Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' And they said,. 'Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. ' He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.'
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, 'God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you. ' But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.' Matthew 16: 13-16, 21-23
In order to imitate Christ, we must first know who Jesus is. In the first passage just read to us, this is the question Jesus poses to his listeners: Who is Jesus, after all? Though this question was posed two thousand years ago, and many answers were given in the course of the century that just ended, I believe that there are many people in the world today still asking, still exploring this question; and, with different people using different methods, they come up with an endless variety of answers. The question of who Jesus ultimately is may not appear to Christians, and especially to those of us in seminary, to be much in question. After all there are plenty of ready-made, orthodox answers set out for us to choose from. I think, though, that each one of us, because of differences in our individual faith journeys, and in our study of the Bible, would give different answers to the question.
While I was studying in Austin Presbyterian Seminary, I took a course in the theology of God. The first thing the instructor required of us in the first course session was an answer to the question: Who do you think God is? She wanted us to write down the first answer that carne into our heads, and she didn't want anything too long, or too complete. There were twelve students in the class, and when the instructor wrote everyone's answer on the board, we discovered that there wasn't much duplication. The differences resulted from each one's different experience and feelings about God.
So I think that if someone asked those of us here today 'Who do you think Jesus is?' our answers would be very eager, rich, and colorful, and would naturally include Peter's response, with which you are all familiar. Actually, though every believer can answer the question of who Jesus is, at the same time, it really is a very big question, because almost no one can offer a perfect answer. In fact, even if we gathered up all the answers, we could not completely describe Jesus, Son of God, because as we know, we have to recognize our human limitations. All these various answers, however, will help in making our knowledge of Jesus, our Savior, relatively complete. Today, I would like to share with you my own recent thoughts on who Jesus is, in hopes that it will he l p us to better study Jesus together, to imitate Christ.
First, let us return to the Bible passage we just heard. To Jesus' question, 'Who do you say that lam?' Peter gave an answer that satisfied Jesus and gained his approval. Jesus is Christ, the son of the Living God. This is the central message of Christianity, preached by the church and believers through the ages. At that time, the Holy Spirit spoke through Peter to reveal Jesus' divinity to the world.
Peter himself was not aware of this, but Jesus knew it clearly, therefore he said to Peter, 'For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.'
A Korean-American theologian who studies theology of the margins has pointed out that when Peter said this, he had something quite different in mind. Peter, like most people, was one who liked to be at the center of things. Thus, in understanding Jesus, he did so from a central position. In Peter's eyes, only the Son of God could have the most central place, he was King of kings, the preeminent authority. Peter undoubtedly thought of sharing in Jesus' authority and in the dominion of the twelve tribes of Israel.
However, we can say that Peter completely misunderstood Jesus because Jesus' aim was not to begin from the center. On the one hand, Jesus affirmed Peter's answer, because it revealed Jesus' divinity. But on the other hand, Jesus immediately followed this by telling the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die on the cross. Peter immediately grew nervous and upset, and took him aside to say, ' 'God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.' 'Some say that Peter spoke this way because he so loved the Lord that he couldn't bear to see him suffer. But Jesus rebuked him for setting his mind not on divine things, but on human ones; this was because Peter's love was too narrow. This narrow love became an obstacle to God's will. A good case can be made for this view, but I think there is another, compelling explanation, that also brings us light.
Jesus rebuked Peter because Jesus knew what was in Peter's heart. Peter did not really understand what was in Jesus' heart. He thought of Jesus only in human terms, and human nature is to tend toward the center, to crave power. In the beginning Peter certainly did not want Jesus to lose the central position, because if he did, Peter himself would have no tie to it.
In fact, if we go back and examine the Bible, it is not hard to discover that 'the Son of the living God' is nothing like what Peter understood him to be, certainly not at the center of the central position. Rather, he is a marginal person, located on the margin, a servant among servants. We can find many events in Jesus' life to prove this. Let me point out a few.
