Augustus" - and his friends started calling him "Gus" – my father didn't correct them because he didn't know that his given name was actually Nicholas.
At home he had always been Bubby.
At five years old my father had been given a new identity.
And he was Gus for the rest of his life.
In many ways my father was spared the pressure of having to live up to his name. When he heard the name Nicholas spoken in his house there was no confusion as to whether it was he who was being referred to, or his father, or his grandfather, or his great grandfather.
As Augustus he was allowed to forge his own identity rather than have one thrust upon him.
In the end he did turn out to be a strong-willed, hard-working man just like his predecessors but he did it without having to drag the weight of his name behind him.
When my father had his first son, he continued the tradition and named him Nicholas, and my brother Nicky in turn named his first son Nicholas as well.
But my father will never be a Nicholas to me or to anyone who knew him, he’ll always be Gus, the WWII Navy vet who married Ruth, raised ten children and lived 79 happy years in this world.
A name can be a powerful thing.
A friend of mine told me a similar story of having been named Mary at birth but not realizing it until she entered school because her parents always called her by her middle name, Anne. She went through most of her life as Anne until one day as a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic she decided to reclaim the name Mary in an effort to create a new identity and leave her past behind.
But when she stood up in her AA meetings and introduced herself as Mary she said it didn’t feel right.
She said to me, “Anne had this rich history, but Mary did not.
At the AA meetings I couldn't introduce myself as Mary because Mary wasn't the alcoholic, Anne was.”
A name can be a powerful thing.
As Anne’s story demonstrates, “Names have memory, history, a story behind them” and it’s hard for us to peel off those layers once they’ve been applied.
Our names become a part of who we are.
God knows that names can be both revealing and limiting, which is why in our OT reading today, when Moses asked God, “Whom shall I say has sent me?” God did not respond to Moses with an identifiable name.
God instead answered with the cryptic, “I am who I am.”
God said to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors” – as if to say, ‘You will know me not by my name, but by the relationship I have had with your people, the relationship I have with you now, and the relationship I will continue to have with your descendents.’
We will know God through our experience with God, our relationship with God, because God cannot be hemmed in by a name.
But being the verbal creatures that we are, we have no choice but to use the language we have to attempt to name the God that we profess to believe in.
The Bible uses several names for God - Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim – as well as descriptive titles that we’ve come to use as names for God – Creator, Almighty, Father, and Lord.
But as we all know, language can be limiting.
The image that appears in our head when we hear the word Almighty, Lord, or Father tells us something about God, but imagining God in one way can make it more difficult for us to imagine God in other ways.
Which is why in our desire expand our conception of God, we’ve moved away from using descriptive titles such as these, and instead default to the old standby of calling God, “GOD”.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to imagine God in the way that we’ve come to know God, and this image can’t help but be superimposed with the personal, familial, and cultural limitations, biases, and baggage that we carry with us.
Given this, it should not come as a surprise to us that a recent study done by Baylor University researchers discovered that Americans believe in four different and distinct Gods. The distinctions are drawn according to how we perceive God’s character, with some believing in an Authoritarian and Rigid God, others a Benevolent and Merciful God, others a Critical and Angry God, and others still a Distant and Impersonal God.
I’m reminded of an Adult Ed discussion that I facilitated at a UCC congregation years ago. This was a congregation that was not accustomed to discussing issues of faith or personal beliefs in public. One woman, in her late 8o’s, shared that she believed in an all-powerful, perfect God, and this God would not lessen itself by sharing power, therefore she did not believe that the Holy Spirit or Jesus were a part of God. After sharing her thoughts, the woman sitting next here, also in her late 80’s said, “Edna, I’ve known you for 50 years, and we’ve been a part of this church together for 50 years, and I had no idea you were a Unitarian!”
If we have such varied and distinct images of God, even though God defies our attempts to name God, then it stands to reason that we would also carry with us a multitude of images and understandings of Jesus.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus invites the disciples to answer the question,
“Who do you say that I am?”
Because then, just as now, people were just not sure what to make of him.
How would you respond to Jesus question?
Who is Jesus to you?
Is he a prophet, a great teacher or leader, a miraculous healer, a political revolutionary, the Prince of Peace, The Son of God, the Savior of all humankind, all of the above?
