Who do you say that I am?

I remember the room we were in, but I don’t recall what day it was or what time of day. Richard and I were sitting across from each other in comfortable chairs, a small table between us. We had made the appointment to get to know each other – we had been introduced only a week earlier, and we would be working together for a local non-profit organization.
How do you get to know somebody? Think about the chit-chat that develops at parties where we take turns asking questions, “So, what do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have kids?” If we don’t end up talking about our kids, we talk about our dogs or the play-offs.
The conversation that day was different, though. Richard didn’t ask a single question; all he said was, “Tell me your story,” and for the next hour he listened.
Of course I didn’t know at first where to start, but it didn’t take long and I was talking about the people and things I care most about – my family, my faith, my passions and struggles, my fears and hopes. Whenever there were a few seconds of silence, Richard didn’t jump in but simply waited for me to pick up another thread I wanted to follow.
We met again a few days later, and now it was his turn to tell me his story – the neighborhood on the southside of Chicago where he grew up, his two little sisters who adored their big brother, his love of music, his passion for learning and teaching. We spent only two hours together that week, but we got to know each other at a deep and meaningful level because we gave each other the space to tell our story. I came away from that experience knowing that one of the greatest gifts we can give another person is our presence and the invitation, “Tell me your story.”
In the 1960s, the opportunity arose for our church to tell our story. During that decade many Disciples congregations in North America arrived at a historic conclusion: in order to remain faithful to their calling as Christian churches they had to balance their cherished congregational freedom with structures of mutual responsibility and accountability. After years of prayerful study and discernment the congregations recognized regional and larger geographical expressions of the church and decided to let the organizational structure of the Disciples of Christ reflect that reality. In those years, the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Decades of ecumenical dialogue with churches from around the world had played a key role in these developments, and now these same churches were eager to meet their newly restructured friends. “Tell us your story,” they said, giving us the opportunity to tell the whole world who we are. And of course we didn’t know at first where to start:
When we tell the story of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) do we talk about the “founding fathers” of the Restoration Movement, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone and Walter Scott? Or do we talk about the social realities of the American frontier after the Revolutionary War, or the spiritual fervor of the Second Great Awakening?
No, we tell our story by talking about the things that are most important to us, and we begin at the beginning:
As members of the Christian Church,
We confess that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of the living God,
and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.
This is the opening line of the Disciples Affirmation, also known as the Preamble to the Design.
The very first line, innocent and introductory as it may sound, is a profound statement.
“As members of the Christian Church, we confess…” A confession is a deeply personal thing, but it is not private. We don’t get up, one after another, stating, ‘As a member of the Christian Church, I confess…’ listing our beliefs in order of personal preference. This is our confession, not the sum-total of our various individual theological opinions, nor the confession of one or of a small group that all the others have to subscribe to in order to belong. When we say this, we speak with the discipline of a church that is one and with the freedom of those who never stop exploring the meaning of the gospel for our time (that exploration implies debate, disagreement, and wrestling to arrive at a common understanding).
The “we” who speak here do not claim to be the church nor do we emphasize our particularity by saying, As Disciples of Christ, we confess… The “we” who make this affirmation speak with Christian boldness and with denominational humility. We refer to ourselves as the Christian Church, and in brackets, Disciples of Christ. The way we write our name speaks of our hope that one day all churches will affirm our faith as members of the Christian Church – and in brackets, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Assembly of God, Baptist or Anglican. The “we” who affirm our faith with this statement do not wish to create an “us” over against “them,” a community of true believers over against heretic outsiders, or an avantgarde ahead of God’s slower people. We do speak from a particular perspective, but with this affirmation we attempt to express what all who confess Christ can affirm together.
“We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
We say who we are by saying who Jesus is. When invited to tell our story, we talk about Jesus, because without him there would be no “we” beyond our narrow familial, tribal, or national allegiances. We talk about Jesus, because we cannot imagine our lives without him, but we don’t stand up and declare, “This is how it is and you better believe it or else.” We confess, and our confession is both bold and humble:
Responding to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” we boldly stand side by side with Peter saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” affirming that in Jesus God’s purposes are revealed and fulfilled; and at the same time we stand humbly with generations of disciples because we know that our lives limp far behind what we confess with our lips and believe in our hearts. We make our confession with the boldness of God’s sons and daughters and with the joyful humility of those who know that we are loved despite our denials and betrayals.
When we confess Jesus to be the Christ, God’s Anointed One, we don’t claim to know what it takes to be God’s Messiah; we don’t claim to have a detailed job description for this position and that after a careful interview process we have established that this candidate has all the necessary qualifications – no, we stutter and sing in wonder because in Jesus’ life and teachings, his death and resurrection we find life in fullness and we see the glory of God. We confess that Jesus is the Christ, because God raised him from the dead, inaugurating the kingdom of heaven on earth, and because in all our conversations about God and the world, sin and forgiveness, about the meaning of life and the demands of love we find ourselves again and again turning to Jesus.
We proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world. This Jesus whom God raised from the dead sits on the throne as ruler of the universe and judge of the nations – again we stutter and sing in wonder. What we proclaim is that after sin and death, fear and violence, political maneuvering and religious rectitude have had their way with the world, love is Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus is Lord – and all the other contenders for the throne are not.
Proclaiming him Savior of the world we affirm three things: the world needs saving; the world is worth saving; and Jesus is the Savior.
To say that the world needs saving is almost stating the obvious; anybody can see that life is not what it could be and should be, that things are not the way they’re supposed to be. But to declare that the world is worth saving still suprises many. We affirm that this world is God’s good creation and that God desires for life to flourish in peace. Earth and the creatures that inhabit it are not just the backdrop for the drama of saving the souls of human beings, but are themselves objects of God’s delight. The world is worth saving because God loves it.
The church has always affirmed that Jesus is the Savior, but it has never developed one definitive position on just how Jesus accomplishes that salvation. The New Testament offers a variety of answers, and that had to be expected since we relate to Jesus in a variety of ways.
We look to Jesus and we see the beauty of creation and its brokenness healed; we see sin and suffering and we see wholeness restored; we see oppression and torture and the power of violence overcome; we look at the cross and we see all that is wrong with the world and we see the love of God who will not abandon the world. We look at the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in that story we see the story of God and the world. We relate to Jesus in a variety of ways, but Jesus relates to us and all things as Savior.
When invited to tell our story, we say who we are by saying who Jesus is, and through affirming who Jesus is we discover and affirm who we are:
In Christ’s name and by his grace
we accept our mission of witness
and service to all people.
Our confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God unfolds not in words, be they spoken, written, sung or shouted, but in lives lived. To proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world is to say with our lives our small Yes in response to God’s great Yes. Because of Jesus we live no longer for ourselves but for others, and through our lives of witness and service the love of God touches, heals, and restores the world. That doesn’t make of us co-saviors, but witnesses: our life together points to the One in whose name and by whose grace we found life. Our story, by the grace of God points to the story of Jesus.