Most of you will probably recognize the name of Flip Wilson, a comedian who was very popular on television back in the ‘70’s. Once Flip Wilson was being interviewed on a talk show and was asked about his religion. “Oh,” he said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Bystander.” The interviewer replied, “A Jehovah’s Bystander? I’ve never heard of a Jehovah’s bystander.” To this, Flip looked coy and said, “Well, they asked me to be a Jehovah’s Witness, but I didn’t want to get involved!”
That’s a great line, and therein exists more than just a grain of truth. In fact, I think that the argument can be made that we have a society today woefully lacking in witnesses, but rife with bystanders! And I get it; it’s a whole lot easier to be a bystander than to be a witness! Think about it: as a bystander, you get to stand back and absorb everything that’s going on around you, while remaining detached from what’s happening; you can “maintain your academic objectivity,” as Pete Seeger used to say; observing life without having to express an opinion or actually taking any weight for those observations.
And today’s technology has made this extremely easy. With of a computer mouse, we can literally be bombarded with news, views and unending data on any event, conflict, or debate that’s out there. We have these so-called “social networks,” such as Facebook, in which we’re given something called a “News Feed” that tells us everything we ever needed to know about our family and friends (along with a few things we probably didn’t need to know!); and the beauty part is, we don’t ever have to respond to it if we don’t want to! Don’t get me wrong – I’m on Facebook, too, and I’m as much an internet nut as anyone, but there’s a danger in this kind of thing making us all bystanders where life and the world is concerned. After all, we don’t need to witness or dialogue or take a stand; all we have to do is log on to the World Wide Web and suck up everybody else’s opinions!
But that having been said, I would also suggest to you that we can only stay detached just so long; because at the end of the day, how we are seen by those around us as well as how we come to know ourselves comes down not to what’s out there, but all about what’s in here. Who we are is in large measure determined by our witness; or to put it another way, we are what we claim!
I remember very well back in seminary, sitting in the office of one of my professors looking over my term paper. “Well, Mr. Lowry,” Dr. Zeigler said, “you’ve obviously read the material…” And, by golly, I had, too! I’d gone through every book with yellow highlighter flying; I’d written all the juiciest quotes I could find on 3X5 cards, which were then arranged and posted in just the correct order on the wall of my dormitory room, eventually transferring them ever-so-lovingly within my perfectly-typed 20-page term paper. “Yes, it’s all there,” Dr. Zeigler said, “but… what do you say? What do you think of the material; how did you react to it?”
And she was right, of course – I had layered this paper with all the weighty conclusions of these great thinkers and theologians, but I’d said hardly anything at all about what I thought about it! I hadn’t grappled with the material personally; but why? Thinking back on it, perhaps I thought that if I expressed an unpopular opinion, I’d get a bad grade; maybe I worried my ideas would brand me a fool in the eyes of Dr. Zeigler and the entire seminary community; or maybe it was just easier to be an academic and theological sponge. The point is that I’d completely missed the point of the paper, and by extension, my education – to truly grow in knowledge and faith meant that I needed to commit, to confess to something as my own – even if doing so was to simply throw my hands in the air and confess, “Hey, I don’t know, it’s just what I believe!”
In our Gospel reading this morning, Mark tells us that as Jesus was walking with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, he asked them this question: “Who do people say that I am?” In one sense, the question must caught the disciples by surprise – after all, Jesus had always seemed to pay little heed to what people were saying about him, so clear was his vision and sense of purpose; it actually kind of seemed out of character for Jesus! It was, however, a question the disciples could answer, because in fact, everyone had an opinion about Jesus!
Some were saying that he was John the Baptist raised from the dead; others said he was Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. And of course, there were those, especially the religious authorities of the day, who viewed Jesus as a troublemaker and a disgrace to Jews everywhere; and the disciples reported all of this to Jesus as they were walking, no doubt a bit relieved and thinking to themselves, well, that was easy enough.
But then Jesus asked a second question, and this one wasn’t so easy: “But who do you say that I am?” And suddenly, the disciples were all very quiet and looked to the ground, each one of them careful to avoid eye contact with Jesus, like students in a classroom hoping and praying that the teacher won’t call on them! It’s one thing, you see, to report the “conventional wisdom” of the people and even a bit of the gossip; but it’s quite another to commit yourself! Because answering this kind of question requires something of you, that to say it meant to live it! Because these disciples knew full well that however they answered Jesus, life as knew it would never be the same again!
