Video to be posted:
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 21, 2011
Who do you say that I am? It is really amazing how so few words from the right person can ask a question that has absolute implications.
I suppose there are lots of big questions: What happened to the dinosaurs? Who shot J.R.? Jacob or Edward? My favorite philosophical questions are: Who started it? Are we going to make it? Where are we going to put it? Who's going to clean up? And, Is it serious? Ultimate questions: to life, the Universe, Everything. And today Jesus is asking the ultimate question for us. “Who do you say that I am?” And if we can answer this question with integrity and authenticity, then the rest will follow.
Jesus first asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He wants to know what those who have been watching and listening think of him. Jesus is asking what kind of impression that he has made but also how he is being interpreted. The disciples give him lots of answers, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
I wonder what Jesus was thinking when he heard these poll results. After all, it’s quite a distinction to be seen as Elijah or Jeremiah: well respected, but dangerous to the powers that be; same for John the Baptist. Of course it never goes well for such as these, as we read about John a few weeks ago.
Or to be one of the prophets, well, that meant to be a person who called people to God. Prophets in the Jewish tradition are not fortune tellers or oracles of any kind. The Rabbis describe a prophet as that voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. Prophecy is a form of living, a crossing point of God and humanity. God is raging in the prophet’s words .
Not a bad showing to be considered one of the prophets. But I can just see Jesus, nodding; he can see why they might think he’s a prophet, he argues with the hypocrites, he invites the poor and marginalized to eat with him. But Jesus seems to know this isn’t quite it. It’s close, at times he is like a prophet, but he’s got something else in mind.
Those people get close, but Jesus presses more. “Well then, who do you say that I am?” This is our ultimate question: Who do you say that I am?
Peter gives an interesting response: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The problem that we have upon hearing Peter’s confession is that we conflate his response with our own understanding of Jesus Christ as the incarnate God. What we do is hear, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and we add on, Jesus, God incarnate, the second person of the trinity, God from God, light from light, true God from true God. It’s hard not to hear Peter’s response like that when we hear it this side of Nicea, on our side of the creed.
But Peter is saying something a little more nuanced. The concept of a Messiah, is, of course, not exclusive to Christianity, not by a long shot. We have to remember that Messiah and incarnate-God are not the same thing. Indeed, in the Old Testament there are several references to the Messiah, and not all of them were of the chosen people. Most notably, in the book of Isaiah, the Persian king, Cyrus, who was decidedly NOT a Hebrew, is called the Messiah, because he secures peace and freedom for God’s people, he is the shepherd of God’s people, even where the Davidic kings have failed. (Is: 44-45) . The messiah has been several things over the years, and being God incarnate was never part of the program.
Jesus praises Peter for his insight, however. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, Jesus in effect praises God for opening Peter to such an insight. But then Jesus urges his disciples to keep it quiet about the whole, Messiah, Son-of-God thing. Biblical scholars refer to Jesus’ reticence about his Messiahship as the messianic secret. Why would Jesus want to be quiet about his being the messiah? Some have offered that it is because Jesus is trying to protect his disciples: if they go out blabbing about how he is the messiah, that might put them in a bad spot, socially and religiously. The prevalent notion about the messiah at this time was chiefly political, and that meant coming into direct conflict with the Roman Empire. And here’s the rub, Jesus hadn’t been in conflict the Romans, he had been in conflict with his own people, but he hadn’t messed with the Romans.
This is why Jesus is so secretive about his Messiah-ship, it’s because he’s not exactly the messiah as understood by every messiah-seeking Jew of his day. While the people were not exactly cold with the idea that Jesus was a prophet, Peter was definitely getting warmer when he called Jesus the messiah and the son of God. Jesus is pleased that Peter is getting there. And Peter is able to get warmer and warmer about whom Jesus is by the grace of God, God has revealed to Peter who Jesus is.
Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” “Jesus lived 2000 years ago, who said some nice things, but really he has no bearing on my life right now.” You’re ice cold, try again.
“Well, Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew who preached a message of love and inclusion. Jesus did not recognize the religious and national borders of his day and he taught us all how a human should act, even accepting death rather than commit violence.” O.K., now you’re getting warm, keep going.
“Jesus was sent to earth by God to be a ransom for my sins, to make me righteous in the sight of God. Jesus is my personal redeemer and savior.” You’re getting warmer!
“Ok, Jesus was, and is, the incarnation, the enfleshment of God, Jesus was God on earth. Jesus is the Christ, the second person of the Holy and undivided Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father.” Oh, now you’re heating up, one more time.
“I’m not sure . . . and I don’t really understand what you mean by co-equal and co-eternal, and I’ve never had a born-again type experience, but when I get quiet, someone is calling to me, persistently, calling and pulling me, love is there. I can’t nail it all down certainly, but when I hear these stories, they just ring true, those stories, they sound like the one that’s been calling me. I think, and I feel, that someone is there and, well, all I know is that when I come to the rail to get the bread and wine, he usually shows up there too.” Alright, now you’re red hot!
Like all answers to questions, they are dictated and colored by the question. And the question is in its essence is Jesus. The answer must contain, the power, but also the humble humanity, of the question.
Who do you say that I am?
It’s not enough for us to know what people say about Jesus, and it’s really not enough either to simply know what the church says about Jesus; though it helps. While the church has always proclaimed a common faith, a faith we all share together; we all, each of us need to have some account of who Jesus is for us, as we experience him. It need not be some pat answer; it need not be clear and certain. But we need to have some account. We need to be attempting, always, to get warmer and warmer, to who Jesus is;
you’re getting warmer,
burning up now,