Who Do You Say That I Am?

The Rev. Dr. Matthew PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.




By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

In the name of the love that makes us and redeems us and keeps us. Amen.

Twenty years ago, just after the events of September 11th, a poem by W.H. Auden, the English poet, W.H Auden, came into public conversation and public consciousness, the way that poems rarely do in American culture, frankly. And I made note of this because I love poetry. And in particular, Auden is my favorite poet. The poem is called "September 1st, 1939." Auden wrote it at the outbreak of World War II, and it was read aloud on NPR. It was discussed in the New York Times. One stanza was especially powerful to me. And I think much of the reason why it was shared in public forums as it was.

Toward the end of the poem, Auden writes, "All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie. The romantic lie in the brain of the sensual man in the street and the ally of authority whose buildings grew up the sky. There is no such thing as the state and no one exists alone. Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police. We must love one another or die."

I was 24 in 2001. I was just out of the Navy. I had people, friends, mentors serving in the military, and I didn't have many illusions about what that attack would mean in terms of our response. The first two weeks as your minister here in this church, I've been complaining about the gospel lessons we've been assigned. I like this week's. It's still tricky and there's still some possibly potentially dangerous stuff in it. When Jesus calls Peter Satan, that doesn't sound real nice. In Greek, the word Satan just means adversary. So I think we can explain that away. But toward the end of the reading, there is some troubling stuff about taking up your cross, denying yourself, and following Jesus, which has been used by the Christian tradition to valorize suffering and to impress upon those who are suffering the virtue of their suffering so that they might remain in their place of oppression.

And this is not the part of the reading that I like or want to lift up today. Not that part of its reception in our tradition. But on this difficult anniversary to have Jesus speaking to us about pain and loss, I believe that this lesson does tell us something about our pain and our loss, and perhaps more importantly about our response to it. The central question of this lesson is Jesus's question to the disciples. And by extension also to us, who do you say that I am? And actually, this is the central question of the gospel of Mark shot through. In chapter four, the disciples say they see Jesus doing something miraculous, calming a storm. No, walking on water.

And they say, "Is this a ghost?" A couple of chapters later, they see him calming a storm and they say, "Who is this?" The disciples don't know. Then we come to chapter eight, these disciples who have been saying, who is this? Is he a ghost? Who can do this? Who is this? Jesus poses the question to them, "Who am I?" Peter gives his answer, which I will talk about in a minute. But the questions don't end. In chapter 11, when Jesus goes to the temple, the teacher is there, ask him by what authority do you teach these things? Who do you think you are?

In chapter 14 after Jesus has been arrested, Peter denies knowing Jesus. "I don't know who he is." In chapter 15 before Pilate, Pilate's question to Jesus, "Who are you? Are you the Messiah?" This is the question of the gospel. And it's the question posed to us and note how Jesus asks it. He says first, "Who do they say that I am?" And then only afterwards, "Who do you say that I am?" Implying that there may be some discrepancy between the way the world sees him and the way his disciples might see him.

And then the strange thing about his response, Peter answers correctly. Peter says, "You are the Christ." That Greek word Christ that means simply Messiah. Peter says, "You are the Christ." And Jesus says, "Tell no one." And then says quite openly and again and again, through the gospel of Mark, that he must go and suffer and die. "Keep my identity secret, but tell everyone what I'm about to do."

Why would Jesus be concerned to keep Peter's correct answer secret and also concerned to publish as far and as wide as he could? His description of what was to come for him. This answer that Peter rebuked him for. So let's talk about Peter's answer for a second. You are the Christ, the Messiah. The word Messiah in Hebrew just means anointed. It means you've got oil on your head, but practically speaking in ancient Israel, the king was the anointed one. And so to say that someone was the anointed one was to say that this one was the one who would come out of the line of David and would restore Israel in some way. Now, there was no real kind of general consensus about what this meant, what this restoration meant. But for many folks, especially at this time, it meant a political restoration.