We are what we claim! The disciples knew this; so that’s what makes it so powerful that after this long, uncomfortable silence, it’s Peter – good ol’ impulsive, shoot from the hip Peter – who’s the one who finally speaks up. “You are the Messiah,” he said, very simply. You are the Christ. A single, simple declarative sentence that speaks volumes, both about Peter and about faith.
Now, in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus responds to this confession by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” tells him that it’ll be on this rock on which the church is built, and there’s this incredible response of joy and praise. But in Mark, we’re told that the first thing Jesus does is to “sternly order them not to tell anyone about him.” And this is followed some pretty harsh words about what was to come – the rejection and killing of the son of Man, about denying one’s self and taking up one’s own cross. And of course, Peter doesn’t want to hear all this talk about death and instruments of torture – and neither do we, for that matter, because, after all, this is the Messiah we’re talking about (!) – but right away Jesus sets Peter straight, and us as well, saying that this kind of thinking reveals a mindset focused “not on divine things but on human things.” In fact, Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
And there’s the crux of the matter – if you commit to something, if you confess it and claim it as your own, then you are going to have to live unto that confession. You and I might well know and understand biblically, theologically, and liturgically that Jesus is called Christ, Lord, King, Savior, Messiah, Shepherd, Redeemer, Bread of Life, Living Water, Light of the World, the Lamb, the Anointed One, Son of Man, Son of God, Emmanuel, Incarnate Word of God. But when we are bold to confess and claim Jesus as our Christ, our Lord, our King, our Savior, our Redeemer, then we’re going to have to live unto that claim – indeed, we have been claimed (!) – and that means we will have to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.
And that, dear friends, changes everything.
Because walking in faith sometimes means walking the way of risk; faith, you see, often requires us to go against the grain of society and culture. It will lead us to respond with compassion and honesty amidst confusing and painful situations; it will ask of us the courage to go boldly into the storms of life, and then to journey along pathways that frankly, we’d rather not walk in the first place. Faith will compel us to stand up and stand strong in the face of pressure – the pressure to give up, give in, or go along to get along – and will push us forward in the struggle for what is right, and godly, and centered on the kingdom that Christ proclaims.
Faith will challenge us to deny ourselves, to live for the sake of something much bigger than ourselves – and there will be a cost to that kind of discipleship. But there’s also a profound joy that comes in discipleship; a faith that gives our daily lives shape and form and purpose. It’s what makes us part of the church, a community of worship and prayer and mutual support, part of a people who are committed to sharing and service. But you see, this only happens when our experience of Jesus Christ – what we’ve seen and heard and touched in the living God – has become more than words on a page, more than just the sum total of church history and tradition, but rather something so intensely personal that just has to be shared!
“Who do you say that I am?” It’s said, you know, that the point in scripture when Jesus asks this question of the disciples is the hinge on which the whole structure of the gospel swings – everything else that is to come proceeds from that question; it’s when Jesus “turns his face toward Jerusalem,” it’s when the circle begins to tighten surrounding Jesus, the scribes and the Pharisees, it’s really the moment that the events of the Passion start to unfold.
So it was a crucial question back then, and spiritually speaking, it still is for us today. Our answer to Jesus becomes the hinge of our lives; and how that hinge swings is the difference between merely espousing a philosophy on one side, and having a living, vibrant faith on the other; it’s what determines whether Jesus is just going to be for us another good man confined to the pages of a history book, or if he’s the one who sets the tone for our very lives, the one toward whom all of our allegiances and priorities will naturally flow.
So how about you? What do you say?
We’ve sung songs here about him today, some sublime and others pretty silly; we’ve said prayers, and we’ve heard a bit of his teaching and word – and there’s plenty more where that came from.
We’ve heard what scripture says about him, about what the history and tradition of the church understands about him; we’ve heard his name mentioned in a whole variety of contexts. And you’re getting a sense, I suspect, that your pastor can talk a whole lot about him!
But the question is, what do you say about him?
What do you say?
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry