During the season of Lent this year, the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, we will be spending time together in the gospel of John, and looking specifically at a number of different ways Jesus identifies himself to his disciples. John’s gospel contains a whole range of important sayings of Jesus that begin with the simple phrase “I am.” “I am the light of the world,” he says. “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the bread of life” and “the true vine.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”
We’ll be taking each of these important identifications in turn, as we move through Lent this year, and studying that deceptively simple “I am” phrase too, which actually carries with it a great deal of theological weight.
Meanwhile today, poised just before the season of Lent begins, we find Jesus in Matthew’s gospel asking: “Who do people say that I am?” and then “Who do you say that I am?”
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples, and they sum up all the standard replies of the day. “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other ancient prophets come back to life.” (John the Baptist with his preaching about the kingdom of God and calling sinners to repent, Elijah with his dramatic healing miracles, and all those other prophets of old who delivered messages from God to the people.) All the answers are understandable, in way. You can see why they were confused.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with The Cotton Patch Gospel? It’s a bluegrass musical retelling of the gospel stories, set in rural Georgia, with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, written by Clarence Jordan. Taproot Theater will be performing it this spring, and judging from the incredible job they did with Godspell last year, I’d highly recommend you see it if you can.
It can be enormously helpful to hear familiar stories told in new ways like this. And the Cotton Patch Gospel’s take on today’s Scripture reading is a great example – one of my favorite interpretations of this particular part of the story, actually.
Again, Jesus had just asked the disciples “who do people say that I am?” and they’d offered that range of answers – “some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “OK, but who do you say I am?” Jesus continues. And of course it’s Peter – good old foot in his mouth, rash, impulsive Peter – who actually gets it right.
The way the Cotton Patch Gospel tells it, he took a while getting there. It’s a great scene - a long dramatic pause after Jesus asks the question, all of the disciples looking down at their feet, up at the sky, shrugging their shoulders, looking at each other, and then they all start looking to Peter, the star student, who was supposed to know. And Peter kind of stumbles along: “Umm….Who do you say that I am? … Who do you say that I am? … Who do you say that I am? … We covered this, didn't we?"
But in the end Peter nails it: “You are the Messiah of God.” Messiah meaning anointed one – it’s the Hebrew word for the Greek word Christ. And with that one word comes the whole weight of ancient Israelite tradition, all of that waiting on the Messiah’s coming. He’s here, guys, Peter is saying. Jesus is the one we’ve been waiting for, the Messiah sent from God.
Have you ever wondered how you might answer the question Jesus asked his disciples? Who do you say Jesus is?
Maybe you’ve seen those bumper stickers and bill boards around town over the last few years, the ones that say “Jesus is…” followed by a blank, inviting you to fill in your own answer?
Or perhaps you’re newer to church yourself but you’ve been impressed by some Christian people you know, and you’re curious to know a little more about this Jesus they are trying to model their lives after.
Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of the question. You may have neighbors, friends, or family members who just can’t figure out why you feel church is so important. Who is this Jesus, they wonder. Why would you bother to follow him?
It may even be that you wonder yourself. Perhaps you’ve heard bits and pieces of the Jesus story over the years, but never quite been able to make sense of it. Or not been sure you’re quite ready to sign on as a follower of Jesus, a Christian. Who is this Jesus anyway?
As we move through the “I Am” sayings in John’s gospel over the next several weeks, we’ll consider metaphorical language that may help us strengthen our answers to that question. Jesus as light of the world, bread of life, good shepherd, and so on. My hope is each of us will find one or more images that really speak to us there, and help us to better articulate a response to the question Jesus asks all of us, really: “Who do you say that I am?”
It turns out our answers really matter. Because a whole lot of people today – whether or not they’d ever consider themselves Christians –find themselves wondering about God. Even if they wouldn’t want anyone think them “religious,” they find themselves longing for a spiritual center of some kind. Some sort of grounding in a higher power or a greater purpose. Some sense of the divine. And answering the question “Who is Jesus?” can help us with that broader quest.
The late Fred Craddock put it this way, in an explanation I’ve shared here before: “Do you want to know what God is like? Jesus is what God is like… You see, it is not enough to say, “I believe in God,” or “I believe there is a God.” [Sadly] people hate in the name of God. People kill in the name of God. People are prejudiced in the name of God. [So] what kind of God do I believe in? This kind: I believe in the God who is presented in Jesus Christ…
“What is God like? [Craddock continues] … Do you remember the time when there was a crowd gathered to hear Jesus and they were a long way from home and hungry, and Jesus fed them? That is what God is like. Do you remember when he took those little children on his lap and blessed them and talked to them and talked to their parents? That is what God is like. Do you remember when the leper came up to Jesus and said, “Please help me,” and he was made clean and healed? That is what God is like.
“Do you remember that time when Jesus was with the disciples and they were arguing about who was the chairman and who was the greatest? Jesus took a towel and a bowl of water, knelt down in front of them, and washed their feet. Do you remember that? That is what God is like.
“Do you remember when he took that old cross on his shoulder and started up the hill to Golgotha? That is what God is like.”
To Craddock’s examples we’ll be adding some of our own over the next several weeks. Can you imagine being trapped in complete darkness and then being given the gift of light? That light is what God is like. Can you imagine what it feels like to be a lost lamb, separated from its flock, terrified and alone, and then to be rescued by a good shepherd? That shepherd is what God is like. Can you imagine being ravenously hungry, starving even, and being given the gift of bread? That bread of life is what God is like.
“There is a lot in the Bible I don’t understand, Craddock concludes [and I’ll add my Amen to that]. But I do believe [with Peter] that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Son of God. [Jesus shows us what God is like.] And I think today is a very good time to say it.”
 Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, 39-41