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Who Do You Say That I Am?: A Series of Lenten Testmionies

Elizabeth Breese, Nate Jones, Jim Leone, Jenn McManus, Dave McCann & Gaylen Morgan
Sun, Mar 29

Over the past five weeks, in preaching and worship, in weekly Sunday morning learning hour, in small group scripture and book studies, we have been wresting with the questions that Jesus puts squarely to Peter in the Gospel of Mark. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?

On this Palm Sunday, we festively sing our Hosannas, joining with those early Jesus followers celebrating Jesus as the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We join today in a humble procession of people and voices who would follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem suffer into the heart of human power and violence and suffering, and into a week filled with mystery, beauty, betrayal and love.

To lead us into this Holy week, we have asked six of our fellow travelers on the road to offer brief testimonies of their own processions and progressions through this season. We’ve asked them to share a bit of what they have learned along the way about who Jesus is for them. Their statements are profound and personal and they each offer a decidedly different angle and approach.

May the words of their mouths and the careful listening and meditations of all our hearts be always to acceptable to our still speaking God.
Dan Smith

* * *

I’m Elizabeth Breese. During Lent, I participated in the Wednesday evening book study, where we read and discussed Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. There was one idea in the book that got me thinking and that inspired conversation in the group across a few of our sessions. It’s a concise idea, so I will read from page 245:

“If Jesus of Nazareth had not been understood as divine, we would never have heard of him. …Jesus will be honored in the next millennium, and beyond, only if he is still regarded as somehow divine.”

Each year that I engage with and participate in the mysteries of Lent and Holy Week, I arrive at questions to which I have no final, solid, unchanging answers. How do I understand and know Jesus as fully human and fully divine? What do I make of the miracles, walking on water and the ultimate miracle of the Resurrection?

Reading Christ Actually with the book study group, delving into the questions one can ask and ponder for a whole lifetime, and engaging with Carroll’s idea that we know about Jesus because he was understood to be divine, let me put those questions in brackets. They don’t go away, but they can remain questions.

The one thread of an answer that I find each year during the Lent and Easter seasons is that Jesus is the one who asked us to love each other as he loved us. This year, Carroll helped me to consider that if Jesus had asked his disciples to seek revenge or to hold and spread anger, we never would have known the name Jesus of Nazareth.

Love. Reconciliation. Peace. Hope. Healing. Those, Jesus shows us, are the most powerful forces in the world. They are powerful forces to us as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a global community.

I will always fall short. I will never perfectly love others as Jesus loved us.

But it is only by trying that I will give the most of myself to others and make the most of my time on earth. It is through reaching for that challenging kind of love that I find my way to generosity, a yearning for justice, forgiveness, and kindness.

“Who do you say that I am?”

I say Jesus is the one who came to change the world by teaching us that wealth, pageantry, military might, and all of the other earthly things that give illusions of power will be weak in the face of peace, reconciliation, healing, and love.

Elizabeth Breese

* * *

I’ve always had difficulty with the divinity of Christ. For me, Jesus has always been very much human, whose example is to be revered but not worshiped. For that reason I have always been most comfortable with Mark’s gospel, and I have been secure in my belief that in the earliest of the gospels, Jesus wasn’t a god but very much a man. But over the past few weeks of exploring who Jesus was and is, I’ve started to see, between the lines of Mark’s gospel, a bit of the divine.

In our readings from Mark over this Lent, and in Tuesday evening conversations with other parents of young children, what has stood out to me most is his all-embracing humility. He refuses his followers’ attempts to put him on a pedestal. He insists that John baptize him; he refuses the devil’s offer to rule over all the kingdoms of the world and compares Peter to the devil when Peter suggests a similar role for Jesus; he admits his mistake when he treats the gentile woman poorly; he doesn’t want his disciples to see him walking on the water and he repeatedly tells them not to tell others about his miracles; he rides into Jerusalem on an old, borrowed donkey. He humbly asks the question, who do you say that I am?

