The question of Jesus’ identity,

Revd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 10th August, 2014

Trinity 8A: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14: 22-33

At the very heart of the Christian faith is the inescapable figure of Jesus Christ. And the readings set for today and indeed for the next few weeks are inextricably bound up with the question of Jesus’ identity, who Jesus is. In a fortnight, Jesus will put the question to the disciples in terms: who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?

That question has been a matter of huge debate down the centuries and continues to be so today: who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? It seems that not a year goes by without some novel (and I use that word advisedly!) interpretation of Jesus life, mission and identity, usually appealing to the literature generally known as the ‘Gnostic Gospels’. This tends to present Jesus as a teacher of secret and esoteric wisdom confined to an intimate group of specially selected disciples, usually including Mary Magdalen, with whom Jesus appears to be on especially close terms. This proves that the identity and personality of Jesus continue to be a subject of enduring fascination for many people even as they have become antagonistic towards, or indifferent to the institutional church. This is why Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code proved so widely popular when it was first published a decade ago.

I said I used the word ‘novel’ advisedly because there hasn’t been a genuinely new interpretation of Jesus’ identity for nearly 2000 years. Every supposedly new presentation of Jesus has been a variant on two basic answers offered to the question, who do you say that I am? The first attempts to bring Jesus down to earth and to anchor him there. On this view, Jesus was a prophet of God, but no more than a prophet, a holy man of God, but no more than that. Jesus is to be ranked with the other holy men and women in Israel’s history, such as Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah, and alongside the sages of the world’s religious traditions, Buddha, and Muhammad. To Gandhi, Jesus was “one of the greatest teachers humanity ever had”, but he was not God’s only begotten Son.

The second interpretation of Jesus’ identity has tended to detach Jesus from his earthly moorings in and to set him freely floating into space. Here, Jesus is an otherworldly, transcendent being of immense power, a kind of alien, in whose light, the things of earth become strangely dim. Jesus relates to earth tenuously like a tangent touching a circle.

The Church came to reject both these interpretations of Jesus as heretical. The word heresy literally means ‘choice’, ‘opinion’, or ‘thing chosen’. We tend to react to the word ‘heresy’ with a deep intake of breath, the shake of a head, and an emotive growl, ‘baaaad’. However, heresies were originally the choices or opinions some people or groups of people made about the meaning of Jesus, which they could often powerfully justify on biblical grounds. In the early centuries, Christianity was an enormously diverse movement with many different opinions about Jesus circulating. However, as the Church continued to reflect on its experience of Jesus, it became apparent that certain views did not hang together well with all that the Church wanted to declare about Him. The Church concluded that certain choices or opinions that might seem innocuous at first blush had serious implications if they were taken to their logical conclusion. For example, how could Jesus save humankind, if he himself were merely human, however exceptional? How could Jesus know what it was like to be fully human, to be, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews put it, tempted as we are, albeit without sin, if he were in fact some ghostly alien, appearing, but not engaging, with the earthly reality?

We can see in our Gospel reading that this process of reflection on the meaning of Jesus began during the very lifetime of Jesus. Whatever account we give of Jesus, what is clear is that the force of his impact on his followers led to a train of reflection, which revolutionised their thinking about God.
The Gospel of Matthew is throughout committed to the proposition that Jesus is greater than Moses is. Jesus is the new Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount, he is the new Law Giver, embodying a new righteousness. Our reading begins with Jesus dismissing the crowds and committing his disciples to a boat the sea, while he ascends a mountain to pray, as Moses and Elijah did, Moses to take delivery of the Law, Elijah, as our OT reading makes clear, to discern the presence of God in the sound of sheer silence.

Jesus then descends from the mountain, and walks across the water. A squall of the kind that can menace the Sea of Galilee in the twinkle of an eye is battering the boat in which deeply frightened disciples are huddled. It is here that we become aware of the greater claim for Jesus implicitly being made. We read in Job 9:8 that “God alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” Jesus is not merely greater than Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the Lord of the Universe, the Maker and Framer of all that is, who in the beginning tamed the waters of chaos with a word.

This Jesus is more than merely human; he can walk on water, and the wind and the water obey him. However, he is not inhuman. He reaches out to Peter at his moment of greatest need. One commentator has insightfully pointed out that the words, “Lord save me usually taken to be an expression of faith, can be understood as a manifestation of doubt. After all, why should it have entered Peter’s head that the Lord wouldn’t save. Yet it precisely at this moment of hesitation, that Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter, saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt”. The intimate saving encounter between Jesus and Peter that elicits a collective confession of faith “And those in the boat worshipped him saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Here we have the clue to the Church’s eventual decision to reject those choices and opinions, those heresies, which over-stressed either Jesus’ humanity or his divinity. Jesus is God who encounters us at our moment of greatest need, or doubt, or distress, and reaches out saying to us “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” This word ‘heart’ is significant. The Latin word for heart is cor, in French coeur, from which we get our word courage. Faith is a form of courage, acting from the heart, the depth of our being, in the face of even the greatest difficulties that beset us. It was this experience of the early Christians that convinced them and the Church that no view of Jesus that either domesticated him or alienated him from the concrete concerns of human beings would do.

Thank God for that.


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