Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a question of utmost importance, but also elusive. We are trying to understand an historical person, reading ancient texts, translated from a different language, and sorting through sedimentary layers of previous generation of thought and belief. I enjoy reading great biographers who seek to encapsulate Jefferson, or Lincoln, or Jonathan Edwards. But viewpoints change over time. Who was the real Richard Nixon? The diplomat who opened China, the founder of the Environmental Protection agency, the megla-maniac who saw himself above the law, who kept an enemies list? Who was the real Bill Clinton, man from hope, Slick Willie, a gifted orator who could relate to our human struggles, or serial sexual-abuser? Pick any great historical figure, and they go in and out of favor with new biographies and as the hot issues change. It’s hard to nail someone down, and you should to be careful if you think you have nailed down Jesus.
Hymns are an expression of how we perceive Jesus. What is your favorite hymn about Jesus? We get very different pictures. For example, our opening hymn was “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” This is a royal Jesus, he is on a throne, he wields a scepter, he is described as the Lord of Love, of Peace, and of years, the very “Potentate of Time.” He is surrounded by the fair flowers of Paradise, and so bright that even angels cannot bear to look at him. While his wounds from the cross are still visible, he is elevated far above to reign like a universal monarch. The author of the hymn, Matthew Bridges, was part of a movement back to the patristic and early church Fathers called the Oxford Movement. The hymn is just three years after Karl Marx wrote in “A Communist Manifesto”, that religion is the opiate of the masses. Darwin would soon publish “The Origen of Species” the same decade, and Bridges was doubling down on a more ancient religion, an exalted view of Jesus in order to fend off the rising intellectual challenges. Jesus isn’t the opiate of the masses but the potentate of time and Crowned the Lord of Love and Peace. In fact, he converted from Anglicanism, to Roman Catholicism, and especially emphasized the virgin Mary in the original song, which the Protestants took those two verses out of their hymnal. (See, we have always been altering our hymns to meet current beliefs, we just like to keep the tunes.) This hymn can’t be reconciled with the historical Jesus, who said, “The last shall be first.” In the Gospels, Jesus is not at all royal.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” was written only four years later by Joseph Scriven. Scriven was an Irishman, educated at Trinity College in Dublin, but his life was full of tragedy. His fiancé fell and drowned the night before their wedding. Later he moved to Canada and was engaged again, his fiancé contracted pneumonia and died. Scriven struggled with depression most of his life. It is not clear whether his own drowning at age 66 was an accident or suicide. He wrote the verses as a poem to offer comfort to his mother, and it reveals of Jesus who is very close and tender. This is the Jesus who is touched by human suffering, and is always present to offer comfort and care, just take your cares to him in prayer. (More on Joseph Scriven.)
It is a lovely picture of Jesus, but not sufficient. Does Jesus have more to say about life than comfort to individuals in suffering? What about larger social and moral issues? Does our view of Jesus include our communal life together?
Peter did not get the Jesus he expected. At the moment when he is most right, and praised by Jesus, he turns out to be the most wrong. What was he expecting from Jesus, and why is Jesus so upset with him? “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked the disciples. People seemed to know he was unique and significant, comparing him to John the Baptist and Elijah. People see Jesus firmly in the prophetic tradition. What do prophets do? They generally call people to be faithful, to follow what is taught in scripture, and especially to pay attention to justice for the poor.
Peter, as he often does, is going to take this one step further. “You are the Messiah.” Messiah can mean a lot of things. The Hebrew and Greek words literally mean, “the anointed one.” In scriptures, not only are prophets, priest sand kings anointed for special purposes; so are pillars, holy places and vestments the priests wear. Isaiah even says the Babylonian king Cyrus the Great was anointed by God to set the people free from exile and return to rebuild Jerusalem (Is. 45:1) By Jesus’s time, Messiah had come to mean, the ultimate anointed one, who would restore the Kingdom of David, bring home all the Jewish exiles from all nations, everyone would live according to the scriptures and a reign of peace would last for generations. If you are living under the domination of the Roman Empire, this sounds great-and dangerous. No wonder Jesus says, “Tell no one.”
From Peter’s point of view, Jesus’s next words start to go sideways. “Listen up everybody, here’s the plan. I am going to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again.” We don’t know what the other disciples said about this. I’m waiting for the lost words of Bartholomew to be discovered, where he says, “Great plan Jesus! So, what will the buttons say? Would you say the suffering, or the rejection theme, is more important? “Make Israel suffer again.” Rejection you can believe in”? At least Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke the plan, which is good management practice.
But Jesus will not be deterred. “Get behind me Satan! Perhaps Jesus is envisioning the third temptation in the wilderness, where the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus will bow down and worship him.” Jesus rejection of this third temptation seems related to distancing himself from Peter’s notion of the messiah, as one who will restore the nation of Israel. Jesus is after something more than nationalism and empire. When we hear the words, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” it is a challenge to empire, because brutal execution is the ultimate expression of aggressive nationalism, control by violence.
Jesus does not disown the title “messiah” but he wants it defined his way. If we turn to the 4thchapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus links the nature of the messiah to Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach good news to poor, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the captive….”
I love to belt out “Crown Him with Many Crowns” and I can get all misty over “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but the closer hymn to my understanding of the mission of the historical Jesus comes from “I Am the Light of the World.” This hymn draws its words from a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman, a professor at Morehouse College and a mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The refrain emphasizes what will happen as we follow Jesus:
I am the Light of the World
You people come and follow me.
If you follow and love
You’ll learn the mystery of what you are meant to do and be.
What I love about this hymn is the breadth and depth of what it means to follow Jesus. It is an interpersonal call to heal the broken soul with love, the words call us to justice to feed the hungry children with warmth and good food, to free prisoners of chains and build the nations with good will. And it is also deeply personal, calling us to bring hope in every task we do, to dance at a baby’s new birth and make music in an old person’s heart. This is what it means to me to follow Jesus. It doesn’t pin him to one thing, but rather calls us to follow his light.
Now it does not say anything about picking up our cross while following Jesus. We should never remove the cross from our discipleship, but neither should we make an idol of it. All that Jesus lived and taught is full of grace and liberation, not merely his unusual birth and tragic death. Jesus said to pick up our cross, not to create a death cult of people who desire martyrdom, but to remember that we must accept the cost as well as the joy of the discipleship, to do the hard things and not just to soak in grace.
Jesus is deserving of a crown and to be lauded, perhaps even as the “potentate of time,” Jesus can meet us in our anxiety and suffering and be like a dear friend, but Jesus is always more than our images, more than therapist, king, president, activist or any other role we value. Jesus is the light that calls us to follow, and his path will lead us to discover our deepest meaning and hope.