“Who do you say I am?”
Jesus, asking this profound question of his disciples is the gospel reading for today (Mark 8: 27 – end.) It is a tipping point moment in the gospels and was one for me in my very early days as a grown up Christian. I remember the sermon when the preacher put that question to us, asking each of us individually how we would respond if Jesus stood in front of us today and questioned us. It was, I think, the first time anyone had put me on the spot like that and I am really glad they did. That was the moment when I first named Jesus to myself as Lord. In the gospels, it is the first time that any of the disciples calls Jesus, “the Christ.” Peter takes a huge step as he says this, but the next moment we see how limited his understanding is of Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ way of being Messiah, when he tells Jesus off for foretelling his future arrest and death.
I thought I knew this story pretty well until this last week when I was on the local diocesan clergy conference. We had a speaker from South India, a man who had grown up as a Dalit (meaning “oppressed” in Hindi and Marathi, the self-chosen political name of the castes in India who were formerly considered “untouchable” according to the Hindu varna system.) Our speaker came from a village which in the mid nineteenth century had converted as an entire community to Christianity and changed the name of their township to Nazareth.
“Who do you say I am?”
As we were invited to consider this question again we were invited to do so not through the eyes of white, largely middle class respectable and respected people from the Midlands, but through the eyes of the world Church. What had made a whole community of people change their faith allegiance in a country that didn’t know what the word “Christ” meant?
When we have to translate a word for someone we have to go back to its basic meaning. In translating Christ, our speaker told us, the early missionaries did not talked about a culture far away but put the story into their listeners’ experience. Christ was the answer to these peoples’ deepest desire in life and their deepest need for meaning. As Dalits, looked down upon by everyone and virtually enslaved by money lenders, their greatest need was to be respected and to be free. In the gospel of Christ, the Son of God, and in the human person of Jesus they found that God loved them, respected them and gave them freedom: an internal freedom of self-value they had never known before.
Having explored the image of Christ in the eyes of some people from South India, we then looked, through paintings and pictures, at how Christ is seen by all sorts of other cultures throughout our world. Not for them the blue-eyed Hollywood Jesus with the shoulder length oh-so-clean hair, but the Chinese and the West Indian, the Nigerian and South Korean.
We have turned the name ‘Christ’ into Jesus’ surname or we use it academically. But in a world that needs God so much but can’t cope with the God as presented by traditional religion, surely we need to ask what are we actually offering when we talk about Christ? Who do we say Christ is? Who do people need him to be? Surely, he is the answer to ours (and theirs) deepest desire and longing for meaning.