During college I had the unbelievable good fortune to take a trip to Israel. I went with the Classics department of my college to work on an archaeological dig at the foot of the Golan Heights. It was an incredible, life changing trip for me, and if you ask me about sometime I tell you some of the more important things I did, and some of the incredible things I learned. But not now. Now I want to talk to you about Ketchup in Israel. One of our group leaders was an Israeli man by the name of Gabe. One of our first days I got to talking to Gabe at the work site and we began discussing the cuisine of our respective homelands. Gabe said the one American food that baffled him the most was Ketchup. I found this difficult to believe, that someone could feel strongly about not liking ketchup, among the most bland of all the condiments. But that afternoon as we ate our lunches in the Kibbutz where we were staying, I got a big helping of fries and took several packets of ketchup with me. When I opened the packets and squeezed out their contents, I was appalled. I don’t know what that stuff was, but sure as heck wasn’t ketchup. It was like a salty, runny, tomato jelly. It was gross. When I asked Gabe if this was what he meant by ketchup, he said, “Yes. Ketchup is awful.” I lost touch with Gabe many years ago, but I wonder if he ever got to taste real ketchup, heinz 57 ketchup. I wonder if tasting the real thing could have change his mind.
After spending months with his disciples publicly teaching, healing, feeding and forgiving, Jesus takes them to the city Caesara Phillipi where he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” Apparently, Jesus had been causing quite a stir because all different kinds of people, had all kinds of different ideas about who he was. Some said he was John the Baptist, back from the dead. Others said he was Elijah, the prophet swept up in God’s chariot and due to return one day. Others simply thought he was another in the long line of Hebrew prophets. There was widespread disagreement about who Jesus was during his life.
Today widespread disagreement about who Jesus was, and who Jesus is remains. To some Jesus is wise old sage whose ethical teaching is extraordinary and worth following. There are those who believe that Jesus is a social and political revolutionary, subverting the power of Rome and of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. To others Jesus is the Son of God and True God, the incarnation of God’s love in the world. There are other questions as well, questions about what Jesus does. Does Jesus exclude people from salvation? Is Jesus particularly fond of America, does he put America first? Is Jesus Lord only over our religious lives, with no place in our social, economic and political lives?
Though not ultimately significant, what other people say about Jesus is important to all of us. For the way that we all begin to learn about Jesus, is by hearing others talk about him. We learn from Sunday School teachers, from songs like Jesus Loves Me, from books, from sermons, from our parents. One way or another we are always introduced to Jesus by the words, actions, and thoughts of others. For some of us, what we first learned from others about Jesus was helpful and healing. For others of us, what we first learned about Jesus from others was to fear His judgment, to hide from him our shame, to attempt to attain moral perfection in our following of him. These early lessons about who Jesus is have a way of sticking around, of becoming concrete in our minds. We may hold onto to the belief that Jesus is a demanding judge eager to punish as if that were all that Jesus could be. As though our teachers, our parents, had a monopoly on the understanding of Jesus. This is who Jesus is they say, and we accept it because we don’t yet know Jesus for ourselves. We have yet to taste Heinz 57 and yet we are already claiming that we hate ketchup.
Jesus is not satisfied to hear only what others have said about him. He asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Now is not the time fall back on blandly repeating ancient creeds, now is not the time to say what “those Christians say.” Now is the time for you, yourself, to decide what you think about Jesus. Who do you say he is?
The answers to this question have been as diverse as the people who have attempted to answer it. We each bring our own experiences to the question. We bring along lessons we have learned in childhood and life, our gifts and talents, our traumas and our baggage, and maybe even our hope, as we approach this question. As we are all different, so too will are understandings of Jesus be different. That is ok. In fact it is better than ok, it is good. It is good because Jesus is not a formula, he is not math problem, there isn’t just one right answer. Jesus appears differently to different people in different contexts. By hearing these other perspectives we can a greater, more profound understanding of what Jesus means for us. For ourselves.
However, being that I am a preacher of the gospel, I will suggest a broad understanding, a framework for our thinking about Jesus. Over centuries of debate, councils, conflicts, reformations, and even all out war over the question of who Jesus is, there is one answer broad enough to be inclusive of nearly every view of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. That is to say that for Christians Jesus is what God is like. We learn about God, about God’s love and grace, from the stories of Jesus. How we understand God, and how we understand Jesus to be like God, are ongoing questions, they evolve just as we do. What we believed about God and Jesus as children is likely different from what we believe today. That doesn’t mean we were wrong then, or that we are wrong now, it means only that we continue to wrestle with our faith, with our answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
We are starting our confirmation class this afternoon. Over the next year our youth will learn about the Bible, about Theology, about Church History. They will get to read and hear what other people, both dead and alive, have said about who Jesus is. But we won’t stop with them reciting other people’s opinions. We will ask them to state what they believe right now. How do they understand God and the world? Who do they say that Jesus is? We ask this question knowing full well that over the course of their lives these beliefs may change. They may find a new of thinking about Jesus during the course of their lives, they may discover that what they thought was ketchup was really just runny tomato jelly. They may stumble onto a new understanding that feels like Heinz 57 to them, like the real deal.
As for us adults, we too must continue to answer this question about who Jesus is for us. We are many different people, with very different backgrounds, and very different understandings of Jesus. I have no desire to create and enforce a singular uniform understanding of God and Jesus here at St. Paul’s. However, I do want us to create a safe space in this church and in our hearts to explore the question of who Jesus is for us. To do that we have to be willing to open ourselves again to the question. We have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. We have to brave enough to throw out ideas of Jesus that no longer serve us, ideas of God that have caused us trauma. We have to be willing to take up what heals us, and to always be trying to grow in spirit and in understanding. My prayer is that we not be content with what others have told us about Christ, but rather that we will find the courage to leave behind understandings that have become problematic, and to dare to answer for ourselves what Jesus really means for us. My prayer is that we grow together in our diverse understandings of God and Christ, so that we can get ever closer to experiencing the truth of Christ, ever closer to finding that real stuff, that Heinz 57 Jesus that is out there for all of us. Amen.