For many others, even a military one. So when Peter makes the answer, "You are the Messiah," implied perhaps in that answer is you are our new king. You are the one who is going to restore Israel to political power, which is why Peter was so taken aback when Jesus says he's going to go die. Why he says stop saying that, that's not what's going to happen. And Peter is not the last one to not like Jesus's answer. A couple of chapters on from this, James and John, the sons of Zebedee say to Jesus, "When you are king, would you put us on your right hand so we can be in charge with you?" And then Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds are cheering because they believe they have seen the arrival of the one who would restore political power and authority to that kingship.

Unless we think that this is a phenomenon of first century Judea, I think this is the way we also look at Jesus. We see our faith so often as a magic token. Jesus, as a superhero who if we ask correctly, or if we ask rightly will give us what we want. Restore to us what has been lost. This religion of love that Jesus proclaims, we see as a magic wand.

But love isn't a magic wand. We know love is not a magic wand. We know this from our personal lives, all of us do. Think about the traditional marriage vows, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse. We make those vows, those vows to love not saying, I will love you only if you are rich and healthy and righteous, but because we know that poverty and illness and badness may come. We promise to love in spite of it. And I've been a pastor for over a decade and I've seen countless people do this with their lives, encounter poverty or illness or badness, and face it with love. Not an expectation that that love will be a magic wand, but because love is the best instrument they have to respond to the loss they face.

I wonder what would it mean to make this true not just in our personal lives, but in our public lives as well. What would it mean to love like this? Not just as individuals, but as a community, as a church, as a nation. Like many of you, I assume I spent yesterday reflecting upon that awful day, 20 years ago, I thought about how beautiful the day was in the morning. The choir's first anthem this morning brought that back to me again. These images seared in my head of the towers coming down. Of people, leaping out of the windows.

I wish love could take those people out of the sky and restore them to their families. I wish that love could restore the 5,000 Americans who died in the last 20 years in Afghanistan, or could restore the 150,000 Afghans, a third of them civilians who also died. We cannot undo the pain and loss of September 11th, and we cannot undo the pain and loss of 20 years of war in Afghanistan. And the tragedy of the latter has done nothing to mitigate the tragedy of the former. That is part of the grief I feel, I think that we feel this year on this anniversary.

Some broken things in this world, in this life are simply unfixable, but no broken thing is unlovable. What would it mean today on this 20th anniversary of September 11th, to commit to love in the midst of our continuing loss? What would it mean to recognize what is broken in us still and to respond to that brokenness in us with love?

Islamophobic hate crimes rose 500% in the United States after September 11th. And the worst year for hate crimes against Muslims in this country was not 2001 or 2002. It was 2016. We are still broken. In the last 20 years, the demonization of refugees and immigrants, especially, but not only those from Muslim cultures and countries has become woefully, woefully commonplace. We are still broken. And when Jesus asks us, who do you say that I am? Our answer to his question will be given in how we respond to these broken parts of ourselves.

I began today's sermon with this poem by W.H Auden. What wasn't really discussed in 2001, when it was in the popular consciousness, was that by the end of World War II, he had disavowed it. In the 50s, he said he loathed it. He called the poem a piece of trash and he loathed it. He hated it for that line that I love so much. We must love one another or die. Because Auden having lived through World War II knew that that line is a lie. What he had learned in his war was that we may have to die anyway. The choice we are given is not between the safety of love and the risk of loss. The choice we are giving is between loving or not loving when loss comes uninvited into our lives.

Auden learned his lesson from his war. I hope we have learned some lessons from ours. All through the gospel of Mark, people are saying to Jesus over and over again, "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?" And even at the cross, they cannot accept his answer. Two thousand years of Christian culture has not done much better to accept his answer. There are real threats and real traumas in our lives, and they leave us seeking, quite understandably seeking more powerful superheroes. They leave us hoping that Jesus will be that superhero for us, will assume that role in our religion, will be our magic token or our magic wand. But in response, every time we are left, like Jesus's disciples with only this one haunting question, a question which echoes from his empty tomb and which beckons us to follow him in love, despite all the manifest costs, "Who do you say that I am?"