The Revd Margaret Legg
The Queen has made it clear that she does not want to be known/defined by the longevity of her reign. To be the longest reigning monarch in British history is not something to which she has ever aspired. It has come about partly because she happens to be the beneficiary of a long life and partly because of her father’s early and untimely death. It’s not her call, the public will make up its own mind.
Depending on who they are, there will be have many different answers to that question: Who do people say that I am? For the historian – she’s head of the Commonwealth. It might never have originated or survived without her, for the diplomatist she is ‘soft power’, for the Republican, she is an old lady who should have retired decades ago, for her loyal subjects she is a symbol of stability in a changing and restless world, for Christians she is an example of steady faith and service to others.
In the same way, the public in Jesus’ day had many answers to his question ‘Who do people say that I am? The disciples tell it to him straight. Some say: John the Baptist, who like Jesus was a good man calling people to lead a better life. Others say, Elijah for the Jews one of the greatest teachers of all time.
A prophet, actually, this is just a warm up question. Jesus is much more interested in the disciples’ personal view of who he is, but he quickly continues, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Yet it’s as relevant now as it was then. The secular view is that it doesn’t matter – faith is increasingly irrelevant.
Fanatics like the self styled Islamic State Jehadists will stop at nothing to eliminate those of a different faith from themselves. We need to be able to defend and explain our faith and our explanations will only carry weight if we can speak from our hearts, sincerely and coherently. ‘Who, if we were asked, do you say Jesus is?’
Earlier this week it happened to me. At St Mary’s Hospital visiting patients, as an honorary chaplain. One asked me my religion. On learning it was Christian he asked ‘Who is Jesus?’ Through my mind went a dozen random thoughts: Looks like a Muslim; he’s really poorly (he had a tube down his throat and could only speak in a hoarse whisper); I’m being shadowed by a prospective volunteer chaplain so my reply must make sense; no chance to check out what Aquinas or Karl Barth have to say and anyway a text book answer like’ Jesus is the eschatological fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenants’ won’t actually cut the mustard. I need to reply quickly, with personal conviction, from my heart. And it’s difficult to answer, the disciples readily reported on the public’s views of who Jesus is. Only one – Peter - managed to give his personal opinion.
Mark's gospel, after Peter’s astonishing reply that Jesus was the Messiah, orders them to secrecy. One of the great thrusts of Mark’s gospel, as Rowan Williams explains in ‘Meeting God in mark’, is mystery. Time and again Jesus asks the disciples, people who he has healed, witnesses to his miracles, not to tell anyone. They do spill the beans though, because it’s easy to say Jesus is a healer, rabbi, good man, especially when you have first hand experience; but Mark’s God is not someone who steps down from heaven to answer a problem and then disappears; Mark’s God is much more than that. He is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and pain in himself and always working to transform it through his love, mercy and grace. Persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and across the world know this. It sustains them and encourages them. Writing at a time of persecution, this is what fearful Christians living in dangerous circumstances needed to know.
In the earliest manuscripts for Mark, the Gospel ends suddenly. On the first Easter Morning, the women find the tomb empty. Go and tell the news, urges the angel in the empty tomb. They go away in fear and amazement and say nothing. The world has changed through the resurrection, this is the heart of our faith, but it was too difficult to talk about.
Meanwhile the patient was waiting for my response. ‘Jesus is God’, I managed to say. Instantly he came back at me: ’How do you know?’ ‘Because he rose from the dead’ ‘Who raised him’, countered the patient. ‘God did.' ‘So you believe in 2 Gods.’
And so it would have continued, the patient fixed on my belief in 2 Gods. I adamant that Jesus is God as a human, God incarnate, except that I said my goodbyes and went on my way, shaken but not stirred (unsettled and pondering).
The Queen has evidently thought a lot about who Jesus is for her and is not backward in coming forward with her views! One of the pundits this week commented that her Christmas Broadcasts were becoming more and more like sermons! In her 2011 broadcast, she said: God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) - but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
Chatting to Rebecca, our baptism candidate's mother on Friday, we discussed how to explain to a 4 year old what Baptism was all about. What would be going on at his Christening. Having seen how bright, energetic and engaged he is, I realised this was an important point. Who, for Christopher, is Jesus? As Christopher grows older, he will ask these questions for himself and he will look to you in the first instance for answers; be prepared Andrew and Rebecca! We came up with: Life giver. Jesus gives us life – it’s not magic; Guide. Picture Jesus holding a torch and walking alongside you, showing you the right way to go; Family head. Today Jesus invites you to join his family, we who come together in church, his house, to speak to him In our prayers. And you have said ‘yes’! He invites each of us to join him and journey with him. An invitation that today Christopher’s parents have accepted on his behalf.An invitation issued to each of us that begins with this question from Jesus himself:
Who do you say that I am?