Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

This evening’s New Testament reading is taken from the 9th Chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. A few verses before those we heard read tonight, portray Herod asking a question. Herod has heard about the works that the twelve disciples of Jesus have done, going through the villages, bringing the good news to those who welcomed them, and curing diseases everywhere.

[Herod] is perplexed, because it was said by some that John has been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah has appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets has arisen. Herod says, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tries to see him. (Luke 9:7-9)

Who is this? Who is this about whom I hear such things?

Luke’s Gospel is woven with this question. The religious leaders ask it (5:21), those who eat with Jesus ask it (7:49) and when Jesus has calmed a storm on the sea, the disciples ask it – “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (8:25)

The reader, hearer of this gospel knows the answer. Or we think we know the answer. Gabriel announced to Mary, in their encounter in the first chapter, that her child “will be holy. …[and] will be called Son of God.” (1:35) And, at his baptism, God said to Jesus, “You are my Son the Beloved …” (2:22). The reader, hearer, of the gospel knows, and yet that knowledge is such that the reader, hearer’s, whole life is needed to embrace it. And so here we are on a cold Sunday evening; we think we know the answer and yet the question rings and we find ourselves straining to ponder the question again. Who is this? Who is this we have come to hear about?

The writer of Luke’s gospel follows Herod’s question with an account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This story is placed between Herod’s question about Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ own question to the disciples. The questions are bookends to the feeding story, the feeding story shining light on the question of identity. Jesus is hoping for some time alone with the disciples but the crowd follow him. He welcomes them, and speaks to them about the kingdom of God, and he heals those who need to be cured. As the day draws to a close, the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowd away to the nearby villages to find food. Jesus, though, has other ideas. ‘You give them something to eat.’ He says.

We know well, and those who witnessed the feeding and those who heard the story in the early years of the Christian church would have known better, that this miraculous feeding strongly resonates with the story of the feeding of the Israelites with manna, bread from heaven, in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus. It is God who feeds like this, just as it is God who forgives and God who commands the winds and the seas.

Who is this? Herod asks, the disciples ask, the religious leaders ask. Who is this? This Jesus is behaving as God behaves. This Jesus, in this gospel account, feeds the hungry when there is just not enough food to go around. And feeds with such generosity that there are twelve baskets of broken pieces left over. This Jesus seems to be a miraculous success story but he knows that it is not quite like that and the time has come for him to ask the question of them.

Once when Jesus* is praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asks them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answer, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He says to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘The Messiah* of God.’ (9:18-20)

Notice the connection with Herod’s pondering …John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the ancient prophets has arisen … the words are almost identical. These are only characters they know about… the only possible answers they have open to them. But Jesus is different, Jesus is in a category all of his own. He says to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘The Messiah* of God.’ Peter uses the character of hope for the Israelite people. The Messiah of God. The one who will redeem them. Only Jesus knows that they don’t understand what the Messiah of God means.

And so finally Jesus answers the question. All that the disciples thought about following one who heals and forgives and feeds and calms storms is shattered. For the way of God in this Jesus is not the way of the political messiah of popular expectations.

[Jesus] sternly orders and commands them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ (9:21-22)

The writer of Luke’s Gospel has Jesus speak to the disciples in the same way that he spoke to the unclean spirits, and the fevers that held the sick in their clutches, and the wind and the sea. He sternly orders, he rebukes, them. These are very strong words. Jesus is using his power to silence them for they do not understand what they are saying. And he tells them about God’s way and what his messiahship means. The Son of Man – a term that resonates with the idea of messiah for the Jewish people – must undergo great suffering, must be killed … and on the third day be raised. It is a divine necessity that these things happen. This is God’s way.

And then Jesus talks about the disciples, talks about us.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (9:23-24)

One scholar talks about Jesus using the language of battle here – “It echoes the exhortations given to soldiers about to enter battle. The first to die will be those who turn and run. The one who seeks to preserve his or her life will lose it, but the one who gives no thought to the preservation of life will keep it.”[1]

It is easy to misinterpret Jesus’ words – to hear him say that we are to suffer, that discipleship is about suffering. I do not think that the God who made us and loves us and forgives us and sets us free wishes us to suffer. God abhors suffering, took on suffering that creation might be freed from it. The cross was Jesus’ way, Jesus life, strangely. Jesus turned and faced Jerusalem where he knew his cross stood, but he believed that his Father would bring life through the determined walk he undertook. I think that Jesus might be saying to us, “Take up your life daily and follow me.” Take up your life. Do not turn and run from it. Believe, as I do, that God will accompany you, will redeem you. Take up your life and follow me.

Jesus’ way, though, his path, is to Jerusalem and the cross. For he believed that life and redemption for all things was found there.

Something in us knows about Jesus’ answer to the question of his identity, something in us gets it. Something in us knows that it is not just about miracles. For when we hear the story of the feeding of five thousand people and the twelve baskets of left over pieces, something in us cries out about the hungry in the refugee camps in the world, and even on our streets, and we wonder about the miraculous feeding. And when we hear the story of the healing of the sick something in us cries out about the one we love who has died, and we wonder why God wouldn’t bring healing there. And when we hear the story of the calming of the storm something in us wonders about the storm of political and financial uncertainty and ruthless violence that seems to have engulfed our world and we wonder about God’s power to calm nature’s storms. There’s no easy answer to this question of who Jesus is.

But here we are this Sunday night asking it again. The question that will challenge and yet in some way sustain us all our life. Who is this Jesus?

[1] R. Allan Culpepper “The Gospel of Luke” in New Interpreter’s Bible p202.