Sunday, September 25, 2016

Phil Kniss: Jesus, you are...

Questions of Jesus
Mark 8:27-38

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This is the third of three Sundays we have reflected on
    the Questions Jesus asked.
    And he asked a lot.
    Last weekend at Retreat, on Saturday morning,
        Jane Peifer put Jesus’ questions on the screen—
            actually screen after screen after screen—
            a good portion of the 307 questions Jesus asked.
        It was remarkable to see them grouped together like that.

    One big impression from that list . . .
    Jesus cared a lot about what people thought of him.
        Oh, not in any insecure, ego-driven kind of way.
        He wasn’t worried about what people thought.
        He wanted to know what they believed about him as a person.
        He pushed people to declare where they stood.
            Whether they were with him, or not.
        His questions were the kind
            that provoked people to think deeper, to think again,
            and maybe—just maybe—come out and say,
                what they already knew in their gut was true,
                but were afraid to say out loud.
        Questions like, “Why do you call me good?”
            and, “Why are you asking me?”
            were another way of saying,
            “You could be asking a hundred different rabbis.
                What do you believe about me,
                    that you come to me with your question?”

    This thing of asking others about himself, happened over and over.
    None was more poignant,
        then when he directed it at his own disciples—
        the 12-plus who had followed him day after day.
        They witnessed his deeds, his acts of power.
        They heard his teachings.
        They saw him spar with the authorities.

    So one day, Jesus turned to them . . .
        And first, asked an easy, harmless question.
            “Who do people say that I am?”
                Tell me what you’ve been hearing.
        And the disciples were right on it.
        They knew this one.
        Like popcorn, the answers came back.
            “Some say John the Baptist.”
            “Oh, and some say Elijah.”
            “And others, they say one of the prophets.”

    Jesus probably nodded, paused, said, “hmm” . . . and then,
        “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”

    Now the next thing in the text, is Peter’s ready answer.
    But I don’t think it came immediately.
    These crisply-written Gospel stories leave out a lot of detail,
        leave a lot for the imagination to fill in.
        I imagine . . . there was silence for a while.
        I think all the disciples knew the weightiness of that question,
            and their answer.

    Jesus had reeled them in like a master fisherman.
        They were on the hook.
        They had taken the easy bait—what do others say?
        Now, they were facing a moment of truth with their rabbi:
            What do you say?
                Are you following me, because I intrigue you as a rabbi?
                Are you following me, because of the miracles?
                Are you following me, because you have nothing
                    better to do with your life right now?
            Who do you say that I am?

They knew what answer Jesus was fishing for.
They were all thinking it . . . what Peter was about to say.
    But they hadn’t yet dared to put it to words.
    Because they knew what it meant,
        if Jesus really were the Messiah.
    At least, they knew what they thought it meant.
        It meant they were following the person
            who would soon confront the awful power of the Empire,
                and all its economic, political, and military structures.
        And they would be Jesus’ front line—his defense and offense.

So I imagine, as Jesus’ question hung in the silent air,
    they looked at each other,
    they looked at their feet,
    and then . . . they all looked at Peter.
        If anyone would have the nerve, it would be Peter.

And Peter gave the 4-word answer
    they were anticipating, and dreading: “You are the Messiah.”

And Jesus’ response only added to their dread, I imagine.
    He said, “Don’t tell anyone else . . . Yet.”

And then, as the story goes, he started teaching them
    about the necessity for his suffering and death,
    but that after three days he would rise.
    And they didn’t get it—even Peter.
    He took Jesus aside and tried to straighten out Jesus’ thinking
        about what the job of Messiah entailed.

The story moves on, with more interactions and confrontations.
    But in the Gospel of Mark,
        that one piercing question of Jesus, and Peter’s response,
        form a kind of pivot point,
            connecting everything before it,
            with everything after it.

And I want to suggest this morning,
    that Jesus is still asking that question
    of those who claim to follow him.
And that’s us.
    And our answer to that question
        is just as weighty, and just as risky,
        and just as life-transforming.

How would I answer that question?
    If Jesus stood before me, looked at me face-to-face,
        and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” how would I answer?

    Yes, I make the claim, without hesitation,
        that I am a follower of Jesus.
        It sounds so good, so right, and reasonably safe,
            to say I am a follower of Jesus.
        But if I’m following . . . why?
        What do I believe about Jesus,
            that I would be willing to pattern my life after him?
            that I would be willing, even, to worship him?
            that I would call him Lord over my life,
            that I would confess my complete allegiance to his cause,
                and to his reign on the earth and in heaven?

