“Who do you say that I am?” + A Sermon about Who Jesus Is and Who We Are Called to Be

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Redeemer Lutheran Church, Hinsdale
16 September 2018 + Lectionary 24B (Pentecost 17)
Mark 8.27-38


“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a deceptively simple question: “Who do you say that I am?”

For as long as the Christian church has been in existence, questions about the identity of Jesus have enticed the minds of historians and theologians. Even artists have taken up this debate, each offering their own distinct visual representation of Jesus. While of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, some of their representations are certainly closer to the truth than others.

It’s fair to say, too, that for as diverse as the visual answers to this question are, the theological ones are just as vast and varied. Turn on the TV to certain megachurch pastors, and the Jesus you’ll hear about often sounds more like a self-help book or a magic, wish-granting genie. Still other depictions of Jesus by the Christian Right and Left would seek to align him with one political party or another, with all the implications that entails.

So what about the Bible? Surely that will give us a more definitive answer to this question. So we might think — and yet we have four gospels with four very different portrayals of Jesus, plus the twenty-three additional books of the New Testament that each offer their own unique insights about this radical, first-century, itinerant Jewish rabbi-carpenter.

Maybe we just have to face the fact that there is no one simple answer. After all, even today’s gospel reading itself offers four different answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, or the Messiah. And just as easily as Jesus poses the question, he moves even more quickly to shut down the conversation, sternly ordering his disciples to tell no one about him. Technically, Jesus never really even confirms or denies Peter’s answer.

“Who do you say that I am?” Maybe another way of posing the question, as biblical scholar Karoline Lewis suggests, is this: “Who will you say that you are?” Indeed, Jesus’s identity is very much wrapped up in our own identity as followers of Jesus. Try as artists and theologians and historians might, we can never fully know what Jesus actually looked like or said or did. Sure, we have the witness of the four gospels and the other New Testament writings, and that paints a pretty good picture — but evidently not clear enough, for indeed, interpretations throughout centuries of Christian belief and practice have given way to innumerable divisions and denominations within the church.

Lewis continues: “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be.” Or maybe it’s the other way around. Who we are, who we have decided to be, what we have decided to believe is who we claim Jesus to be, superimposing our own beliefs, for better or worse, on Jesus.

This is a dangerous game that has led to the church’s often exclusionary and harmful attitudes toward marginalized communities throughout the years. When the church answers Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” out of its own self-interests, it has historically resulted in some pretty convincing, albeit misguided, “biblical” arguments in support of slavery and segregation, against the leadership of women in our pulpits, and opposing the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the church.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, says it this way, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” We can safely assume we’ve made Jesus into who we say Jesus is when suddenly he doesn’t seem all that different from us.

With that in mind, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah is less a confession of faith or giving the right answer and more revealing of what Peter wants Jesus to be. Following the popular Jewish thought of his time, Peter yearned for a Messiah, a specially anointed king from the royal line of David, ancient Israel’s greatest and most respected king. Descended from David, this new king was expected to powerfully vanquish Israel’s oppressors, to free Israel from the occupation and foreign rule of the Roman Empire, and to restore Israel’s status as an independent and divinely chosen people.

But that’s far from the kind of Messiah Jesus is, and he sternly rebukes Peter, even calling out Peter’s proposal as satanic and evil. Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but it certainly gets the point across.

The role of the Messiah that Jesus has in mind is much different. The Messiah that Jesus claims to be is a Messiah who takes up his cross, who undergoes great suffering, rejection, even death. This is Jesus’s answer to his own question. “Who do you say that I am?” This is the Messiah who suffers and gives up his life for the sake of others, who manifests God’s great love for God’s creation by offering his very self for our life.

This is also the answer to the flip side of the original question that Karoline Lewis poses: “Who will you say that you are?” ELCA pastor Elisabeth Johnson, who serves as a missionary in Cameroon, offers these words:

“Jesus speaks of losing our lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.”

This passage is an invitation to discipleship, to following Jesus — but it doesn’t promise that the life of following Jesus will be easy or without challenges.