He is selfless, right up until the end – “Not what I want, but what you want.” How many of us even strive for, no less achieve, perfect humility and selflessness? Although I try to be humble and selfless, I find that I fall far short. It is in Jesus’ humility and selflessness that I’ve started to see a bit of the divine. For as entirely human as he was, his humility and selflessness show that the purpose of his ministry was and is entirely about God.
Nate Jones

* * *

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Through Dan Smith and Brent Coffin’s thoughtful exploration of James Carrol’s Christ Actually, I came to a better understanding of two of my own life experiences.

Jesus, I say you are the compassionate physician whose skilled hands save lives.

The first experience of Jesus happened in the presence of my father. During WW II, as a Captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, he landed at Normandy. He served in Northern France, the Ardennes, Central Europe and the Rhineland under General George S. Patton. My relationship with my father was a challenging one. He did not say much. When I looked into his eyes, I always wondered where he was and what he was thinking. If I asked, he was quiet. My Father never spoke to me of his war experience. If my mother was present, she would always say, “Don’t ask, he is just going to cry.” He carried something profound and incomprehensible. I believe it was the horror of his two years trying to save young men’s lives, and caring for sick and dying Concentration Camp victims upon their liberation. He was a man of faith who was proud and grateful to be an American.

The second experience happened when I ended up in the Emergency Room of the Mount Auburn Hospital on Friday morning, November 21, 2007. It was the week before Thanksgiving. They gave me a choice, go home and die, perhaps next week, or undergo at least a quadruple bypass. Being a reasonably smart guy, I chose the bypass. By-pass surgery includes chilling your body temperature to well below normal to slow down the heart, opening up your chest to allow access to the heart and then splicing healthy veins, removed from your legs, around the blocked arteries. The surgery was successful.

On Tuesday the Drs. were considering discharging me from the hospital. My Israeli trained cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, Dr. Vladimir Birjiniuk, came in to discuss my condition. We exchanged pleasantries and he then sat down on my bed, within my reach. He looked at me and asked if I wanted to go home. I said, “Yes.” I expressed my deep gratitude to him for saving my life. He looked back with his eyes intensely engaging mine. I experienced his gaze as going straight to the heart he had literally, physically held. Dr. Birjiniuk said, "I am glad I could be of service.” In that moment, I felt a Divine force had been at work well beyond either of us, that had required each of us to be present and for which we were both profoundly grateful. He then said, “You are good for another seventeen years, you can go home.” I felt Jesus quietly leave the room.

I believe that Jesus Christ is at work when an Italian Immigrant can become a physician, save Jewish lives, and, my life is saved by an Israeli trained Physician. And Yes, it was a joyful Thanksgiving.
Jim Leone

* * *

When I was a teenager, a priest came to my CCD class during Lent to talk about Jesus and what a “cool” guy he was. This was around 1991, the Year Punk Broke (if you saw that documentary), and someone must have tipped Father off to the fact that he wasn’t going to be encountering a willing audience. We, me especially, were a bunch of sneering misfits with too dark eye makeup and fishnet tights and combat boots. I was very into Riot Girl back then and had no interest in hearing about Jesus as the original “alternative” guy, alternative before it was cool. I listened to the priest, and I was mortified. For him. He was trying so hard.

And here I am, decades later. To talk to you about what Jesus means to me, who is he for me, in a way that is meaningful and makes sense and is hopefully not horrifically uncool. Because I still care about that. I cannot remember a time when I was not this kid with her hand on her hip, sneering and sarcastic, trying to get a rise out of someone. Even in elementary school photos. That persona has served me well, and for the longest time, most of the time, that’s who I think I am.

But there’s also been this voice, or this pull inside me, that has told me that it’s not entirely true. That by devoting myself so strongly to an external persona, I have a large tendency to get in my own way. I have spent decades beating myself up for being not good enough, but I’ve also always had this God voice in me that has been pulling me to SHUT UP. For reasons too complicated to get into in a 2 minute testimony, I found myself deeply entrenched in a 12 step program in my early 20s and that’s when I really started to understand that God voice and Jesus as the personification of it. I believe strongly in the idea of turning my will over to God, that God has a plan for me, and that if I manage to be quiet long enough, I’ll at least get myself pointed in the right direction. Lots of people hate that idea, of turning over their lives to something abstract, something that can’t be proven. But I find it comforting. And SO, SO, SO HARD. I fight it all the time.

