The image of the small boy’s body, with knees slightly tucked under him as though asleep, lying in shallow water at the sea’s edge with waves lapping over him, washed up as so much rubbish has reverberated around the world and demands we ask this question.
Who do you say that I am? Small children suffer and die while parents are humiliated and treated like animals. Men and women are threatened with violence and death for wars we fight around the world in the name of a greater good, giving violence back to violence, escalating the terror in search of retribution, without healing or hope.
Who do you say that I am? At home, men and women are tipped out of work as we restructure our need for more money and better standards of living for the privileged few, creating micro jobs, bonded labour and slavery, not only in developing countries but here in Australia. We turn our heads away and say nothing. We continue to buy ‘stuff’ that is destroying our world; we insist on the need for slavery in our search for ever cheaper goods because we choose not to think about how this is achieved. The value we place on the lives of God’s children is an obscenity.
Who do you say that I am? As we bicker over who is more deserving of our generosity, we sit in judgement on those have little or nothing; rejecting the pleas of the poor and dispossessed. We hug our own righteousness and faithfulness like weapons against others who are less deserving.
I am sure you too, have examples where you have asked the same question Jesus asked, ‘who do you say that I am?’
In Mark 8:27-38 Jesus described his leadership and way of life. Jesus’ description is totally at odds with his community’s preferred cultural, religious, political and economic way of imagining the Messiah, meaning the ‘anointed one’. It was a term used in his day for judges, priests, rulers and kings; people with authority, might and power over people, the capacity to control, direct, take charge, lead and enforce.
All these are leadership qualities we admire today and seek to copy. We talk of power, might, glory and honour and yet….Jesus talked about a different way of leadership, in response to the same issues we face.
Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking (Isaiah 59:14-15).
We stand in the marketplaces and in our fields, in the bush, at the beaches, in our towns and cities and we do what Peter did. We accept gratefully, deliberately, the invitation offered to us to join the oppressors, to be in solidarity with the powerful, in safety hanging onto our possessions with both hands, along with our status, our privileges and our world. Only it’s not the type of leadership offered by Jesus.
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; …we held him of no account…he was oppressed and he was afflicted yet he did not open his mouth; …. upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed….because he poured out himself to death (Isaiah 53:2-12).
Jesus describes his death to his disciples. He says:
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
This is a clear invitation to accept a new understanding of identity, a redefinition of who I am in relation to God and to my neighbours. God defines me, not you!
And the idea of ‘denial’ in our ‘world is confronting for us when we believe we can have anything we want. But Jesus spent his whole ministry healing and providing justice, not judging but loving, inviting not excluding. Everyone is invited to hear the Gospel.
The denial Jesus has offered us is the liberation that comes from not falling short when we judge others and ourselves; being able to see beyond our culture, language, colour, race, gender, poverty and wealth as the only way to see ourselves and others. There is a much bigger, more liberating way to live, with love and justice.
Jesus recognised we allow ourselves to be defined by what others think about us, rather than by what God thinks about us. Our lives are defined by others; this is the cross of exclusion, as the powerful invite us to join them in judging and rejecting those who don’t ‘fit’.
The cross we carry each day is the exhausting cross of exclusiveness, judgement, money, injustice, corruption, shame and guilt.
However, if we deny this judgemental worldview; what then do we become with Jesus? It is a complete paradox: we can choose to lose ourselves as we stand alongside the powerful: or save ourselves in the marketplace with Jesus.
Jesus’ invitation to become his follower is absolutely dependent on our willingness to define ourselves differently in this world; and our rejection of collusion with oppression, injustice and hatred.
So let me ask Jesus’ question again: who do you think I am?
Is Jesus, the God of power, might, wealth, and privilege; or is Jesus the God of love, justice and compassion.
And as we reflect on the images of the little boy washed up as so much trash on the water’s edge, who do you think is Jesus?
As we listen and watch the stories of the thousands fleeing violence and war, who do you think is Jesus?
As we bicker over the entry rights of who we can let in safely, where are you? Who do we think is Jesus?
Which Jesus are you following?