“Who Do YOU Say That I Am?”
Matthew 16: 13-20
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ August 27, 2017
A great joy that I recall in my life was naming my two children. We had some ideas of what their names might be when their mother was pregnant, but it seemed to us that we needed to actually meet our child before sealing their identity with a name. And so, at one of the birthing suites in Women’s Hospital we chose the Christian names by which our two children would be known. Mikayla Nancy Joy and Ethan Gary Shaun. And those names hold a lot of significance. Some attachment to special people whose presence we hoped might be a guide and our prayers for how they might grow as individuals in the world. We could spend a lovely day talking about each and every one of our names, how we received them, and what they mean. The stories of who people say that you are and you will be: they are indeed powerful!
And that is the nature of the text this morning. Jesus is asking his followers who they say he is. His disciples, of course, are cautious. Well…”some say” ~ which is the equivalent to how people say things like “I have a friend who says…” Well… some link you back to the old prophets: Elijah, Jeremiah, and others to John the Baptist. And then Jesus points his finger at his disciples and asks them the question directly. But, who do YOU say that I am? Not … who do others say that I am? Not…who does your friend say that I am? Not even … who does your minister say that I am? But who do YOU say that I am? So, who is this Jesus? This morning Jesus asks: ‘Who do YOU say that I am?’
Ironically, for 2,000 years the church has been seeking to answer this question for its parishioners. This was the work of the great creeds of the church. The fourth Century gave rise to two of our major creeds. The Apostles Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…” and so on. And the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the begotten of God the Father”. Half a century ago, our own “A New Creed” was designed as a supplement to those two historic creeds of the church: “We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God. who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new…” And while the various creeds of the church have brought us together over the ages, the problem created with them is that at some point each and every one of us must step aside and make a personal connection with Jesus Christ, develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and answer Jesus’ question spoken individually to each of us: ‘who do YOU say that I am?’ in order for their faith to be one that is owned, for their faith to have depth and meaning in their life.
One of the challenges that I particularly see in progressive liberal Protestant churches like the United Church of Canada is that we are really good at saying who Jesus is not. Have you ever noticed how good we are at saying how we are not like the Conservatives or the Fundamentalists, and so on? As a reaction to many church movements who have historically been so aggressive and demanding, we have spent a lot of time working as apologists for the Christian faith ~ saying that our Jesus is not like this or that. We say that our Jesus would not require one to abstain from dancing – just read through the scriptures. Our Jesus is not like that. Or the churches that forbid the consumption of alcohol. Jesus did not condemn people for enjoying alcohol socially. Our Jesus is not like that either. Jesus did not reject someone for being divorced or being lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgendered or queer. That’s not who he is either. Jesus did not observe the boundaries we construct between different cultures and religions. Our Jesus is not like that either. But Jesus, in the text, did not ask ‘who do you say that I am not’. Jesus asks the question: ‘who do YOU say that I am?’
In responding to Jesus’ question, Simon Peter moves to the front of the class. He moves past those ‘others’ who referenced him as being connected with dead prophets. Simon Peter answers that he is connected the God of life: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. What Jesus commends in Simon Peter’s answer is his affirmation that he is connected with the Way of life. Jesus is the “Son of the living God”. The “Messiah”, which ~ of course ~ means ‘the Christ’. The one they had been awaiting. The hopes and fears of all the years who had finally been met in thee. And this was a faith leap for Simon Peter. He did not know it in his head. Or as Jesus put it “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you”. But rather it was his leap of faith; he knew who Jesus was through his heart and soul. Or, as Jesus put it, what revealed this to him was “my Father in heaven”.
But here’s the problem…My guess is that there were more than a few disciples at the scene, and I’m even guessing here in the congregation this morning (myself included) that they, and we, feel a little uncomfortable with Simon Peter’s confession. If actions speak louder than words – and you and I both know they do – then I will go first and admit that most of my actions don’t confess that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. Our words say it, but do our words live it? Our actions may testify that Jesus is a good man, a great man, even a fine example to follow, even someone to be inspired by, kind of like the prophets of old. But here’s the thing: I suspect that I am not alone in sensing the disconnect between my public confession and my everyday actions. One of the big things that, I think, we all struggle with each week is the gap between the words we say on Sunday and the lives we lead through the rest of the week. We know the Creeds. We know the correct answer. Of course Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But it is so deeply challenging to live out what we say on Sunday morning during the rest of the week. This is certainly not done with any type of intentionality or malice. In fact, I suspect that most of us sincerely desire the words we say on Sunday to both align with the rest of our lives and to actually matter day in and day out. But the question is how do we get our words to match our actions? Not just what we say with our lips when we repeat the Creed, but how do we say it with your lives; that is, with our relationships with others, with our bank account, with our time, with our energy, and with all the rest.
It may be my stomach talking here, but we could end the reflection early and head to our lunch. End it right here and let us all sit with a bit of a well-intentioned guilt trip. I think everyone of us, myself included, would admit that we don’t lead lives that confess Jesus as Lord. And as much as I would like to dig into our pot-luck lunch, I’m not going to quite yet. I’m not going to because I don’t think the intention of this text was to make us feel guilty. The intention of this passage was to draw us closer to Jesus. I would like us to consider what we actually mean when we say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. I think it’s very hard to align our lives with this confession when we don’t really understand what that confession means. And I’m not sure most of us really do – myself included. Because this whatever it is that Jesus was and is…it’s really hard to put into words that we can understand. And so we come up with titles and formulations and all the rest, trying to get at the mystery of what God has done in and through Jesus, and that’s understandable. But all too often I fear that those fancy words only keep the wild and unpredictable God of love and grace at arms distance from us, and Jesus remains inspiring and exemplary, but ultimately tame and eminently safe, kind of like the prophets of old seem to us.
What I think this text calls us to do is to spend a little time in plain and simple words what we mean when we confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. How would you describe Jesus, that is, to someone who never heard of him before. To a child…or an adult…or a friend…or a stranger who asks you about that cross you wear around your neck or that church you are part of. I know that can be a little scary, so before I ask you to go…I’ll go first. I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. In this sense, Jesus reveals God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and consider suicide, a heart that is upset and angry when a person is homeless or victimized, a heart that loves us and wants the best for us. A heart like that of a loving Father, who is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love. But it’s more than that, too. I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve, showed there’s enough to go around. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, certainly Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate, and fear, and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love…wins.
So, there you have it. Fodder for a Sabbath summer day when, one and all, we are invited to ponder ~ individually~ the vast depths of our faith. There are many significant questions we are asked in the course of our life, but surely this one: ‘Who do YOU say that I am?’ is among the top of the list. The question I ask is not what you used to say in the past or what I say about Jesus today. The question I ask is how do you answer this question today, on August 27th in 2017? Who do YOU say that I am? Certainly, we begin with our minds and eventually we answer the question with our lips. And that is where all faithful living comes from. As the old saying goes “your life may be the only Bible people read”. So…who do you say that I am?