Who Do They Say that I Am?

A message given Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rev. Scott Summerville

Asbury United Methodist Church


Mark 8:27: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

What do people say that I am?  This is a very interesting question. What are people saying about me, how do other people see me?  Do I like the way other people see me? Do other people see me as I really am?  Do people misunderstand me?  Do I want people to see me as I see myself, or not?

In the past week I was twice mistaken for someone else.  I went to a gathering of the United Methodist pastors in our area.  As the event was about to begin a woman approached me and said, “ Scott, would you play the piano for our opening worship service; you play so beautifully.”  I said, “I would be delighted to play the piano in the opening worship service.  I have never played the piano before, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn express last night.”    (I meant to take piano lessons, really I did; I just never got around to it.)

Another day this week I was in downtown Tuckahoe waiting for my wife in front of the Chinese take-out restaurant.  I was dressed in a business suit,  having come from a formal occasion, and I was listening to my new iPod. I waited for about twenty minutes, noticing that there was a group of high school students gathered at one of the tables nearby chatting and hanging out, and to my chagrin, smoking.

After a while, and much to my surprise, one of the young people approached me.  He was a boy of 16 or 17 years of age with a baseball cap on turned around backwards and a music player wired to his ears and he seemed like a very cool guy.  He walked right up to me.  I wondered, “Why is a teenager wanting to talk to me?”  I thought I became invisible to the younger generation decades ago.  I thought, Hmmm…. Maybe I’m a cool guy after all.”  The young man was very respectful and polite as he introduced himself. He said, “I apologize for interrupting you, and I hope I’m not intruding, but I notice that you’re here, and you are wearing a suit, and you’re also listening to music, so I thought maybe you were in the music business, and I’m trying to get into the music business, and I just thought what the heck, why not ask.”

We had a very nice conversation about his music, and his plans, and his hopes and dreams for making it in the music world.  I took his name and I said if I ever came across anybody in the business I would be sure to let him know.  I’ll take your name, too, if any of you are wishing to break into show business.

We go through life with people seeing us in all kinds of ways.  Most of the time we don’t know how other people are seeing us or what they make of us or how they judge us.

When Jesus poses the question is disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” he is raising a very profound question, not only about himself, but about each of us.

It is interesting that Jesus even asks this question, “Who do people say that I am?”  since Jesus generally doesn’t seem to care what people are saying about him or thinking about him.  He seems totally focused on his mission and his ministry.  He is not about to alter what he does or says, based upon what people are saying about him.

“Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus does not ask this question out of insecurity, but very often we do.  We can become so absorbed in how others see us and speak of us that we lose our inner bearings.  One of the reasons that it is so important that churches be in ministry with the young is that there is a time in our lives when we are young when the way we are seen by others can be so significant to us, so all important — our hunger to be seen and admired by others so great — that we can adapt ourselves exclusively to the impressions of others.  Adolescence is perhaps the most crucial time in life, a time when a person needs people who will love them unselfishly, appreciate them for who they are, and affirm them for the gifts that lie within them, rather than for the superficial impressions they make.

There are times in our lives – it may be during our adolescent years, or it may be at any time of life — when we can become so confused about who we are that we surrender to others the power to tell us who we are.

When we visit the Gospels, we see Jesus encounter this person and then the next person, then the next and the next, addressing each one with the word of compassion, the word healing.

Faith in Jesus is in part placing ourselves in that gospel story and hearing the word of healing and compassion spoken to me, and to see myself through Jesus’ eyes,  seeing myself as one who is a beloved child, worthy of respect, worthy of love, gifted by God.  So that no matter how others are seeing me, and no matter how harshly  I judge myself, in faith I experience myself being seen by one who both knows me and loves me.

“Who do people say that I am?”  This is a question we all wrestle with, because we all have insecurities about who we are and how we are seen by others.  We are also not sure how much of ourselves we want others to see, so we struggle with, “Who am I on the inside, and how do I wish to be seen from the outside?”

We wrestle with the dilemma: “If other people actually know me, they will not love me, so I must be seen as something other than who I am, in order that I may be loved, but if it is not me they love, then I cannot feel loved.”  Round and round and round we go in this desperate circle, until we can be loved for who we are, and be set free.

When we are able to grow in our acceptance of self, in our healthy love of self, then the person we are on the outside of the person we are the inside can come into harmony, and we are not struggling to be something we are not; we are simply able to be who we are.

The goal of every Christian community should be to be such a place, a place where people can grow in a healthy love of self, rooted in God’s love for each being, in an atmosphere where people experience the freedom to be themselves.

