Who is Jesus?
Sermon at All Saints, Coddington, Trinity 15
James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38
Have you ever wondered why the four gospels are so different, and what makes them different? Mark’s gospel differs mostly because it was intended for an audience of Romans and because that audience is treated to a secret, the so-called Messianic secret. You and I are not surprised to learn at the end of Mark that Jesus is the Son of God. But who says Jesus is the Son of God? Not Jesus. When people in Mark’s gospel say “You must be the son of God,” Jesus says “Tell no-one: do not let on.” And when the crowds who follow Jesus get excited and start talking about the “son of God,” Jesus retreats into the wilderness, or else jumps into a boat and escapes across Lake Galilee. Obviously for Mark the identity of Jesus is an issue.
Today’s gospel reading marks a pivotal point in the question of who Jesus is. Jesus raises the question with his disciples. “Who do people say I am?” and then “who do you say I am?” Peter speaks unequivocally. “You are the Messiah or the Christ,” that is “the Anointed One.” Our author is gradually revealing – to his largely Roman audience – the identity of a remarkable Jewish itinerant preacher. Only at the end of his gospel does he quote a Roman NCO as saying “truly this man was the son of a god.”
Our gospel author is on difficult ground. He wants his readers to understand that Jesus was far more than a wonder-worker and itinerant preacher. However, he would frighten a Roman readership if he were to use Son of God language: that was reserved for the imperial cult of Rome. The emperor Octavian had accepted the title Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, so anyone acknowledging another son of God would be seen as a political dissident. That, by the way, was the usual ground for the persecution of Christians – they weren’t a religious threat but were seen as a political one.
Mark steered a careful course, beginning with Jesus picking up the baton from his cousin John, the Baptiser, and then being shown – to his disciples at least – as the fulfiller of Jewish hopes, then the victim of a political conspiracy by Jewish authorities and finally recognised by his executioner, a Roman NCO, as “the son of a god” – and we, his readers or hearers, know that this is our God.
Now, you may find this historical background interesting, but we should not miss the present day implications of Mark’s historical dilemma for our own lives. For Mark and for us, the Jewish Messiah is not a matter for Jews alone, nor is the Messiah about narrowly personal religion. In fact, Jesus was very critical of religious practice that ignored the social, economic and political dimensions of God’s domain. On the other hand, he experienced the pull of those who wanted armed insurrection, the removal of the occupying forces in his country, but his planned, triumphal entry into Jerusalem as God’s anointed was the antithesis of kingly and political might. Neither wholly political and secular, nor narrowly religious and pious, Mark portrays Jesus as the hero of an action story, a man of few words but lots of deeds. Mark’s Jesus proclaims the arrival of God’s domain, the establishment on earth of life as God would have it be. The poor and downtrodden have hope, the blind are made to see, the deaf hear, the wealthy are confronted with the impediment of wealth in their lives, leaders are challenged to serve their people, children are cherished not just by their parents but by society generally, and the economy is regulated justly. Mark’s Jesus is no starry-eyed mystic, nor is he a violent revolutionary. Standing in the tradition of the prophets of old, he demands justice, freedom from oppression, healing, love of neighbours near and far – and he knows that, in the end, we live in hope and expectation that God will judge us on our readiness to live our lives as citizens of God’s domain.