“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

December, 2013

As I write this, our nation is observing the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a tragic event that destroyed forever our naďve belief that such things couldn’t happen in modern America. I have to confess that, unlike most of my generation, I don’t remember where I was when I heard the news. I know I must have been in school because I was in the fifth grade in Washington Grade School in my home town in Illinois. I’m sure there must have been an announcement, probably by my home room teacher, but I don’t remember it. I do remember that the whole country was in mourning, and I remember the seemingly-endless funeral on television. But I don’t remember anything about hearing the news for the first time.

Today, I’m a bit surprised by how both sides of the political debate have tried to adopt Kennedy as one of their own. Of course, Democrats, the party of Kennedy and his family, have rushed to embrace his legacy. But others have described him as a Reagan-style conservative. It seems as if Kennedy the man is less important than the opportunity to capitalize on his legacy. Liberal firebrand or arch conservative, Kennedy becomes in retrospect whatever we want or need for our own purposes. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. He was far from liberal while in congress, and he was a moderate as President. He became better known for his speeches than his legislative accomplishments. And as memories fade it becomes easier to imagine his life and work as we wish they had been. This gives both sides a relatively blank—or at least incomplete—canvas on which to project their own preconceptions. Who knows what he might have gone on to do if he had lived? We don’t know. All we have is imagination and guesswork.

Something similar happened with Jesus. Everyone projected their own ideologies and agendas onto him. One day, he asked his disciples, “‘Who do people say that I am?’” (Mark 8:27b ESV). Peter replied, “‘You are the Christ.’” (vs. 29b ESV). People of his time expected him to be a political revolutionary who would restore the fortunes of Israel (Acts 1:6). The same thing happens today. People think of him as a teacher, an especially good man, or perhaps a political radical. But he was more. Jesus only lived thirty three years and we only have a record of his birth and the last three years of his life. Luke shows us a glimpse of Jesus at the age of twelve (2:41-52) but that’s all. Until we have a clear understanding of who Jesus was—and is—he can be anything we want and we can’t get anywhere.

This time of year, we celebrate the birth of Jesus the baby, born in a stable. But the real Jesus was much more than a baby in a manger. He grew up to be a remarkable boy and an even more remarkable man. But beyond that, he was more than a mere man. He was the son of God. And further, he enables us to be children of God too (Matt. 5:9; John 1:12-13 Rom. 8:14-16).

Some Christians focus only on how Jesus died but his was also a truly remarkable birth and life. And an even more remarkable resurrection. Our understanding of Jesus is incomplete without all its aspects. He came to give us the chance to be children of God. “But who do you say that I am?” That is the question for us. And that is the question for those around us. Who is Jesus to us? And why does the answer matter? When we can answer those questions as readily as Peter did, we will be ready to welcome the newborn and always living Christ into our lives and our world.

“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, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Matt. 16:13-19 ESV.)

Copyright © 2013 by David Phelps