It would be easy enough to stand in the pulpit and to say, “It doesn’t matter what people think of you.”  But it does matter to all of us how we are seen by others, so it is very important that we surround ourselves with people whose judgments are compassionate and who love us and seek for us what is best.

In abusive relationships people get emotionally hooked and emotionally tangled in trying to be what someone else wants them to be, but that someone else does not love them, at least not in a healthy way.

There are probably a few people, a very few people, who have arrived at such a state of psychological and spiritual maturity and wisdom that they can truly say, “It does not matter to me what others say or what others think.”  But those people are very rare.

Because we do care what others see in us, it is so important to surround ourselves with people who see the best in us and want the best for us.

The church that is described in the Scriptures is a place where that is so, where there is acceptance of people in all their variety, where each is one is challenged to grow in love, and where people of every condition of life are part of the same body of Christ.

I return then to Jesus, and to the question he asked about himself, “Who do people say that I am?”

In his book Tomorrow’s Faith, a New Framework of Christian Belief,   Adrian Smith sets out thirty propositions.  In each case he states what he feels is a familiar and traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine.  He says “a” familiar doctrine, not “the” familiar doctrine, because he recognizes that there has always been a lot of diversity in Christian teaching.

Alongside each of these familiar or traditional understandings he gives a contemporary understanding.  Again, he does not say it is the true understanding or the only understanding – just that it is a different and more contemporary way of expressing a traditional and familiar doctrine.  The book is set out in such a way that there can be a discussion about each of these traditional and contemporary ways of looking at Christian teaching.

In a chapter entitled Jesus and His Message, he writes this:


Jesus is God-made-man who came down from Heaven to save us.


Jesus is a manifestation of God who lived among us to show and empower us to live by higher values, which he called the ‘Kingdom of God’.

He then gives some historical and biblical background to encourage discussion about how we see Jesus —

Who do I say Jesus is?  Who do you say that he is?  When you tell me who Jesus is for you, what do you base it upon?  Does he whisper in your ear? Did you get your Jesus from a Sunday school teacher, a pastor, a parent, a grandparent, a preacher?  Do you get your Jesus from regular deep reading of the Scriptures?  Do you get your Jesus when the communion bread and wine are given to you?  Who is your Jesus, and how did you come to know him?  Does a traditional conception of Jesus as one who was in a place we call heaven and came down to earth to save us and went back up again conform to your understanding of Jesus?  Does the contemporary statement found in the book  I mentioned make any sense to you?  Jesus is a manifestation of God, who lived among us to show and empower us to live by higher values, which he called the kingdom of God?

Our Methodist heritage, our roots in the teaching of John Wesley, convey to us a Jesus who is both deeply personal and deeply social.

In our time there is tremendous fascination with the personal Jesus.  For many Christians the only Jesus they know is the private Jesus, the personal Jesus.  “I come to the garden alone, while the dew on the roses… and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.”  Just me and Jesus – all alone — surrounded by sweet smelling flowers.

According to our founder John Wesley, “We know no gospel that is not a social gospel.”  Personal faith cannot be separated from the world we live in.  The personal Jesus, the one we meet in the Scriptures, who speaks to us the personal word of truth, healing and forgiving love, that personal Jesus cannot be separated from the world we inhabit today and the challenges and pains suffering of this world.

The personal Jesus without the social gospel is religious fantasy and escapism.

The only occasion we know of that Jesus spent time in a garden was the night he spent in the deepest turmoil of his soul, because the next day he was to have the full violent force of the empire of Rome coming down upon his head.

There is more to Jesus than we can find privately.  There is a Jesus greater than the purely private Jesus. abuse contacts . The greater Jesus is the one who is alive in the world as mediator, as peacemaker, as reconciler, and as force for justice.  In our Methodist tradition we encounter Jesus in the depths of private prayer and in the struggle for human dignity and equality.  We encounter Jesus in the joy of songs sung here, and in the works of justice and mercy in the world.

We encounter Jesus is the breaking of the communion bread, and we encounter Jesus in the brokenness of the earth, the hurts of people, the struggles we undertake with others to bring about change.

Who do people say that I am?  Who do people say that you are? Does it matter?  Maybe as we grow wiser and stronger it will matter less and less.

Who do we say he is – this Jesus of long ago and today?   Prophet, Son of God, Savior, Rabbi, Healer, friend of sinners, friend of the poor,  preacher of the Kingdom of God….?

We will never be able to say completely or perfectly who he is, but Christians need to contend with this question actively over the course of their lifetimes – otherwise Jesus becomes a faded image in our brains, instead of the living word that feeds us and sends us out to live and serve in his name.

Grace and peace to you.