Who is He? – Sunday, September 4, 2011

A sermon preached by Rev. David M. Crawford at Rundle Memorial United Church, Banff, on Sunday, September 4, 2011.  Based on Matthew 16:13-20

“Who is He?”
I wonder how many saw the funeral last weekend for Jack Layton?   For any visitors today who are not Canadian, Jack Layton was a prominent national politician, leader of the official opposition,   who succumbed to cancer.  A state funeral was held for him last Saturday.
If you saw the moving service you heard the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”, performed by Stephen Page.  I donʼt think I need to explain who Leonard Cohen is. Iʼve been thinking lately about this song Hallelujah,  which has become a sort of secular anthem in Canada over the past couple of years, performed at the Vancouver Olympics Opening Ceremonies.  Frankly,  I donʼt get it, I mean the lyrics.  The tune is nice,  a bit long perhaps,  but I canʼt figure out what the song means.   Itʼs somewhat frustrating for me because Iʼd like to know what it means, since the title of the song is a word that has great significance for me.   I know what Hallelujah means, a Hebrew word, from scripture, the Psalms, literally “Praise ye yah”, which is short for Yahweh,  so “Praise God”.   But the song, always sung with such a high level of emotion,  itʼs beyond me.
I do wonder, however, and this may be a long shot, but I wonder if the songʼs popularity is due in part to the fact that that very word, Hallelujah, is the title?  I wonder if in our increasingly secular culture there isnʼt still a sort of religious or spiritual nostalgia at work, lingering in the Canadian psyche;  a hearkening back to a former time when terms like Hallelujah had a certain credence within our common language, the only difference now being that the credence comes not from religion, not from the Church, but from secularism itself?   Thus, in a way, what was once a word with religious cultural significance is now, through Leonard Cohen, an adopted or redefined word and song, its significance coming from the very fact that its creator is one of the prophets of Canadian secular spirituality.        Or maybe itʼs just a nice tune.

If I havenʼt lost you (or myself for that matter) then consider this:   Is it possible the same phenomenon has happened with the name Jesus?  In other words, that the culture has taken ownership of that sacred name and in some cases reshaped and redefined it regardless of church teaching on the matter?  Who has more credibility today when it comes to the topic of Jesus?   Pope Benedict or Dan Brown?   To whom does the culture turn for spiritual insights on the “real” Jesus?   Your local, friendly, neighborhood clergy person or the most recent twenty-something blogging sensation, who, for reasons of charisma and perhaps an articulate way of chastising traditional beliefs about Jesus, leads the way in Internet hits, at least for one week or so?

The diversity of opinions on Jesus in our time is vast, perhaps more than any time in history.  But among the plethora of answers as to who Jesus was is limitless —  a prophet,  a healer, a rebel,  a husband to Mary Magdalene,  an immigrant to France, whatever, only in the Church, it seems to me, do we find the claim of divinity somehow attached to Jesus, and the question ʻWho is Jesus?ʼ seems just as important, perhaps more so, than the question ʻWho was Jesus?ʼ

Jesus was well aware of the diversity of opinion in his own time  –  John the Baptist, Elijah, another prophet.    And he remains aware, I would suggest, of the same in our time.  O greater concern may be how we personally answer the question,  how we answer it not just verbally, intellectually, with the declarations of some creed,  but with the choices we make, the actions we take, in our day-to-day existence, as those who
claim to be followers of Jesus.
“But who do you say that I am?”    The question is for each of us to answer or not,  to struggle with or not.
Frederick Buechner many years ago, expressed what might be called the traditional answer when he offered these seemingly crude words, yet words that perhaps still mean something to us:
“What is new about the New Covenant is not the idea that God loves the world enough to bleed for it but the claim that there he is actually
putting his money where his mouth is.  Like a father saying about his sick child, ‘I’d do anything to make you well’, God finally calls his own bluff and does it… Jesus Christ is what God does.”
Twelve years ago when my brother Mark and his wife Desiree named their first child Joshua,  I was pleased to share with them that Joshua was a form of the Hebrew name Yeshua,  or Jesus.  I thought theyʼd be thrilled with that info but they werenʼt, just kind of stunned.  Donʼt get me wrong – theyʼre definitely not anti-Christian.  Their kids still go to a Christian school in Calgary.  No, it was something else.
They chose the name Joshua because it was a “Bible” name, and they liked the sound of it.  Joshua was o.k., but Jesus?   The idea of their son taking on that name was too daunting, in a way.  Their reverence for the name Jesus and all that was encompassed in that name was a bit too much to handle.  We didnʼt discuss it again.
Perhaps there remains within our culture a remnant of awe and reverence concerning the name,  a sense of largeness attached to that name,  perhaps more than we had thought, perhaps more than a secular claiming of the name.
But who do you say that I am?
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Hallelujah  indeed!