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.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
There is a wonderful story told about Gautama Buddha, the 5th century BC, sage of India, a thoroughly humble man who insisted that his followers make no image or portrait of him. One day a young follower found him on the banks of the Ganges River, deep in contemplation. The Buddha’s pose was so serene and profound that the young man longed to paint him. He reasoned that if he painted not the Buddha, but rather the Buddha’s reflection in the water, that wouldn’t go against his wishes. So, to this day, many pictures of the Buddha are rippled, as if they were reflections, not violating the Buddha’s desires.
It’s a shame that no one twenty-one hundred years ago painted an authentic likeness of Jesus. The 19th Century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once wrote: ‘Though I am a poor man, I would gladly give a third of what I have for an accurate rendition of Jesus’ physical appearance. Had carvers of marble chiseled a faithful statue of the Savior and shown us what his height, what his build and what the features of his face were, I would have thanked the sculptor with all the gratitude of my heart for that work as the most precious heirloom of the ages.”
That same powerful desire is what gave rise to the legend of Veronica, a woman of Jerusalem of Jesus’ day who wept for him as he carried the cross through the city streets on the way to be crucified. According to the legend, she gave him a handkerchief to wipe his bloody brow, and when he handed it back, it was stained with the likeness of his face. Thereafter she was called Veronica, vera icon, meaning “true likeness.”
The fact is that people want more than just to see the Christ, but also to somehow reflect in their own lives the truth and goodness of the Messiah. (Don’t you think?)
Somehow, getting close to the Lord means having some of that goodness rub off on you, too- doesn’t it?
The point of these examples is that while it is difficult for us to find a faithful likeness of Christ, we keep trying. Every age makes its own attempts. Seeing Jesus, however we do it, is one way we begin to exercise our faith; but it is just a beginning.
Here’s a little story… In 1892, a French painter named Leon Augustin L’hermitte painted a portrait of Jesus that showed him seated at a table of French peasants in the year 1892. Crowded around the table, the men marvel at their strange visitor, the historical Jesus.
The picture became popular here in the U.S. when it was reproduced in Ladies Home Journal Magazine in December, 1922. There it was seen by the American artist Warner Sallman. He was so taken with it that he made a reproduction, first in charcoal. Years later, in 1940, Sallman did his own oil portrait.
He took out the French peasants, took out the table, changed the lighting, had Jesus lower his gaze and look off to one side. The final portrait showed only Jesus’ shoulders and head. Sallman called his portrait Head of Christ. Many people think of it as Jesus’ official portrait.
Why do people think it so authentic? It might be because it resembles other official-looking portraits. In fact, it looks very much like something done by Olin Mills. Consider the studio lighting, the tawny complexion, the full, rosy lips; his ‘doe’ eyes. There is no historical evidence to support that this is what Jesus really looked like. And yet Warner Sallman’s picture of Jesus has been distributed, in print or digitally, nearly one billion times.
Of all the masterpieces of Christian art, it’s an unlikely favorite; yet so many people say…” That must be what Jesus looked like.”
Well, maybe- but again, that’s just a start.
It is hard to get a likeness of Jesus from the Gospels, too. They present four different views of him, all varied in some key way. He is elusive, he turns and is gone; the stories seem sketched out of shadows, sudden movement, overheard conversations. Jesus is at the same time so very close and intimate, yet distant, unknowable.
And that’s not just the experience of readers today. It seems from the stories of the Gospels, this is how his contemporaries experienced him, too. Throughout the Gospels, people ask: “Who is this man? Who is he?”
Today’s scripture lesson fits that description to a ‘T’.
Apparently, Jesus did not spend a lot of time in his ministry talking about who he was. That was a discovery they needed to make in their own way, on their own journey. When Jesus went to Caesarea Philippi, a distinctly Roman and non-Jewish place, he wondered aloud at the identity people had been assigning to him. Among a variety of answers, Peter got it right.
If ever a question was met with a loaded answer, it was this question. Peter had offered up his best guess, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus then answered Peter with the grand prize; the keys of the kingdom, power over death and rule over the way life should be lived on earth.
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
On one level, while it is very clear that Jesus did this out of practicalities; he didn’t want to be mobbed by crowds 24/7, especially as his ministry matured, his desire for secrecy seems to be motivated out of other reasons, too. It’s been said that as Jesus was very clear to say to the crowds ‘follow me’- he never said ‘worship me.’ Jesus knew where he came from; God, and he knew who was blessing him every step of his journey; the Spirit. His call to ministry was to point people to living as he did, fairly, honestly, openly, freely, lovingly. Instead of creating a cult following, what Jesus seems to have wanted was behavioral change in those who trusted in him; a ripple effect of life, as it were, in line with his teachings and actions.
He knew that the truth is bigger than what we can see and that we all have a human tendency to overplay the importance of images; perhaps hearkening back to the 2nd commandment, against worshipping idols. Somehow, images can too easily be an end in themselves, rather than an inspiration toward a better life.
Here’s another image for you. Just over twenty years ago a high school student named Eric Pensinger was troubled to find the portrait of Sallman’s Head of Christ hanging in his high school in Bloomingdale, Michigan.
It had been donated some thirty years before, a pretty inexpensive print at the time, and had always been displayed in an antique and prominent frame in the most traveled highway in the school.
Well, the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, the school board got involved, and all during the course of the legal dispute, the portrait was shrouded in velvet so that folks couldn’t see it- which only made it all the more conspicuous to everyone in town.
Until that time the community had never wondered whether a public school should display a portrait of Jesus. What the student and his Mother objected to was that Jesus’ likeness in a school hallway was tantamount to an official endorsement, like putting George Washington on the face of a coin. You get the sense then that the person represented ought to have some sort of influence or moral authority – and Eric Pensinger said ‘Not over me, he doesn’t.’
So, should we have portraits of Christ in public schools? I doubt that Eric Pensinger ever realized the religious profundity of his objection. It likely never occurred to him that Christians see the face of the risen Christ reflected in many people, that no single image has sole authority; that Christ cannot be limited to an image in a frame.
It all turned out to be pretty ironic. At last the school board voted to settle out of court and to place beside Sallman’s portrait similarly sized and framed portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. So where there once had been one portrait of Jesus in Bloomingdale High School, now there are three. From one portrait of one person to model one’s life after, came two more specific historical figures to follow. Maybe today there are others; Harriett Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa; who knows?
The ripples of how God asks us to live come in more images than we could ever count. One last story, real quick, if I may….
There was once an old monastery tucked away in the middle of a beautiful forest. For many years people would make the long detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years however, fewer and fewer people made their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Isaac. Isaac was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”
Rabbi Isaac said that he had received a vision, an important vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the community of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. The holy brothers started talking again, none wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. They all left their frosty anger behind and sought out each other’s forgiveness. They began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.
As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery, word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.
Even though it has not been given to us to see an accurate, literal representation of Christ, we have seen Jesus’ reflection in those we live work and pray with; people we know well, and among those we barely know and can now get to know better.
Look around. Look among you, at people you know, love and who have loved you back and who have shown you the truth, and acted on the truth.
You don’t have to go far to see Jesus. We are all created in the image of God and are called to be the body of Christ on earth; and believe it or not, we, together, are the faithful likeness of Jesus Christ. May the ripples in our reflection continue to spread far and wide, in our community, city, nation and world, in Jesus’ name. Amen.