In the years before 2009, before the ELCA officially began ordaining and consecrating openly LGBTQ pastors and deacons, many Lutheran clergy who did not identify as straight either served closeted, withholding their identity from those with the power to defrock them, or were barred from serving entirely.

A few, however, chose to serve the church openly, at great risk. As an act of holy disobedience, the first three openly gay and lesbian pastors in the ELCA — Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson — were ordained “extraordinarily” (outside the bounds of official church polity) in 1990, which promptly led the removal of the congregations that had called them from membership in the ELCA. In the years that followed, more and more gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender pastors and deacons were ordained and consecrated extraordinarily, served their congregations and ministry settings openly, and faced similar consequences — until the church finally started to catch up.

These early instigators of a movement toward full inclusion knew this life of discipleship well. They knew what it meant to take up their cross, to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, following the example of a Messiah who constantly reached out to the margins, toppling walls meant to keep “those people” out, and subverting boundaries every step of the way. These faithful instigators of the church knew what it meant to put Jesus’s priorities and the mission of the gospel ahead of even their own safety and the comfort and status quo of the institutional church.

“Who do you say that I am?” If we profess the church to be the body of Christ, we need look no further than these early instigators and other faithful witnesses to the gospel of radical inclusivity and love and justice for all people. These are the body of Christ. These are the answer to who Jesus is because these are the followers of Jesus.

Following in their witness, following in the witness of Jesus, this is our invitation. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who will you say that you are?


Image Description: Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson join hands in prayer and blessing on the occasion of their “extraordinary” ordinations in 1990. (Credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

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A Sermon for Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday

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Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Northbrook
28 January 2018 + Reconciling in Christ Sunday
Matthew 19.10-15 (NRSV); Acts 8.26-40 (Inclusive Bible)



So there I was, sitting in the chapel at St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista, California. It was opening worship, and the liturgy continued with a litany, naming significant events and ordinations in the history of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries — an organization with roots in the Extraordinary Candidacy Project that worked to accompany and support gay and lesbian candidates for ordained ministry in the ELCA when the ELCA told them no.

Just a few hours prior, I was on a plane from Chicago bound for San Francisco, for my first Proclaim Gathering, part of ELM’s continued work to accompany openly LGBTQIA+ candidates for ministry in the Lutheran  church — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual… the acronym ever expanding as we catch up with the many identities our Creator God has gifted us with.

That evening in opening worship, I knew very few people in Proclaim and had no idea what to expect. As the litany began, it named each person who was ordained extraordinarily (outside of official church polity) — and beyond (when church polity caught up after the 2009 Churchwide Assembly). As the names of those present were read, they were invited to stand, take hold of a piece of the ball of red yarn that was being passed around, and declare: This is my body! The litany continued, too, into the future, naming seminarians, like me, who would make up the future of the church. As the yarn was passed to me, I stood: This is my body! Soon, the whole room was connected with a single strand of red yarn. And I knew I belonged. I was a part of something. My call to ministry mattered.

Growing up in a church body that did not recognize the gifts of LGBTQIA+ persons for ministry, I could not have dreamed that such a moment, like that in the chapel at St. Francis Retreat Center, was possible. It’s no secret that the church has had a rough relationship with its LGBTQIA+ members. Of course, we’ve made great strides. I give thanks for the work of ELM and Proclaim, for my home congregation not far from here in Chicago, for my internship congregation in Omaha, and for you! — the people of Gloria Dei in Northbrook — for your bold witness as an RIC congregation, declaring that all are welcome and affirmed as beloved children of God, exactly as we are.

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Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Northbrook, IL, RIC Sunday, January 28, 2018

And yet, we know, the mass of Christianity is still not of one mind. The church tends to have a problem with those who are different, those who don’t fit inside neatly prescribed roles and norms and identities, and so the church has come up with ways to marginalize them, citing select verses of Scripture, plucked out of context, to justify exclusion and violence. But the witness of Scripture, and particularly the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, says differently. The church may have lost touch with God’s dream and vision for a way of being church together that is inclusive, affirming, and life-giving, but Jesus offers this dream and vision anew.

