“Who do you say that I am?”[i]
A sermon for Trinity 9. Matthew 16.13-20. 21/08/11. Copyright 2011 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.
Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”[ii]
You can find a difficult question, not on Mastermind, but on You Tube. People on the street were asked, “Who do you think Jesus is?”. Many struggled to answer that question. Committed Christians promptly gave the standard reply: “Jesus is the Son of God, my Lord and Saviour”. Most people’s response, however, was, “umm…. errr….” Some said, “Jesus was… a spiritual leader, one of many in the world”. Others described Jesus as, “a moral example, a wise teacher.” For several people, “he was a social reformer, a Jew who lived long ago.” Someone said he thought of Jesus as, “more of a friend, like, but not in a weird way like an imaginary friend.” One young man proclaimed, “Jesus is the real deal!”[iii] Jesus is different things to different people.
Our ideas about who Jesus is are often formed from familiar images. Perhaps we think of Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World”, where Jesus waits with a lantern, and knocks at an overgrown door. Or we may remember pictures from Sunday school: a man in a white robe, with long hair, beard and sandals. Recently there have been attempts to make Jesus more “accessible”, “more contemporary”. One effort to modernise Jesus is a plastic figure of Jesus…energetically playing football. Don’t worry – He’s still wearing his long white robe over his football kit. His crown of thorns, however, may cause problems if he attempts to head the ball.[iv]
In Jesus’ own time, people weren’t sure who he was, either. The setting of today’s gospel is Caesarea Philippi, which was a gentile city, rather like our secular society. People were puzzled by Jesus. Some thought he was John the Baptist, come back from the dead to haunt Herod, his murderer. Others wondered if Jesus might be Elijah, who’d been carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot, but who was expected to return. Maybe this man was Jeremiah, whose disturbing warnings had been rejected. But Jesus was not concerned with popular rumours. He wanted his disciples to examine their own beliefs: “But who do you say that I am?”[v] The disciples, like people today, probably hesitated. Then Peter, bold and impetuous, spoke out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”[vi]
Jesus’ response to Peter’s acclamation was surprising. Jesus “sternly ordered”[vii] his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. This seems strange, since later the disciples were told to spread the good news. At that time, most people expected the Messiah to be a triumphant king, someone who would vanquish the Romans. But Jesus was not a political leader. His disciples would not really understand what kind of Messiah Jesus is until after his death and resurrection. Before then, they were to keep silent, in order to avoid popular delusions, uprisings, and Roman retaliation.
“Who do you say that I am?” In a few moments, at Savannah’s baptism, we will reply to Jesus’ question. We will call Jesus “Christ”, which means “the anointed one” in Greek. The Hebrew word for “the anointed one” is “Masiah”, “Messiah”. In biblical times, kings were anointed with holy oil when they were crowned. Today we will anoint Savannah with holy oil as we make the sign of Christ’s cross on her forehead. When we go to the font, we will all say who Jesus is when we recite the Creed, as we do every Sunday. But because we’re so familiar with the Creed, do we give these answers automatically? Do we say the Creed as thoughtlessly as we tick off a box on a website, which asks, “Do you agree with all our terms and conditions?” We never bother to read what those terms and conditions are. What terms and conditions are we agreeing to, when we accept Jesus as our Lord, the ruler of our lives?
The statements we make in the Creed are not just abstract theological ideas. Our beliefs, as we express them in the Creed, should determine the direction of our lives. We come to Christ as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.[viii] The earliest Christians were known as “followers of the Way”. The Way of Christ is a journey on a long road, not an instant arrival at a destination. When the first disciples realised how difficult the Way of Christ might be, they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus reassured them, “For God all things are possible.”[ix] God’s grace overcomes human weakness.
Jesus asks us, “But who do you say that I am?”[x] We reply not only by what we say, but by what we do. Yet so often we do things which are wrong. Our actions seem to contradict our spoken words, which claim that Jesus is our ruler, our Lord. Peter boldly asserted that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet when he was afraid, Peter just as adamantly denied that he even knew Jesus. He denied Jesus, not once, but three times. Afterwards Peter wept bitterly, was forgiven by Jesus, and went on to become a great leader. His shifting sands became a firm rock of the church. God’s grace overcame Peter’s human weakness.
Jesus asks us, “who do you say that I am?”[xi] He also asks us, “Who do you say that you are? Are you a follower of my Way?” We reply to his question not only with our words, but with our actions. Like Peter, our actions are often wrong, and we have to ask for forgiveness. We pray that God will give us grace to recognise Jesus and to accept him as the ruler of our lives. And we trust that God will give us grace to follow the Way of Christ. AMEN.
[i] Matthew 16.15
[ii] Matthew 16.15
[iii] Various videos on Youtube, viewed by googling “who is Jesus interviews youtube” accessed 03/08/11.
[v] Matthew 16.15
[vi] Matthew 16.16
[vii] Matthew 16.20
[viii] John 14.6
[ix] Matthew 19.26
[x] Matthew 16.15
[xi] Matthew 16.15