Jesus was a marginal person while still in his mother's womb. Though Luke's Gospel makes the record of Mary's becoming with child by the Holy Spirit into an extremely holy, incomparably glorious event, Mary is very frightened because this phenomenon is entirely out of sync with Jewish ethics and morality. In the society of the time it would be cause for denigration and scolding. Although the saying 'with child by the Holy Spirit' gradually released Mary from the constraints of the morality and social ethics of the time, she was still looked down upon by the people of her day who, of course, also dismissed the child she bore.
After Jesus' birth, he was cradled in the manger. It was old, hard, and none too clean. Think of it: for a newborn babe, its tender body wrapped in layers of clothes, sleeping in a manger could not be half as comfortable as our cribs today. And the first to come to see Jesus were shepherds, and some scholars following a star, not important types of the day. Sometimes I feel the carol we sing 'We Three Kings' is rather misleading. Once in church, I heard a believer say, 'See how respected Jesus was as soon as he was born, even scholars with great learning, status, and position rushed to see him. Praise the Lord.' In fact, though the wise men had a little influence in society, their position was not high, it was far from that of the nobility. And the English carol exaggerates even more, saying that they are kings of the Orient. These are all human understandings, placing Jesus at the center.
Turning to Jesus' childhood, it, too, was passed on the margins, on borders, and a double one at that. Politically, he was under Roman domination; from a cultural and ethnic standpoint, he was also an outsider. Nazareth was a border area. Nazarenes were looked down upon. As Nathaniel said to Philip, 'Can any good can come out of Nazareth?' This was how other people saw Nazarenes. We can imagine Jesus' context as a Nazarene.
Jesus began his ministry at the age of thirty-three. The Bible records Jesus' miracles of healing and casting out devils and his preaching on the kingdom of Heaven. Many people think that Jesus was most welcome in his day, that he was loved, like a moon surrounded by stars. In fact, this is also a type of misunderstanding. If we read the Bible carefully, we'll find that in fact Jesus was frequently without a home. He said, 'Foxes have their lairs and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' We should realize that Jesus is giving a true picture of his life at the time in these words. Some believers like to seek the spiritual meaning of their Bible readings, digging out the import of the passages. Of course the allegorical approach is one of many ways to interpret the Bible, but to overstress the allegorical and ignore the most direct message the text has for us will easily lead to extremes. If we think carefully about what Jesus says here, we will sense the bitterness it contains.
Overseas, especially in large American cities, there are many street performers. Many of them are very talented but perhaps because they have not been in America long, or for other reasons, they have not been able to get into the professional and commercial venues and must sell their art on the street. There are performances in the city square in Austin, Texas every day, always in the same place if never at the same time. They, too, mill about the streets; they, too, are homeless.
We can imagine a similar situation. When Jesus performed his miracles, healing and casting out demons, feeding the people with five loaves and two fishes, people flocked to him. But when the people had departed, Jesus had only the disciples, a group of homeless, a group of poor, solitary people. The reason people followed Jesus was not that they were interested in him, but that they were interested in the miracles. And just for this reason, quite a few who had once followed him later joined the crowd propelling him toward the cross.
I think these examples suffice to show that while Jesus was on earth, he was not a person at the center, but was with the people at the bottom of society, those who toiled day and night, those on the fringes. We should never forget that Jesus was one of these. If we overlook this, we will easily make the same mistake as Peter did. And in fact, this type of mistake is common in the history of the church.
Because people understand Jesus as someone at the center of things, his followers seek to follow him to the center. These Christians are fiercely attached to Christ's omnipotence and their attention to 'Jesus is Lord' surpasses their attention to 'Jesus is servant.' The Jesus sought by Christians like these, is not Jesus himself, but power and possessions with the self at the center. In Jesus' name, the Vatican enjoyed hundreds of years in control of Europe. Many western countries thought themselves Christian countries, better than others, their culture surpassing the culture of others. One American social ethicist once made this critique of America: Americans put God to one side and then do what they want. In modern history, many western nations made the same mistake-they were ambitious to control other nations, and brought calamity upon many nations and regions, including our own.