During our discussion hours this Lent, my favorite stories and conversations have been around the disciples continuing to do really dumb, human things. Peter insisting that Jesus is not going to die, everyone freaking out and being scared when he walks on water, no one staying awake when the end is near…it’s all very relatable. If those guys had a hard time with all of this and they were actually WITH Jesus, then I should cut myself a break for not getting it all the time. I want very much to do God’s will, to be better in some undefineable way, and to be more like Jesus. But I also appreciate that Jesus can manifest himself in my head and be the guy that says, “Enough. Shut up. Get over yourself. It’s time to get to the real work.”
Jenn McManus

* * *

To love is human, to forgive, divine.

None of the disciples had any standing. Water, fishermen, boats, carpenters. Not in the state, not the military, not any religious organization. They had no standing. They heard the voice, put their possessions down, fishing nets or tools, and followed.

Jesus showed them, along the way, he had the divine power to heal, to cleanse, to cast away demons, to recognize and reach out to those at the margins, to be at the well and share water and conversation with the outcast Samaritan woman.

It was not power that he brought, but love and forgiveness. Do not go out and seek to do battle, do not fight, do not hide, but love one another, and forgive those who trespass against you, just as we ask God to forgive us our trespasses.

For us on those five evenings at the parsonage—We listened to one-other, reflected, shared. During the days to come, on the roads or the hallways or meeting rooms, watching, listening, messaging-- Let us listen, reflect, and forgive.
Dave McCann

* * *

Who is Jesus for me? Where do I find him? My answers often seem inadequate, the questions unanswerable. And yet, exploring these questions lately in loving and open conversations with others in our community, I have found myself overcome by a sense of Christ’s presence among us and within us. How this happens is a mystery to me, but the sense of it happening is as clear as sunlight breaking through fog and I am left holding the mystery in wonder.

Who is Jesus? I believe I have encountered Jesus in some way, through scripture, through arts, through prayers, yours and mine, and within this community as it pulls together. As a Christian, I feel Jesus is embedded in me somehow, in my DNA, as the touchstone of my religious imagination, as a fundamental living idea made flesh in stories and in people whom I meet.

Recently, I believe I encountered him in daily life, through the compassionate acts of ordinary people at the hospital and medical clinic where my husband is being treated. I felt his presence in a kind word from a total stranger. If someone touches me, as I know Jesus might have, then perhaps Jesus has touched me.

Jesus gave us the “Lord’s Prayer”. For me, that was a great gift, which, from an early age, I understood to be enough. That prayer connects us to Abba, to the kingdom, to submission to God, to our own depths of humanity and our need to be forgiven and to forgive, and to our longing to be separated from evil.

When I was 13 and fell off the side of a boat in open seas, a long story for another time, it was the Lord’s Prayer that kept me afloat for hours. Why? I cannot say other than my experience out there was, after a bit of time, one of submission and of total fearlessness. That prayer was all I had and it was enough.

For me, Jesus is and was a man who taught us how to love God and each other by looking into our own hearts. He is and was a man who transcended his own fears and physical limitations, who felt those things as we all do, but he could let them go. He is and was a man who, despite his powerfully critical mind, deeply loved those he encountered, people of all kinds, and he was utterly faithful to them. He created a community upon which he depended and he created our community.

For me, his transcendence shines out of the depths of his humanity, a humanity that was fed by his love of God, submission to God and his love of neighbor. In Gethsemane he prays, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ To me there is divinity in his willingness to be swept up by God.

Jesus gave us and continues to give us glimpses of that which is far greater than our physical selves, greater than his physical self, greater than our rational minds can encompass, glimpses of what we call God, the kingdom, that which is far beyond language but as close to us as instinct.

Listening to others speak to these questions and attempting to answer my own questions, leaves me where I started, full of wonder.
Gaylen Morgan

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