    And how would I answer
        if Jesus asked me that question directly?
            “Who do you say that I am?”

Let me get a bit personal.
    I’ve thought a lot about this question.

Eight years ago I was invited,
    along with 24 other Mennonite pastors
        and biblical scholars and church leaders,
    to prepare an 8,000-word essay essentially answering that question,
        and gather at a weekend conference at Laurelville,
        sharing these 10-12 page papers with each other.
    It was a powerful and memorable weekend.

The paper has been in my files ever since.
    And I thought about it again,
        as I pondered this question of Jesus in Mark 8.
    I won’t share it all in this sermon,
        or we’ll be here into the Sunday School hour.
    I’ll certainly share the paper with whoever wants to read it,
        but let me lift out a few highlights.

When I thought about who Jesus was to me,
    I thought about it through the lens of “need.”

And I also thought about Ricky Skaggs.
Earlier that summer,
    Irene and I heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
        at the Music Festival at Orkney Springs.
    I remember clearly, these undisputed masters of bluegrass,
        on stage burning up the strings on mandolin, fiddle, and guitar—
        playing and singing their hearts out on all the classics.

Once, just before breaking into a bluegrass gospel song,
    Ricky Skaggs talked to us for a couple minutes about Jesus.
    “I don’t know what I would do without Jesus,” he said.
        “He changed my life. I love him and I need him.
            If you don’t know Jesus,
                I sure hope you’ll come to know him soon.
                ’Cause he wants to know you.”
    Now this was a secular crowd.
        Not hoity-toity, but sort of edging that way.
        People come from all over, especially northern Virginia,
            and spread blankets on the lawn with wine and cheese.
        They came here to listen to a musical genius,
            not an evangelical message.

    I admit I squirmed a bit, as he went on about Jesus.
    But Ricky is as lovable as a teddy-bear.
        His pure joy and southern charm put everyone at ease.
        His mini-sermon was as natural and comfortable
            as someone bragging on their favorite brand of blue jeans.
        He said, essentially, “I need Jesus in my life.
            I hope you can find as much joy in him as I have.”
        Unexpected, yes. But authentic. It even drew some “amens.”
            I came away impressed with his candor,
                about his own inadequacy, and need.

And that’s what led me to write about Jesus in terms of need.
    My life journey with Jesus could be charted,
        in terms of need.
    My experience of need has shifted, at different life stages,
        and as a result, my understanding of Jesus has shifted.
        But my bottom-line conclusion remains:
            to be Christian is to need Jesus.

I came up with four statements of need,
    in my own developing journey with Jesus.

First, I need Jesus. I, Phil Kniss, need Jesus.
    When I was about 9 or 10, a pocket New Testament was my prize
        for memorizing verses in Vacation Bible School one summer.
    I recall one picture inside the front cover—
        the good shepherd Jesus cradled a lamb in his arms
            and held a steadfast gaze outward—
            scanning the horizon for any danger that might lurk.
        That image is still etched in my mind and heart.
            It powerfully represented the Jesus I needed as a child.
            I was that lamb—small and vulnerable.
            I needed a strong, tender shepherd!
        Yes, I had a loving and supportive family,
            but for many and various reasons,
            I felt, as adolescents often do,
                pretty weak, flawed, alone, and of questionable worth.
            Felt pretty good to have a personal shepherd in Jesus.
    So, I said then . . . and I still say . . . I need Jesus.

Second, I later came to understand that it wasn’t just me, individually,
    and others, individually, who needed Jesus.
    The world needs Jesus.
    Coming from a family of missionaries,
        having heard countless and colorful stories
            of spiritual heroism, faith, and sacrifice—
        I have always known that the world needs Jesus.
    The nature of that need became more nuanced,
        over the years, as I grew in my understanding
            of the world’s diverse beauty
                and the complexity of its need,
                and of the many ways people address spiritual need.
    I came to realize some Christian missionaries
        tended toward cultural imperialism and religious domination.
    Sometimes Jesus’ representatives
        misrepresented the generous and compassionate spirit of Jesus.
    But I have never let go of the conviction that,
        despite the complexity and nuance that faith requires,
        this broken world needs a Savior and Redeemer.
        And there is one, in Jesus.

