Shortly after graduating from the Divinity School, I purchased a book – Jesus Through the Centuries – that looked interesting and immediately put it on my shelf to read later. When later arrived (quite a while later, I confess), I was enthralled and some of my constructs for the ways I understood and viewed the development of the Christian movement shifted.
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan argues in this book what now seems to me self-evident: that every culture and generation views Jesus through its own filters. The earliest followers and disciples understood Jesus through a Jewish filter as “the rabbi.” By the third century, as the clash between church and Rome heightened until Constantine’s “conversion,” he was seen as the King of Kings, standing above and against the power and threat of Caesar. Fourth century church fathers, formed by Platonic philosophy, emphasized the Cosmic Christ; the monastic movement of the Middle Ages understood Jesus as the Monk Who Rules the World; the Reformation era sees the Prince of Peace; the Enlightenment, the Teacher of Common Sense; the Romantics, the Poet of the Soul; the 20th century, The Liberator. Those are just a sampling of the ways Jesus has been viewed “through the centuries.” I am not certain what framework Pelikan would argue for the 21st century (the book was published in 1985) unless it is still the last of those he suggests, The Man Who Belongs to the World – a Jesus that is larger even than the bounds of Christianity, one who belongs to people of all faiths.
What is most obvious, I suspect, is that our view of Jesus says as much, if not more, about us than it does about Jesus himself. Witness the ways that Christians cannot even agree on what is the fundamental purpose of the Incarnation or the heart of Jesus’ teaching (Christians? Methodists cannot even agree!). If, for example, we believe Jesus came solely to die for our sins and get us into heaven, that implies one thing. But if we believe that Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, that means another. And we run everything through that filter.
Sooner or later, it is a question that we must grapple with if we are to follow him. Peering through the haze and mists of time and history we must come to an answer to the question: who is Jesus? It is not a new question. It is as old as the church itself. In one of the best known stories of the Bible (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus ask his disciples what other people are saying about him before asking the personal question: who do you say that I am?
We will wrestle with that question this Sunday as we gather for worship. We will look at how Peter answered and consider what that might mean for us. And we will share in our last Sunday of August “hymn sings.” I hope to see you Sunday and invite you between now and then to consider how you answer that question that Jesus poses to each of us: what do you say? who do you say that I am?
Grace and peace.