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September 16, 2018

“Reinterpreting Identity”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Proverbs 1.20-33

Mark 8.27-38

September 16, 2018

While I was at General Assembly I heard a colleague tell a story about being stranded at an airport. The woman behind the airline desk announced to the group of passengers that there would be an extremely long wait for the next flight, and so they might as well settle in for a bit. A man in a business suit made a beeline for the desk and immediately began bargaining with the woman. He told her about the important meeting he needed to make and the importance of his time and that he needed to be on a flight sooner than the other passengers. She assured him that she was doing what she could but he would have to wait in line just like everyone else. He became irate and said to her: “Don’t you know who I am?” She immediately picked up the microphone and announced to the crowd: “Excuse me, everyone, but there’s a man here who doesn’t know who he is – please come help him, if you know him.”

Identity is the key of this Gospel passage – the identity of Jesus and the disciples. Did the disciples understand who Jesus was, or who they were in relation to Jesus? Do we know who we are, and our identity in relationship to Jesus? This passage is a continuation from last week. We have been making our way through the Gospel of Mark, and all along we have seen Dr. Deborah Krause’s theory of Jesus reimagining and redefining the society and culture. This professor suggests that the author of Mark portrays Jesus as going quickly from place to place in order to depict how Jesus was shifting boundaries and trying something new. In today’s scripture reading we learn about redefining identity.

Jesus has moved once again from a primarily Gentile area to what is considered a focal point of clashes between Rome and the Jews.[1] Rome was in power and this is a central area for those disagreements. So, Jesus is addressing the disciples in a place that is already fraught with tension. The area itself is attempting to be identified – was it Roman? Was it Jewish? That was up for debate.

Jesus asks the group: “Who do they say I am?” “They” could mean the Jews or the Romans or, it probably is the summation of, “What’s the word on the street about my identity?” He is almost asking to hear what gossip is going on. They tell him that people speculate whether he is John the Baptist or Elijah or a prophet. He then becomes more focused in his question and asks: “Who do you think I am?” Do they believe what others are saying?

Peter is the first to respond and names him as Messiah. We never hear whether or not Jesus agrees with this identity. Did he quiet Peter because he agreed and didn’t want others to know? Did he disagree with this label and want Peter not to share a false identity with the masses? Some theologians, especially Marcus Borg, have argued that Jesus did not believe himself to be the Messiah – and that would be fitting with the latter concept.

Whether Jesus agrees he is the Messiah or not, we might wonder if part of his hesitancy is because “Messiah” was a loaded term. He even switches to using the phrase “Son of Man” in place of “Messiah.” “Son of Man” implies a shift in understanding who Jesus is and what he was sent to do.[2] Jesus is redefining the idea of a Savior. Many believed that the Messiah at that time would save the people from Roman occupation, but here Jesus is saying he must suffer and die.[3] This is hardly the picture of an ideal hero. While Jesus certainly challenged the Roman authority, he isn’t doing what people imagined a Messiah would do. This was the shift from the Messiah being a military leader to being someone who liberated people in a different way, through different means.

Jesus was not only challenging the leaders in society, but also the way people viewed him and themselves. We know from reading different passages that people had preconceived notions about Jesus. They wondered who this man was who healed and ate with sinners. They questioned his motive, his identity, and the people with whom he ate and walked. Jesus attempted to redefine all of that – to make people who were considered outcasts part of society. He also redefined what it meant to be a disciple.

What did it mean to be a disciple? Jesus tells them that they must take up their cross. They must be prepared for the road ahead, which will be rough. He tells them to “look to the divine.” When I read this passage I thought of the sermon I heard at the last presbytery meeting in which Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, the stated clerk of the PCUSA, talked about Hebrews 12.2: Fixing our eyes on Jesus. He reminded us that Jesus told us to fix our eyes on Jesus, not on the megachurches; not on the neighbors down the street. In this passage Jesus was telling them not to worry about what others were calling Jesus – but to focus on the Divine. We can and should look at who we are as a church, but we don’t need to fix our eyes on who others think we should be as a church, or what we think churches should look like.

As we prepare for the next five, ten, and even 200 years of the church, we must look to the divine. We must fix our eyes on Jesus. While part of our identity is tied to our history, our past does not define us. We must look to Jesus, for Jesus knows where we are headed.

Author Rachel Held Evans wrote: “We know who we are, not from the birth certificate and social security numbers assigned to us by the government but from the stories told and retold to us by our community.”[4] Maybe this is why Jesus asks what people are saying, what the disciples think. He’s wondering what stories are defining him. Sometimes these stories aren’t true and must be rewritten, which is what Jesus is doing. We tell Jesus’ story at the communion table each month, and we gather to tell faith stories. Those stories help define us, but they are also not the only piece. We are constantly being shaped by our faith and by the stories we tell. What is the story you tell about this faith community? How do you identify this church? Shout out ways that you describe the church to people who aren’t here.

Can we rewrite that? Can we reinterpret the church’s identity? Jesus does that. How do we discern the difference between the stories God tells us, and the stories we tell ourselves based on what we think we should be like? Going back to what Rev. Dr. Nelson preached – are we telling ourselves we have to be a larger church because that is what God wants, or because that is what we think we want? If we are telling stories about the size of our church, that is what people will hear. What if we told stories about our prophetic witness to the community, and how we are welcoming of LGBTQIA? What if we emphasized our outreach to kids in the community, especially through our preschool? What stories are we telling?

In the proverbs passage the anthropomorphized Wisdom is telling a story. She is preaching on the streets and giving the people something to think about.[5] She makes a case for listening to God and ignoring the cultural ways, for it is not God’s ways. “Be wise,” she states. Easier said than done in our world. How often do we google a question? How many times do we look up the answer to something online? Whenever we have a question, we literally have an abundance of answers at our fingertips – whether they are truthful or not. How can we choose wisdom in a world full of choices and an overconsumption of what we might consider to be “knowledge”?[6] How do we discern between the simple and the wise?

Wisdom draws a link between divine wisdom and simple knowledge. We recognize that God is One who holds the great knowledge. Unfortunately we cannot expect five hundred answers to appear when we ask God a question – and maybe that is our struggle. We want an answer, but God’s Wisdom is not what we think we are seeking. Are we asking the right questions?

If we keep our focus on the Divine we will find Wisdom, and we will find our own identity and our relation to God. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and seek the wise counsel of the One who created us. Amen.


[1] Sharon H. Ringe, “Mark 8.27-38” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 71.

[2] Martha Moore-Keish, “Mark 8.27-38” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 70.

[3] Ringe, 69.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018), 20.

[5] Teleford Work, “Proverbs 1.20-33” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 50.

[6] Kenneth Carter, “Proverbs 1.20-33” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 50.