What Do You Say?
They were traveling again, on the move again, and walking. Jesus and the disciples must have been in great physical shape, considering all the walking they did. They were on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, in northern Israel. On our Holy Land trip a few years ago, we visited the area. There are no villages there today, but the attraction is the headwaters of the Jordan River. From a rocky cliff, comes water gushing out to become the Jordan River.
As Jesus and his disciples walked, they talked; and Jesus asked them two questions. One question was informational, the other was decisional. These two questions are valid questions yet today. To answer the first question requires study, research, and polling. To answer the second question requires a personal decision about one's life, values, direction, priorities, and commitments; and a non-answer is an answer.
The two questions were and are: What do people say about me, and what do you say? Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?
Ellie and I will become excited, proud grandparents any day now. One of the fun tasks is naming. We have enjoyed watching Jennifer and Jack engage in the process of naming, paying particular attention to what names mean. Gomer and Hosea, who was a prophet disillusioned with his nation, named one of their children Not Pitied and the other, Not My People. How are those for names? Before our children were born, we engaged in a naming process. Ellie suggested Cynthia. I said, "Great, and we can call her Sin for short." Ellie also liked Eileen, until I asked, "Which way?" Perhaps those are the reasons we were never given a girl! Ellie still thinks Cynthia and Eileen are beautiful names. Actually, I do too; but, I do enjoy horsing around! For Jack and Jennifer's baby, I suggested Horace Norris.
Naming is a critically important task with far-reaching consequences. Whatever and however you name someone or something determines how you will relate. When a man names a woman his wife, a unique, special relationship is formed. If you name yourself dumb or stupid, you will become dumb or stupid. If you name the Stanford Cardinals as your favorite team, you will form a special, biased relationship with college football. Naming changes you. Naming determines the relationship the namer has with the "namee". If you name persons of color different from yours as odd or strange, your relationship with them will be distorted until you change your name of them. How you name affects you.
The question Jesus asks us is a question of eternal consequence. "What do you name me?" He led up to this critical question by asking, "What are people naming me?" The disciples thought about it and answered, "Some people call you John the Baptist; others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." There were lots of other names they could have mentioned. Jesus was called teacher, healer, leader. Some people, especially the Pharisees, called Jesus a troublemaker. Notice the power of naming. If you name someone a troublemaker, that is how you will understand that person, and how you will relate to that person. The Pharisees also named Jesus a social disrupter. He "eats with sinners," meaning he associates with the outcasts. He breaks down the walls of class distinction. He is disturbing our social system. They also named him Sabbath Breaker, and looked on him as one who disturbed not only the social system, but their religion as well.
Peter named Jesus the Messiah. Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone, because they did not yet understand what Jesus had come to do. They did not yet understand he was not the kind of political, military Messiah the people expected and wanted. The early church named Jesus the Lord, our master. The first creed was, "Jesus is Lord." Paul named Jesus Redeemer and Savior, the one who has atoned for our sins, and saves us from evil and ourselves.
What you name Jesus, how you understand Jesus, determines how you relate to him. In the Living section of yesterday's San Jose Mercury News, the headline read, "Theological Therapy, once dismissed by many psychologists as neurotic, religion is gaining new respect as a subject of research." Eddie, age 16, had a record of nine arrests, including rape, assault and battery and drug dealing. But, one day he appeared at his therapy group and announced, "I've been saved." He named Jesus as Savior, and experienced the saving, healing, life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. He now felt happy. He had given up drugs and crime.
Who do you say Jesus is? Watch out! How you answer will determine your relationship with God. Two young unchurched children were taken to a wedding, their first time in a church. When the minister appeared in his robe, the little boy asked, "Is that Jesus?" "Oh, no," replied his older sister who knew everything, "He's been dead for years." Is Jesus a dead person to you? Is he just a teacher who taught noble ideas which you suspect are largely irrelevant and unworkable? Or, is Jesus alive and well? Do you name him your personal Lord and Savior?
A difficulty we have today is translating Lord and Savior into modern names that have meaning to us. If you are relatively new to the church, words like Lord and Savior have little if any meaning. If you've been in the church most of your life, perhaps you've heard those words so often they have little meaning for you anymore. Can you tell someone who Jesus is without using any biblical words? Can you translate the biblical names into modern names? It's quite a challenge.
Lord and Saviour do not translate into our culture. We don't have any models for Lord. If you lived in the middle ages, and were a peasant, a serf, on a feudal manor, you would know immediately what a Lord was, and you would relate then to Jesus as one who has complete authority over you. Your response to Jesus would be loyal obedience. But Lord, complete authority, and loyalty have little meaning in a democracy. We don't have lords. We don't demand complete obedience and loyalty of anyone. We do not have a political image that expresses what Lord might mean. Would we name Jesus President? Governor? CEO? Boss? They don't quite fit.
Similarly, we have no cultural basis for interpreting the name Savior. We do not have sacrificial systems where someone or something is sacrificed to make us right with God. We are not familiar culturally with the terms Lord and Savior, and therefore have a difficult time naming Jesus, and entering into relationship with him.
One relationship that is familiar to us, although not experienced by many of us, that we might liken to a relationship with Jesus is that formed by mountain climbers. "We made it, dude!" exclaimed an exuberant Mark Wellman when he, a paraplegic, and his partner, Mike Corbett, reached the top of Half Dome after a tense 13-day ascent, plagued by icy storms, fatigue and loose rock.
How about naming Jesus the dude who leads you up the mountain of your life journey? When you follow Jesus, climbing upward, you step where he steps. Jesus goes on ahead, like Mike Corbett did, testing the loose rock, pounding in the metal spikes called pitons, determining the route. Jesus goes ahead of us, calling us, urging us to follow, pulling us, encouraging us not to give up. "You can do it, you can make it," he calls. "Don't be afraid, and don't stop." "Don't look backwards, don't look down. Keep looking upward, look forward." When you try to go on your own, and find another route up the mountain, you'll get into trouble.
Jesus doesn't do all the work. Salvation doesn't mean sitting on your laurels, and coasting. Mountain climbing is hard work. You've got to climb, and if you are handicapped like Mark Wellman, you must do all the climbing with your arms. But, fortunately, most of us can use our feet as well. We use our minds, thinking constantly, planning ahead. Where do I put this hand, where do I put that foot? Keep learning and growing. Join a morning Sunday School class or a Sunday evening small group. Join a Sermon Scripture Study group. Keep mentally alert. Life climbing requires concentration, intelligence, exertion, and trusting. We are tied with a rope to Jesus, and we trust our lives to him, so when you fall, trust Jesus to have a firm foothold so he can hold on to your rope and save you.
Jesus, the lead climber on your life's journey, sets the direction, tests the route, encourages you, and saves you when you slip. That is what Lord and Savior mean. And, the reward! When you reach the top, the end of your life's journey, and the goals have been achieved, you are surrounded by friends and family who pour champagne all over you! That's heaven! Who can imagine what kind of surprise party is in store for you!
What do you say about Jesus? Can you name him your lead mountain climber! Tell others. Our mission is to reach out and receive people. Share the good news. No one needs to climb life's journey alone. Jesus will lead.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris