“Who do you say that I am? No, really!” Brad Jersak

Tim Rice’s musical, Jesus Christ, Superstar, was composed over 50 years ago. Back then, conservative Christians of the brand I was raised in were deeply offended. His script didn’t follow our doctrinal prescriptions and it raised uncomfortable questions about who Jesus of Nazareth was and is. In my view, if faithfully portrayed characters like Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene and Simon the Zealot wrestling with whether this man was more than a teacher or healer… Was he more than a man or was that just the mob letting their hopes get out of control? And if he was their Messiah, why all the missteps that would lead to a cross rather than a throne?

Near the climax of the show, Judas’ final song asks, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”

As a young Evangelical, high on my own certainty, I may have thought, “It doesn’t matter who we think Jesus is. It matters what Jesus said, and it’s my job to tell you that, and it’s your job to believe it.” We would try to corner people into conversion with the airtight logic of C.S. Lewis’ “Lord, liar or lunatic?” question. “Who do you say he is? Let me remove all doubt! Let me prove you into heaven.”

But in the Gospels, Jesus seemed far more interested in letting people puzzle over him, allowing them to discover who he is and what he does as they experience him for themselves. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and let them offer their guesses. From Matthew 16:

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In the paragraphs to follow, Jesus lets us know two things: (1) Peter had not figured this out for himself; the Father in heaven had revealed it to him, and (2) Peter still has no idea what that means because he couldn’t accept that the Messiah would suffer and die. The Messiah of Peter’s imagination was a construct or projection of his own desire for political power and religious control. He didn’t see the kingdom and temple of heaven in contrast to the empires and religions humanity has erected. He expected to take over the world systems, not to overthrow them with a cross-shaped revolution of expansive love and radical forgiveness.

Sadly, the pattern happens and is happening again (and again and again). Christianity as a brand repeatedly reprises this desire for worldly power through the entanglement of politics and religion. In response, a false Jesus is proclaimed, draped in worldly flags, bearing worldly arms, and blessing worldly wars.

And in counter-response, many feel betrayed and abandon faith altogether. Others create pseudo-faiths in their own image… a self-made, flaccid gospel of DYI individualism without reference to Jesus. But gratefully, there are those who remain utterly fascinated by Jesus himself. They have sincere questions and authentic experiences, and want their turn to respond to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am? I really want to know.” Not as a test of orthodoxy but as an invitation to a beautiful conversation.

Jesus and I are supremely interested in how others understand Jesus. One example right now is the great film director, Martin Scorsese. Readers may remember that his movie, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), was even further off-script and more controversial than Superstar.

We also saw further development in his understanding of Jesus in the 2016 drama Silence, a movie (based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō) about the persecution of Jesuit Christians in 17th-century Japan.

Now, Endō and Scorsese are reuniting to retell the story of Jesus, based on Endō’s book called A Life of Jesus. But the plot thickens from there. At one time, Pope Francis had been a Jesuit with hopes of mission work in Japan. He invited Scorsese to meet with him in May (not for the first time). Out of that meeting, Scorsese made the following announcement :

I have responded to the Pope’s appeal to artists in the only way I know how: by imagining and writing a screenplay for a film about Jesus…

I’m trying to find a new way to make it more accessible and take away the negative onus of what has been associated with organized religion.

Right now, ‘religion’—you say that word, and everyone is up in arms because it’s failed in so many ways. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the initial impulse was wrong. Let’s get back. Let’s just think about it. You may reject it. But it might make a difference in how you live your life—even in rejecting it. Don’t dismiss it offhand. That’s all I’m talking about. And I’m saying that as a person who’s going to be 81 in a couple of days. You know what I’m saying?

Go back to what? Think about what? Reject or dismiss what? Is Scorsese asking us to reconsider and return to the mess associated with religious structures and systems? Or is he asking us all, including Francis (!), to return to the story to meet Jesus afresh and let Jesus ask us again, “Who do you say that I am?” Not what we were told and required to believe by our religious teachers or by Scorsese’s movie, but by your experience of Christ in your life and what the Father in heaven reveals about that as your story with Jesus unfolds.

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