Jesus’s ministry and teaching is marked by a radical inclusivity. That’s easy to miss, though, in a passage like the gospel text we just heard read. In the first place, it begins in the middle of a conversation — a conversation about divorce. That doesn’t exactly preach “all are welcome,” does it?

Zoom out a bit further from our text, and you’ll encounter this:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18.1-5)

Children, in Jesus’s cultural context, were looked down upon, or even ignored, for their young age and inability to be productive members of their family and the wider community. And yet, these children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven! Jesus’s teaching continues with a stern warning against putting a stumbling block before these little ones. Take care not to despise them, he goes on.

It is this lead-up that brings us, just a handful of verses later, to our gospel text today. Now, a word about divorce in first-century Palestine: At the risk of oversimplifying things, divorce then is not like divorce today. This text, then, is not saying anything to persons affected by divorce or marital separation in our context, despite what the church may say in the judgmental way it is often inclined to do.

What this text is calling out is the ugly underside of divorce in Jesus’s day. It was men alone who generally had the right to initiate a divorce, and it was the women who were left with no legal recourse, adversely affected by an unjust system, and open to ridicule and abuse. It is with this in mind that Jesus speaks out against the practice of divorce.

Another crucial detail: It is the Pharisees, not Jesus, who bring up this whole topic of divorce to begin with, as a way to try to trap Jesus and make him contradict centuries of Jewish tradition. And Jesus’s response boils down to this: Yes, the law of Moses allowed for divorce, but a legal way to deal with a bad situation doesn’t make that bad situation any less awful, especially not for the women who are so adversely affected.

Then, immediately after this debate about divorce, Jesus comes back… to the children. When you read these two chapters of Matthew’s gospel together, Jesus’s emphasis is clear: It is these little ones Jesus is concerned about because it is these little ones to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. With that in mind, a pattern emerges: Jesus is teaching about the inclusion of the little ones, but he is interrupted by the Pharisees who ask about divorce. Not to be outdone, Jesus seizes this opportunity to continue to reveal his dream and vision for what the kingdom of heaven looks like — where the little ones, whether children, divorced women, or anyone else “such as these” whom society actively tramples on and marginalizes, are welcomed into the embrace of Jesus and blessed for who they are, as they are.

It’s a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, the Beatitudes begin. Just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me, the well-known parable summarizes.

There is a common thread that runs through Jesus’s ministry and teaching in Matthew, and it is GOOD NEWS for the poor, GOOD NEWS for the little ones, GOOD NEWS for the least of these, GOOD NEWS for gay and lesbian and bisexual persons, GOOD NEWS for our transgender and intersex and asexual and queer siblings. THEIRS is the kingdom of heaven!

Today, we celebrate that radical inclusivity, God’s dream for a world where all are welcomed and affirmed, and Jesus’s vision for a church that actually lives into that dream.

We celebrate inclusivity today specifically to resist the church’s problem with LGBTQIA+ persons and instead to proclaim God’s extravagant love for persons of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

We celebrate inclusivity that reaches ever further, as you capture in the Welcome Statement you have adopted as a congregation.

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Gloria Dei Welcome Statement

God’s dream and vision for the church invites us into encounters like the one between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Tradition often labels this text as the conversion of the eunuch, and that’s not necessarily wrong, but I think Philip experiences his own conversion, too. It’s easy to miss because it’s barely mentioned. It happens just after their conversation in the carriage. “Look, there is some water right there,” the eunuch observes. “Is there anything to keep me from being baptized?” And Philip can’t answer.

Is there anything to keep me from being baptized? No. Not his gender, not his sexuality, not his ethnicity, not his religious affiliation, nothing. There is NOTHING that can keep the eunuch from becoming a full part of the Christian community.

There is nothing that can keep the eunuch away. There is no stumbling block that can keep the little ones away. There is nothing that can keep us away from God’s unimaginable love.

Let the little children come to me.
Let the least of these come to me.
Let the poor in spirit come to me.
Let the LGBTQIA+ community come to me.
Let those whom the world tramples on come to me.
Let the weary and those carrying heavy burdens come to me.
Let all whom I have made and love come to me.
Yours is the kingdom of heaven.

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With the Gloria Dei RIC Committee and pastor, Rev. John Berg