April 3, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
Life’s Great Question
For the past four years I have taught a class once a week at Highlands Latin School in Louisville. I lead the class through St. Augustine’s great book the City of God. One of the things I do each year is to show my class a series of pictures of Jesus. They are pictures of Jesus from various cultures and it’s interesting not only to see how those cultures view Jesus but also the reaction of the class to the pictures.
This first picture is Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, painted in 1940. This picture is arguably the most well-known portrait of Jesus and it has been commercially reproduced well over 500 million times –
You are probably familiar with another of Sallman’s works – Christ At Heart’s Door –
The next picture is one that also has the "classic Jesus" look –
We look at those pictures and think, that’s Jesus. But as we move through the pictures they start to change. Next, we see the blonde-hair, blue-eyed Jesus. Though we don't know what Jesus looked like, I'm certain he didn't have blonde hair or blue eyes –
Next are several newer renderings of Jesus. First is what I would call the “surfer-dude” Jesus, because he seems to have that laid-back, dude kind of look. It’s certainly a transition from the more serious take on Jesus –
Next is a portrait that most people would not think of as Jesus unless you knew that was the artist’s intent. I would call this the “coffee-house” Jesus, because he looks like someone you would find sitting in a coffee shop reciting poetry or singing a James Taylor song –
Next is a portrait commonly called “the laughing Jesus.” Its original title is “Jesus Christ Liberator” and was painted by Willis Wheatley in 1973. It is another portrait seeking to present a less somber view of Jesus –
Then we come to some portraits that reflect other cultures and their interpretation of Jesus. This is where my class starts to say things such as, that’s not right. Jesus didn’t look like that. Probably not, but he also didn’t look like the others either. The first is the African Jesus –
And another of the African Jesus –
Next is the South American Jesus, who looks remarkably like P. Diddy –
Then we have the Russian Jesus –
The Asian Jesus –
The Native-American Jesus, reflecting the Trinity –
And lastly, a portrayal commissioned by National Geographic magazine. National Geographic commissioned a CSI-type forensics specialist to construct an image of what a 30-something Jewish man in the time of Jesus might look like. Here is the result, which is very unlike Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ –
What is the point of showing these pictures? The point relates to the question at the heart of our message this morning from Matthew’s gospel, which is, I believe, Life’s Great Question.
Our Scripture text for today tells us that Jesus takes his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, and while there he asks them who do people say the Son of Man is? (the Son of Man being Jesus). The disciples answer that people believed him to be one of the prophets returned, perhaps John the Baptist, or Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets of old.
Then he asks them that most important question, Life’s Great Question – But what about you? Who do you say I am?
Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly ministry, so he confronts his disciples with this question of incredible importance. It is a question that seeks to determine whether they have grasped the truth of who he is or if they possess a view of Jesus based upon the misconceptions people at that time had about Jesus.
Jesus was very intentional, I believe, about taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi to ask this question. Caesarea Philippi was a center of many religions; it was a buffet of religious beliefs. In Caesarea Philippi one would find many temples dedicated to the worship of the Greek and Syrian gods and it also had a temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperor. It was a way of asking his disciples if they could sort through all the layers of expectations and interpretations people layered upon Jesus.
What Jesus knew was that people carried all manner of opinions into their view of him, which is still true today, and that’s the point of showing the pictures of Jesus – we tend to see Jesus in light of who we want him to be; we want him to be like us – Jesus, we might think, would not only look like us, but also act like us and think like us, and we then begin to create a Jesus in our image rather than conforming ourselves to his image.
We see this danger in the passage that follows this morning’s Scripture reading. After Peter’s confession of faith Jesus tells his disciples that he must travel to Jerusalem and be crucified. Peter immediately takes him aside and begins, Matthew says to rebuke him (Jesus). Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter had a vision for the way Jesus should act, and going to Jerusalem and being crucified was not a part of that vision, so he literally steps forward in order to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem.
Do you remember the WWJD bracelets that were popular a while back? WWJD stood for What Would Jesus Do? It’s a phrase borrowed from Charles Sheldon’s Book In His Steps, published in 1896. There have been numerous variations of that question in recent years. Now you see What Would Jesus Drive, What Would Jesus Buy, What Would Jesus Cut, What Would Jesus Listen To, Where Would Jesus Shop, How Would Jesus Vote, and on and on. Although I think those are all well-intentioned, the problem is they all hold up a particular lens through which people see Jesus. It’s a way of saying I know what Jesus would or wouldn’t drive, I know what he would or wouldn’t buy, I know where he would or wouldn’t shop, I know what he would or wouldn’t cut from the budget, I know what he would or wouldn’t listen to or read, and I know how he would vote.
I think one of the very clear statements made in the gospels is Jesus often did the unexpected. Just when the disciples thought they had him figured out and knew what to expect Jesus surprised them. And the reason Jesus surprised them, I believe, is because he wanted to blow away the assumptions they made of him and the vision they began to craft of who he should be.
But Jesus does something else fascinating in this passage. Not only does he break down the mistaken assumptions people make about him, he also challenges us to break down the assumptions and limitations people place upon is. He does this in his response to Peter’s confession of faith. Peter’s given name was Simon, but Jesus called him Peter, which is from the Greek word for rock. Peter was anything but a rock, in terms of his faith. He was hardheaded, but he was often stumbling in his faith, which he would tragically prove when he denied Jesus three times. But where others would see failure in Peter, Jesus saw something else. Jesus saw in Peter what no one else saw, and he challenged Peter to not be limited by what others would think of him.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be defined by others. Don’t let people box you in and define you. So many people drag around the labels and the definitions that other people attach to them, and that is so unfortunate. In my younger years I used to be happy to move every few years, because it was always provided a fresh start. Sometimes we need a fresh start to leave behind the limitations people place on us. For the same reason, I’m never been a fan of nicknames, because a nickname can become a label that will define a person for years.
There are some big questions in life – Where will I go to school? What will I do for a living? Who will I marry? We put a lot of thought into those questions.
There is another big question in life – Who is Jesus, and what will he mean to me? It is a question that asks us what we will be. Will we be people who are just rationalistic materialists, seizing what we can from this life while we have it, or will we understand we are not just flesh and blood but also soul and spirit?
A group of us went to see Jesus Christ Superstar at the Derby Dinner Playhouse Friday Night. That is a powerful piece, and a great piece of music. When I was in the ninth grade our youth group went to see it at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling, West Virginia. I remembered being surprised that people were upset that we were going. My reaction was Ian Gillan of the band Deep Purple is playing the part of Jesus; how cool is that? But Superstar bothers people, and one of the reasons why, I think, is because we have a particular way of seeing Jesus, and when someone presents Jesus in a different way, that’s challenging for us.
Who do you say I am? is the question Jesus asked his disciples. It’s the same question he asks each of us as well.