Forming Faith Blog

Who Are You? (John 19:1-16a)

This passage is one of two conversations Pilate has with Jesus. In both, Pilate tries to get to the heart of Jesus’ identity. Who are you? Where are you from? Questions even the great theologians are still asking today.

Pilate asks Jesus who he is.

These are the dark days.  These are the days leading up to Easter when we trot out the scriptures for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So, let’s talk about Peter Sellers. Yes, THAT Peter Sellers, the star of classics like The Pink Panther (1963) and Being There (1979). 

Peter Sellers came to most people’s attention in a movie called Lolita (1962) a disturbing little film in which Sellers plays a detective. So good was the detective at playing multiple characters, the villain he was pursuing didn’t know it was the same guy. The audience missed it too. Stanley Kubrick was so impressed by Sellers’ performance that when casting the movie Dr. Strangelove (1964) Kubrick wanted Sellers to play EVERY world leader as they sat around the table talking about the end of the world. Sellers wound up being cast in only four roles and then three, the last one going to Slim Pickens.

Years later, Sellers did a guest shot on The Muppet Show (1974-1981). He appeared in a hippie wig and beard, Viking hat, ladies’ corset, and doing an impression of Queen Victoria. Kermit tells Sellers to relax and be himself.  Sellers tells the frog he can’t be himself. “You see, my dear Kermit, there is no real me.”

Who Are You?

Many of the most remarkable conversations in the scriptures are about identity, including the one in the scripture passages for this week. Both conversations with Pilate are about Pilate trying to get an answer to the question, “Who are you?”

Flip pages all the way back to Moses, who asks the question, “Who do I say sent me?” And God answers, “I AM.” Which is technically not an answer.

To have someone’s name is to have some sort of power over them. If you yell “BOB!” in a crowded baseball game, for just a moment you have power over everyone named Bob. God does not give that power to Moses. 

Jesus is wandering through Solomon’s Porch. A group of people follows him asking, “Are you the messiah? Tell us plainly. Come out and just say it one way or the other.” Jesus goes off on a bit about sheep and shepherds but never answers directly.

In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted three times, and all three are about identity.  “IF you are the son of God….” Jesus gets this little taunt twice, and then on the third try, the tempter says, forget what God wants, build your OWN kingdom.

Even when Jesus is talking with Peter about who the community believes Jesus to be, Jesus asks, “Yeah, Pete, but who do YOU say I am.”  Peter answers but then does an about-face a few chapters later out of what? Fear? Doubt?

Then, finally back with Pilate. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place here.

To the crowds: “Shall I crucify your king?”
To the religious leaders: “I find no basis for a charge against him.”
To Jesus: “Where are you from? Don’t you know what power I have over you? Are you a king?”

Like Father, like Son, Jesus evades the question and says, “You seem to think so.” (Yeah, that’s a loose translation, but go look up that line in various scriptures and get various answers.)  Jesus does not answer “plainly.” (NOTE: Anytime ANYone starts a sentence with “The Bible PLAINLY states” …back away slowly.)

Are You God’s Son?

In his masterpiece Oh, God (1977), Carl Reiner creates a scene with God (George Burns), answering age-old questions with Jerry (John Denver). The question on the table is, “Is Jesus Christ, the son of God?” Apparently, we’ve been asking this question since Pilate did. And whether you answer by faith or educated guess it’s a question we will keep on asking.  In the film,  God replies, “Jesus was my son. Buddha was my son. Mohammad, Moses, you. The man who said there was no room in the inn was my son.”

In his excellent book Illusions, Richard Bach writes, “The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? Think about these every once in a while, and watch your answers change.”

Who Wants to Know?

Maybe we were not made for the answers. Perhaps some answers are just too much for us. Maybe some questions cannot be answered plainly. Perhaps the point is to keep asking questions, to never stop searching, to always wonder. Didn’t God ask us to be like children? Isn’t it part of being a child to be in that perpetual state of wonder? Do you really want to know how the magician does the trick?

Who’s Asking?

So, let’s not disqualify the question but rather flip it around. Who’s asking? When Jesus is asked, he responds with his own question, “Who do YOU say I am?” What if we went to God and asked that question? Who do you say I am?

We know what the world answers. The world has all sorts of answers to that question. Mother, father, son, daughter, doctor, lawyer, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, buyer, seller, coffee drinker, tea-totaler, Republican, Democrat, American, Canadian.

The Question Is the Answer (Just like Jeopardy)

What if we are the ones who are supposed to ask the question of Jesus? Who do YOU say I am?

Try that question in your Easter sermons, Lenten suppers, and just coffee conversations. You’re not asking God, “Who am I?” The question is, “Who do YOU say I am?”

If you asked that question…what would Jesus answer? 


Steve Case is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry and prolific author. His latest book F**K Death is a hard-core guide to grief for those who are tired of pity and condolences. Steve lives in North Carolina.

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: Sept 12 to June 5), we provide a free activity download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download “The Kingdom of God” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) curriculum, though this can be used with many ages in many contexts!

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