Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
RCL, Year A, Proper 16: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
All of us long to be known and affirmed for who we are. And Jesus is no exception.
After traveling widely with his disciples, teaching, healing, and proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, Jesus’ ministry is halfway over. From here on out, every step will take him closer to the sufferings of Calvary. So Jesus decides to take a break. He needs some time off to think and to pray.
So he withdraws to a place called Caesarea Philippi. This was a district beyond the control of King Herod and inhabited primarily by Gentiles. It was a perfect place for Jesus to get away from the crowds and from his enemies. And it was a good place to spend time with the disciples clarifying something weighing on his heart and mind. Even after all this time, Jesus wasn’t sure that his followers really understood who he was. And so when he’s alone with his disciples, he asks them, “Who do people say I am?” Jesus wants to know what’s the word on the street. And from the disciples, he learns that people think of him primarily as a prophet. “Some say you’re John the Baptist come back from the dead.” “Some think that you’re Elijah come back to usher in the great and terrible day of the Lord.” “And then there are others who say you must be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”
These were all very complimentary things to say. They show that the people held Jesus in high regard and that they saw his ministry as a sign that the long hoped-for Messiah was coming soon.
Not satisfied with the verdict of opinion polls, Jesus takes a risk. Looking at his disciples, he asks, “But what about you guys? Who do you say I am?” There’s a lot riding on the disciples’ answer to this question. What they say will tell Jesus whether or not his closest followers and friends really know him.
Matthew doesn’t tell us if there was any time lag between Jesus’ question and the answer. But I like to think that there were at least several seconds of silence. Sort of like back in school days when the teacher asked a question and everybody thought they might know the answer but were too afraid of looking stupid to raise a hand. That’s the sort of silence I imagine in this scene – the kind where you can hear a pin drop. And although it lasts for only a few seconds, that silence feels like an eternity.
Finally, good ol’ impetuous Peter takes the plunge. Looking Jesus in the eye, Peter says, “You’re not just a prophet preparing the way for the Messiah. You’re way more than that. You are the Messiah. You’re the Son of the living God.”
Then there’s another moment of silence. Peter’s answer hangs in the air. Everyone’s heart is pounding as they wonder, “Has Peter blown it again?”
Just when the disciples think they can’t take the suspense any longer, Jesus’ face lights up, he breaks out in a smile, and he cries out in joy, “Wow! Simon son of John, you didn’t get this answer from any human being. It came straight from my Father in heaven. And because you’ve been bold enough to share what God has revealed to you, your confession of faith is going to be the foundation for my Church. And even the forces of hell and death won’t be able to overcome it.”
This scene from Matthew is one of the most dramatic stories in the Gospels. And it’s also one of those stories whose relevance seems to just leap off the page. Whether we’ve been in church all our lives, or are checking it out again after a sabbatical, or are coming to check it out for the first time, we all face the same question from Jesus: “Who do you say I am?” It’s not an impersonal question we can answer by looking in a book or doing a Google search. It’s not a question we can answer by citing somebody else’s opinion. We don’t have the luxury of getting off the hook that easily. No, this is a direct and personal question, a question that nobody else can answer for us. Jesus says to each and every one of us: “Who do you say I am?” And the way we answer that question will shape the rest of our lives.
If we say – as some have – that Jesus was just a pretender or a charlatan, or even just mistaken, then we can evade the claims he makes on our lives and our loyalties. If we say that Jesus was a great moral teacher – perhaps even the greatest moral teacher – then we ironically elevate his status while simultaneously rendering him irrelevant. C. S. Lewis put it like this: “If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference” [Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), p. 137]. And if Jesus was just an inspired prophet of God like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Elijah, then why go through all this messy business of crucifixion and death? Why do something that would automatically label you as a failure?
The New Testament repeatedly affirms Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus is the one through whom God’s promise to redeem Israel and all of creation finds fulfillment. Jesus is the one through whom God has acted to save us from the powers of sin and evil by defeating those powers – not through force or violence – but through his own death and resurrection.
That’s the New Testament’s response to the question, “Who do you say I am?” It’s a response that gets fleshed out more fully in the historic creeds of the Church, and it’s a response which we pray in our liturgies every time we gather to worship God in Word and Sacrament.
That’s all well and fine. But how do we make the Church’s response to the question, “Who do you say I am?” our own response? How do we avoid the pitfall of simply relying on external authorities – even authorities as weighty as Scripture and Tradition – to dictate to us the answer to a question that Jesus wants us to answer for ourselves, from our hearts and with our lives?
We do it the way Peter did it.
Now that may seem like a strange thing to say. After all, doesn’t Jesus assert that Peter’s confession did not come from any human being but was, instead, a revelation from God? And doesn’t that mean that God zapped Peter with a lightning bolt from heaven, jolting him into a sudden awareness of the truth?
Hardly. The revelation of Jesus’ true identity as the Christ doesn’t come from a lightning bolt out of the blue. It’s not a matter of bowing to an external authority or a “problem” to be solved. Coming to know Jesus as the Christ is not a supernatural intervention or a scholarly quest. On the contrary, it’s a relationship to be lived. And it’s a gift to be received.
It’s been said that “We cannot know Jesus without following Jesus;” indeed, “we [must] follow Jesus before we [can come to] know Jesus” [Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon Press, 1989), p. 55; emphasis in text]. We must be willing to let Jesus be the one who teaches us how to live, and why life is worth living. Following Jesus’ example, we must be willing to put the needs of the poor, the sick, and the suffering ahead of our own. And even when we don’t always understand, we must be willing to follow Jesus all the way to the sufferings of the cross and beyond to the unexpected joys of the resurrection. That’s how we come to know Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Coming to know Jesus is sort of like asking someone to marry you or having a child. We can’t possibly know what we’re really getting ourselves into. We’re linking our lives to the fate and fortunes of another, venturing out into the great unknown, not always sure of where it will take us. That takes faith. Not blind faith, mind you, but the kind of faith – the kind of trust – that comes when we fall in love with someone who loves us. That puts us on a journey that will change our lives. For as we follow, we will not only come to know Jesus; we’ll also come to know ourselves for who we really are – beloved children of God whose destinies are interwoven in the life fabric of a community that not even death itself can overcome.