Third, I came to understand that the church, as church, needs Jesus.
    As an Anabaptist-Mennonite I am deeply committed to the church
        as the essential communal expression of the body of Christ.
        So if the church is the body of Christ, with Christ as head,
            it’s not even a question whether the church needs Jesus.
        Of course it does.
        Salvation is more than an individual transaction
            between a person and his or her Savior.
        The saving work of Jesus, by definition,
            is to form Christian community.

    Yes, we get it wrong. A lot.
        But this church, universal,
            is the body of Christ called to represent
            the healing and grace-filled presence of Jesus in the world.
        So clearly, we need Jesus at the center of it all.

And the fourth statement of need, is like the third, only reversed.
    Jesus needs the church.

    This conviction about Jesus has taken root in me more recently.
        I think I have a deeper, richer, and more nuanced understanding
            of the relationship between Jesus and the church.
        “Need” runs both directions.
        If we stop at “the church needs Jesus,”
            we imply that God’s ultimate mission is to save the church
                and rescue it from the evil world.
        God’s activity does not revolve around the church
            and its agenda, its purity, its institutional interests.
            God’s purposes are cosmic.
        God’s mission is to see the whole world—
            all nations, all peoples, and all creation—
                saved, redeemed, restored, and reconciled.
        In God’s saving mission, the church is not the end.
            It is an agent.

    In God’s mysterious wisdom,
        God chose a particular people to point the nations toward God.
            And in so doing, God has chosen to have a need.
            God has chosen vulnerability.
                This is real need, not rhetorical.
                It’s a need God himself literally cannot fulfill.
                    At least, not without violating his own nature,
                        making himself less than God.

        God is love.
            Listen to that: God is love!
        God’s love and longing for connection with creation,
            especially God’s human creation,
            has required God to preserve human freedom, at all costs.
        There cannot be genuine love without genuine freedom.
            God “gave up,” literally,
                God’s own right to force allegiance to the Kingdom.
        So God has selected a people
            to winsomely demonstrate to the world
            what the reign and rule of God looks like, lived out.
        We are that people.
            Imperfect as we are, God needs us as willing partners.

        God, through Jesus Christ, the living Lord,
            needs us to complete God’s saving work.
        Jesus needs the church to be the church.
        We are the human agents of God’s salvation,
            not by violent coercion,
                nor by indoctrination,
                nor even moral pressure,
            but by being a visible, tangible, communal representation
                of what life under God’s rule looks like.
    And that makes a world of difference. I assure you.

So, my honest confession of faith today,
    is that I need Jesus, the world needs Jesus, the church needs Jesus,
        and Jesus needs the church.

At the end of our conference at Laurelville 8 years ago, we were told,
    go to a quiet corner and write, not 8,000 words, but 100 words.
    Imagine Jesus in front of us, asking,
        “And who do you say that I am?”
        Write it in second-person, like Peter did, and tell Jesus,
            “You are . . .”
    So we all did that, and shared our answers with each other.
    Here is my 100-word answer to Jesus that I gave then,
        and still would today.

    Jesus, you are the one I need to save me from a life that is less than the one for which I was created. You are the one the church needs to save it from narrow self-absorption and from failure to join in God’s mission in the world. You are the one the world needs to find true shalom. You are our only Lord, our only Savior, our only way to wholeness of life. Yet, astonishingly, you also need us to carry out your great mission of saving, healing, reconciling, and restoring all things to yourself. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Now . . . I give that assignment to you.
    I don’t expect your answer to be the same as mine.
        My answer is a reflection of my journey,
            and your journey is different than mine.
    And I am not asking you to do it now, on the spot.
    Think about it.
        There is a slip of paper in your bulletin.
        I invite you to take this slip of paper,
            and before the week is out,
            write 100 words on it, more or less,
            answering this question Jesus is still asking,
                “Who do you say that I am?”

    And once you have done it,
        before another couple weeks are out,
        sit down with somebody, or some group,
            and share your answer.
        And talk about what difference you think it makes.
            Because what we truly believe about Jesus
                and what we say about Jesus,
                has everything to do with how we prioritize our lives,
                and how we interact with the church and the world.

My prayer is, that no matter how we say it, Jesus will be our center.
    Let’s sing together STS #31.

—Phil Kniss, September 25, 2016

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