As a proportion of China's population, believers in the Chinese church today are a tiny minority. The number of believers and our national conditions mean that the church is not in a central position here. But there are still many in the church who seek the central position, to the point where they even compete with each other, and through their machinations, do damage to the Christian witness of the church. There are also many Christians who feel that their view of human life, their values, ethics, and morality are a cut above those of the rest. This leads to spiritual pride, and sets up an invisible wall between believers and non-believers. None of this is beneficial to the development of the church and it goes against the spirit of Christ. Christians should not forget that Christ's strength came through weakness. He was exalted through his humility, becoming King of kings, Lord of lords. There's something here we should all pay attention to: this sort of weakness and humility is qualitatively different in motive from our ancient virtue of enduring humiliation.' The latter, in order to be exalted, is willing to endure humiliation for a limited time. The humility Christians promote should avoid such errors.
In the incarnation Christ becomes the Son of Man, Jesus. Jesus, the Son of Man, was not born of a noble family, did not live with lords and princes, but was a very ordinary person, one who lived on the fringes among the toiling masses, and who, in the end, gave up his life for humankind. In this is God's mystery. We can say that the story of the incarnation is the story of Christ's humbling himself. Through humbling himself, Christ manifested the incarnation.
The process of humbling oneself is the process of the divinity of God transformed into human nature. Self-humbling is not part of the original nature of God, but is in essence a cause and effect relationship: that is, it was because Christ was willing to abandon his divine attributes that he descended to become human. Philippians 2 describes this in detail for us.
Ultimately, Christ was willing to humble himself because of love. For love, Christ was willing to die on the cross for our sins. Suffering is a negative experience, but Christ's suffering on the cross was positive because there was love in his suffering. It is said that if not for love, suffering would have enough power to topple the world. And the reason Christ was able, through suffering, to complete the great work of redemption, is because he used love to embrace and heal the whole world the Father had made.
Brothers and sisters, in order to show forth God's love, Christ was willing to humble himself. The Word became flesh and identified the lowliest among us. As those who follow Christ because of the gospel, we should also identify with the people around us. In China, Christianity was once called a 'foreign religion,' not because it was foreign, but because it had not identified with the masses of the Chinese people. Fifty years of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement has enabled Chinese Christianity to transform its 'foreign' image, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Chinese church. In the current new period, the church should continue to explore how to adapt to the new context. Adaptation means seeking a broader identification, to allow many more people to understand the truth of the gospel. Naturally adaptation does not mean changing or giving up our basic faith - identifying does not mean to seeking to become the same.
It is Christ's love and Christ's self-humbling we should imitate. Humility does not ask us to keep our heads down and mouth what others say, to be without self-respect or individuality, but requires that we be open, willing to accept new things, new points of view, new thinking, genuinely able to 'see others as better than ourselves.'
These 'others' should not be limited to Christians, for every type of good gift comes from God. If we say that Christ is the circle of perfection, then the many truths and holy things that exist outside the visible church are all arcs along the circle. All things are fulfilled and perfected in Christ.
Finally, I'd like to conclude today' s sharing with an experience of my own. I recently accompanied a 34-person group from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on a 22-day trip to 8 Chinese cities.
We saw churches in each place, including rural and minority churches, and visited seminaries. At the final sharing session, the group leader said that this trip to China was an experience of pilgrimage, because the witness of the church in China inspired their faith. She posed the following question for each member of the group: Where did you see Jesus along the path of this pilgrimage? The responses were eager and very moving. One left a deep impression on me: 'I saw Jesus in the visitors to the Gong He Yuan.' It turned out that while the group was in the park, this woman was dragging her feet and could hardly walk. A young couple saw her plight and came up to help her along, walking along with her and the rest of the group to the sightseeing boats on the lake. When we disembarked, another visitor saw that she couldn't walk and came up to help. This new helper was an orthopedic doctor and said she could relieve the woman's pain. The woman and the group leader wanted to give these people some money as a mark of gratitude, but they refused it, and hurried away.
These people who came up to help the ailing tourist may or may not have been Christians, but this was hardly important in the circumstances. The important thing was that their loving actions enabled this American Christian to see Jesus. May everyone see Jesus in us, and may many more such 'Jesuses' be seen by others. Let us imitate the self-humbling of Jesus - a Jesus happy to identify with the people in order to make the Father's world even more beautiful.
NanjingTheological Review , no. 1 (2000): 49-51.
The author studied at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. She now works in the Nanjing Office of the CCC.