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“Who Do You Say I Am?”

August 28, 2017

“‘Who Do You Say I Am?’” Matthew 16:13-20 © 8.27.17 Ordinary 21A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Among the many things that make us uniquely human, surely the ability and the impulse to ask questions has to be near the top of the list. Almost as soon as they can speak, kids start asking “Why?” Even the Alzheimer’s patient, robbed of so much, still asks questions, even if they’re heart-breaking ones, like “Do you know me?” It’s no accident that autocrats and dictators don’t want anybody engaging in activities that implicitly or explicitly raise questions. They try to discredit, intimidate, even jail and kill journalists, preferring state-run media and official statements. They squash art, jazz, and literature, forms of expression that encourage non-conformity, fresh ways of looking at the world. It’s not surprising that authoritarian, hierarchical churches try to silence those who ask “Who says?” and “Why not?” and that dysfunctional families insist that everybody do things the way the patriarch or matriarch decrees, not ask about traditions or try to open closets and bring out skeletons. All these people and institutions are bent on reducing us to things, taking away our humanity, our voice, our wills, our imaginations, so they may impose their warped visions on us.

Jesus spent a good bit of his ministry asking questions. In doing that, he affirmed our humanity and expressed his own. We become conversation partners with God himself, here with us in flesh in our Lord.

So we hear Jesus inquiring “What do you think?” and “Which of you?” “Whose inscription is this and whose image?” “By whose authority did John act?” Sometimes his questions were out of frustration: “Do you not yet understand?” “Have I been so long among you, and yet you don’t know me?” And he had a habit of using the common pedagogical method of answering a question with a question. In that, he was like other rabbis of the day and since. His disciples and his opponents as well could have told about him the anecdote recalling a conversation between a rabbi and his talmid, his student. The younger man came to the elder one day and asked: “Rabbi, why do you always answer my questions with another question?” The learned scholar replied: “And what’s wrong with a question?”

Our Lord also followed the wisdom tradition of Scripture by using a form called a mashal, an analogy, AKA a parable, which refers a matter to the audience for discussion and discernment. It’s a kind of question disguised as a story. And even on the cross, Jesus asked a question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the ultimate, timeless, essential question our Lord asked his disciples and us was spoken at a town called Caesarea Philippi. He’d become well known for miracles like feeding a crowd or healing the sick. People were following him everywhere. As we would say, there was a lot of buzz about Jesus.

So he was interested in what folks were saying. The disciples reported several answers. Some people thought Jesus was John the Baptist. Apparently Herod Antipas, the local ruler, actually believed Jesus was John, restored to life and possessed now of miraculous powers. Others considered Jesus not literally to be John, but to have the same power and drive, the same prophetic spirit. Another opinion was that Jesus was Elijah. That could have been based on the Jewish tradition that Elijah would return just before the Day of Judgment or people simply meant our Lord’s ministry reminded them of the stories told about Elijah. Others claimed he was Jeremiah. That one’s a bit of a puzzle. Maybe folks identified Jesus with that famous prophet because both predicted the fall of Jerusalem. Our Lord for them was a prophet of doom. Finally, he was simply “one of the prophets.” That meant he stood over against the political and religious establishment and spoke the word of God with great fervor. The bottom line was that Jesus was a great man, a teacher, a wonder worker, somebody you’d pay to hear if you had to. A guy who’s autograph you’d like to have or whose page you would like on Facebook, whose Twitter posts you’d follow to keep up with his next book or appearance or pronouncement.

Pretty sweet. But not quite enough, not really all Jesus was. He may have been going out on a limb, he may have expected their response, he may have simply hoped that they were finally getting it when he asked “But who do you say I am?”

The answer had to be gratifying. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In that day, it was expected that the son would carry on and carry out the work of his father, and the king was thought of as the adopted son of the heavenly Ruler, declared to be so in an enthronement ritual in which the monarch was told by God through a priest: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” So, Peter’s statement meant Jesus was the promised Deliverer, the One everyone was waiting for, the Agent of God who represented Yahweh, the King in the tradition of David. Given all the popular, more obvious answers, it was an insight that could only have come to Peter and the others by revelation, by the prompting of God’s Spirit. And it was the foundation of everything that was to come.

Still today Jesus asks the same questions, starting with “Who do people say I am?”

“Well,” we might offer, “some scholars say you were a wandering wise man and faith healer. You broke with the tradition of your faith and turned common sense on its ear. You confronted people with parables and witticisms. You left them puzzled and upset and angry. You were not born of a virgin, but of two parents like any other human being, and the claims of your resurrection grew out of visions by your disciples. You urged people not to prepare for the end of the world, but to repair the world now by right living.” “Yes, yes, yes; but who do you say I am?”

We try again. “OK. Others claim you were a prophet of the end times, the apocalypse. You preached revolution and liberation and said things that got you in a lot of trouble, like ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last” and ‘let the dead bury the dead’ and ‘whoever does not hate his family is not worthy of me.’ You came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and you showed your commitments by eating with tax collectors and sinners and others considered unclean. You said God would one day usher in a reign of peace and justice and love, and in fact, for those with eyes to see, the kingdom was here already. It would surely come within the lifetime of your disciples. A divine figure called ‘the Son of Man’ would appear from heaven to accomplish all that God willed. Perhaps you thought you were that person; maybe he was someone else.” “Yeah, yeah; yada, yada, yada. But who do you say I am?”