The gospels give us a glimpse into the life of Jesus but the four writers of the gospels project four different images of Jesus, each with their own unique shading and detailing. This is understandable, given that the gospels were written many years apart by men with different backgrounds and different agendas to audiences with different understandings of who this man named Jesus actually was.
This is what do know about Jesus:
He was a carpenter’s son from a tiny backwater town called Nazareth.
His family and friends knew him as Jeshua, a fairly common Hebrew name which means “God saves.”
The Nativity stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary and Joseph were given divine instructions to call their son Jeshua, for he was destined to save the people of the world from sin.
The gospel of Matthew also tells us that in accordance with the prophet Isaiah, Jesus would also be known as Immanuel – meaning “God with us.”
Once again, a name can be a powerful thing.
The Gospel of John is full of proclamations made by Jesus himself in reference to his identity. “I am the light of the world”, “I am the truth and the way”, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
And it is John’s gospel that we hear John the Baptist boldly declare,
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the Son of God”
But while the disciples in John’s gospel seem to have a front and center seat to the arrival of the one, true Messiah, the divine savior and liberator of the world, the disciples as portrayed in Mark’s gospel appear to be wandering in the dark.
Which is understandable, given that Mark’s gospel was written some 30-50 years before John’s, to a community that was still trying to make sense of this itinerate prophet, this great teacher, healer, and leader who rose to fame and then inexplicably got caught up in a spiral of political infighting and betrayal that ultimately led to his death.
It wasn’t supposed to end that way.
So Mark wrote his gospel in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” …to tell his readers that yes, it was supposed to end that way.
Mark’s readers, like the disciples in his gospel, were expecting a different kind of Messiah - the one foretold in the ancient Jewish texts.
They were expecting a powerful King, or a political revolutionary, or a cosmic warrior to rise up from among them and to overthrow the regime of their oppressors, and Jesus seemed to fit the profile.
He was working with the poor, the sick, the widowed, and the orphaned, all the folks who held no power in society, and he was speaking out against those who did hold the power. He said things like, “the meek shall inherit the earth” and “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” – these are the things that a messiah would say!
When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded with the right words. He said, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one who has come to save us” …but Peter didn’t yet understand that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah he had imagined.
Jesus was the kind of Messiah who was destined to save through sacrifice, he was destined to lead through service, he was destined to give life to others by losing his own life.
That just didn’t make sense to those expecting an invincible Savior.
It didn’t make sense to Mark’s audience.
It barely makes sense to us.
It makes some sense to us because we have Passion Plays and Easter Sunday services and gold and silver crosses that we hang around our necks.
We know how the story is supposed to end because it’s the only version of the story that we know.
But to Jesus’ disciples who saw the cross as a device of unspeakable torture and death, and who longed to lift themselves up out of the mud and to laud power over others for a change, the idea of following a suffering servant who was destined to die was not the revolution they had signed up for.
It’s not one that many of us sign up for either.
We follow Jesus’ teachings and we do our best to walk in this world as he walked in his, but few of us are willing to follow him to the cross, to lose our life to gain life.
Few of us truly understand what it means to actually do that – we don’t understand what it means to lose our life, to give up all that we’ve known, to live in this world in a different way.
But that’s okay.
Because this is not a competition to see who can be the best disciple in the shortest amount of time.
This is a life long journey of small changes and radical leaps that inch by inch and mile by mile move us closer to Jesus, and closer to being the person, and the community, that God has called us to be.
Whoever Jesus is to you – a great prophet or teacher, a political revolutionary or miracle worker, the Son of God or the Son of Man, human or divine – it doesn’t matter what brought you through the door, it only matters that you came.
You responded to something that this man named Jesus said or did, because it tugged at some longing inside your heart.
And this morning you got up, got dressed, and came here, rather than do the thousand other things that you could be doing, because you felt a need or a desire to discover what that longing is, and to do it in community.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Pay attention to how you respond to this, because a name can be a powerful thing.
I invite you to linger on this question after worship and in the days to come, and to ask yourself, “Who is Jesus to me?”, and ask each other, “Who is Jesus to you?”
You just might be surprised at some of the answers that you hear.