We’re digging deep now. “Hmm. You’re God with a little humanity in there somewhere. You’re the patron of our politics, the one who blesses our viewpoints. You’re a cosmic lover. You’re the one young people and anyone who is spiritual likes even when they don’t like the Church. You’re ignored by a large segment of the Church that has abandoned your teachings in favor of seeking power and prosperity. And maybe you were just a good man, a peasant who gained a following, but ran afoul of the authorities and ended up like everybody else who tries to fight the Powers That Be. And a lot of people don’t really know, care or think about the question. They’re too busy trying to put food on the table or avoid foreclosure or pay medical bills or keep their kids out of trouble and off drugs or take care of an elderly parent.”

“But who do you say I am?”

“I was taught growing up…” “What do you say?” “The Apostles’ Creed and the other confessions teach…” “Who do you say?”

“I don’t really know. I mean I want to believe something about you, but everything is so confusing. People give you all those titles and names that I’ve rattled off. Why can’t the answer be ‘All of the above?’ Maybe if I could have a picture of you to focus on. I mean a real picture, not like all those portraits with long flowing hair and heavenly gaze that have graced the halls of churches and the walls of homes for decades or the version of you some movie script writer or director dreamed up. I would love to have a photo of you or watch an interview from a talk show like Colbert or Kimmel. Oh, well. Of course, that’s impossible.

“And all the jargon from the Church through the centuries. What do all those words mean? Messiah. Christ. Son of Man. Human One. Savior. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Holy Child. Son of God. Lamb of God. Lion of Judah. Alpha and Omega. Word of God Incarnate. I Am. Bread of Life. True Vine. Good Shepherd. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. Bridegroom of the Soul. Mirror of the Eternal. And on and on. Too many words, too much to process. Even the New Testament doesn’t offer a consistent answer, and people through the ages have shaped you in their own image, adding to the confusion. I just want somebody I can talk to and trust, especially when times get tough. A friend in my need that I can walk in the garden with alone, while the dew is still on the roses. Just keep it simple. Not so complicated.”

Whatever our dialogue with Jesus might sound like, it’s essential we engage him personally for today. We can’t depend on the answers of yesteryear. Or those we find in a book, no matter if it was written by the finest and most respected scholar. Or even on what our parents or the preacher or the elder taught us. Jesus has to be encountered and confessed by each of us every day as we depend on the Spirit’s guidance. Our lives are constantly changing, and his question is posed every time we confront a new issue in our lives or in our culture, every time we mark a passing year or come to some big milestone on our journeys. When technology or medicine opens up new possibilities, who do you say I am? When disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, who do you say I am? When violence and war are never ending, who do you say I am? When hatred and greed shove love and generosity out the door and lock it tight, who do you say I am? When life is joyous and full and wondrous, who do you say I am? When we hurt so badly we could wish like Job that we were never born, who do you say I am? When you get in the car to go somewhere or sit watching TV or wash dishes or play a game or post on social media, who do you say I am? The faithful action we take in our particular situation is our answer to his question.

Maybe even more important than the specific content of our answers is the fact that we are constantly open to the question and that we respond for ourselves, out of our own hearts and experiences. Nobody else can answer for you. Nobody can answer for me. Because each of us is unique, and our Lord comes to us and calls us and challenges us as and where and when we are.

Presbyterians of our stripe don’t talk much about a personal relationship with Jesus. (“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Savior?”) We know how much that kind of language can be distorted and used to manipulate people or to make the mission of the church the saving of souls for heaven instead of the making of disciples who pay attention to the physical needs of their neighbors now and who seek a just and peaceful world. We’re aware how easily “personal” can be twisted to mean “private,” bracketed from the “real world,” so my faith in Jesus has nothing much to do with how I treat you or spend my money or how I vote or run my business. We see it every day. Compartmentalized “Christians” routinely practice injustice and treat others as “less than” six days a week or at best regard them with indifference, but sing the praise of Jesus on Sunday and pump the preacher’s hand as they compliment the sermon. We know that faith places us in community, and the confession of Jesus as the Christ is something we do together. Indeed, that’s the very meaning of the word: “confessio,” to “say together.”

But the problems with the language ought not keep us from asking ourselves about our personal relationship with Jesus. Because until each of us stakes his or her life on him, we’re merely observers. We haven’t moved to true faith, the kind of trust that follows him anywhere, the surrender that allows our Lord to shape our lives, to nudge and push us out of our comfort zones into undiscovered countries of action and thought. A Baptist pastor I knew in Alabama once said that it’s only the one who accepts the claim of Christ on his or her life who has the right to say who Jesus is. I think he was correct. We don’t get to know someone deeply through casual conversation or having lunch once in a blue moon. It’s the one who lives with another day in and day out, through thick and thin, who can answer questions about viewpoints and needs, character and identity. So with our Lord. It’s in living every day with Jesus, as the old Sunday school song puts it, that we discover our answer to our Lord’s ultimate, timeless question.

There are some oft-quoted lines from Albert Schweitzer that seem a fitting way to end our reflection this morning. Near the end of what is now known as the “first quest for the historical Jesus,” he said: “He comes to us as one unknown…as he came to those…who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow…me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is” (The Quest for the Historical Jesus: 403).

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