Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?'
This morning I want to start off with a question. That seems appropriate given the gospel reading we just heard. My question to you is this:
“Who is Jesus?”
That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m going to pause for a minute, and I want you to answer that question, either in your own mind, or if you like, you can write down your answer. I’m not looking for anything complicated or long a, just a sentence or two which answers the question, “Who is Jesus?”
Alright, now that you’ve answered that question, I have a follow up question for you. When you answered the question “Who is Jesus?” which of the questions in today’s gospel reading did you actually answer? Did you answer the first question,
“Who do people say that Jesus is?”
or, did you answer the second question,
“Who do you say that I am?”
I’m willing to bet that most of you answered the first question, who do people say that Jesus is. Because that’s what we usually do. Those of us who grew up in the church have been taught who Jesus is from a young age. Every Sunday, when we hear the scriptures, when we say the creed, we hear and say and repeat what other people say or have said about Jesus. There are certain answers to the “who is Jesus?’ question that our church and our tradition and our Christian friends regard as the right answers: the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, God with us, the Messiah and so on. In fact we’ve spent a couple of thousand years debating and thinking about who Jesus is, and trying to formulate those right answers.
And so, when I was a boy and I was presented for confirmation in the church, when someone asked me who Jesus is, I answered the question “who do people say that Jesus is?”, because that’s what was expected.
And when I was studying theology, and the exam question asked “who is Jesus?”, I answered the question “who do people say that Jesus is?” because that’s how I was going to get a good mark.
And when I was about to be ordained, and the bishop called me into his office and asked me “who is Jesus?” I answered the question “who do people say that Jesus is?” because I knew there were right and wrong answers to the question, and I wasn’t going to screw up my chance of being ordained by starting to freelance at that critical moment.
There is nothing wrong with being part of a tradition and a church that teaches us who Jesus is. It’s a good thing, we need that sort of teaching and it’s great that we can benefit from the wisdom of those who surround us and have gone before us. It’s also a good thing that we have the scriptures, and that in them we get to hear what those who were closest to Jesus had to say about who he is. It’s good for us to hear Peter confess to Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It’s good for us to know the words and ways and titles that the church uses to answer the question ‘who is Jesus?’
But sooner or later you have to answer for yourself. You have to engage personally, you have to answer the other question, “But who do you say that I am?”
Once I was called to preside at a funeral for a family that I didn’t know, and I joined the family at a chapel where the mother’s body lay in a casket. The daughter, a young woman in her late twenties felt compelled to say a prayer. She knelt beside the casket and prayed the traditional bed-time prayer of a child,
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
We got to know each other as the week passed, well enough that a few days later I asked her about her prayer.
“I’m wondering about the prayer you prayed beside your mother’s casket. It was a child’s prayer, I was wondering why that was the prayer you prayed.”
And she told me that she prayed a child’s prayer because she had never really engaged with her faith as an adult.
As Christians part of our journey from the faith of a child to the faith of an adult is to learn the teachings of our tradition, to learn how to answer the first question that Jesus poses in today’s gospel, ‘who do people say that I am?’
But a more mature faith, an adult faith if you want to call it that, only really begins when we engage with and answer the second question: “who do you say that I am?”
That’s a harder question isn’t it? It’s a question that asks not for the right answer, but for honesty, and perhaps vulnerability. It raises the possibility that my answer to who Jesus is may not be the ‘right’ answer, the answer that others expect or that we’ve been taught. That’s the risk we take when we answer for ourselves.
Peter took that risk in today’s gospel. The conventional wisdom, the word on the street, was that Jesus was a prophet, like John the Baptist, like Elijah, like Jeremiah. But Peter sensed something more, in fact the way Jesus puts it is that God had revealed something more to Peter. And so he takes the risk of answering the second question, the personal question, the question of personal engagement:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
When we answer the ‘who do you say I am?’ question, each one of us will answer differently. Our answers will be contextual, that is, they will be drawn from our own unique experience of Jesus and our own context and from what God has revealed to each one of us. Peter’s answer is contextual. Jesus has taken the disciples all the way north to the border region of Israel, to the city of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is an imperial city, a royal city which was built to honour the Roman emperor and house the troops which enforced his rule. One of the most impressive buildings in the city was the Temple dedicated to the Emperor Augustus, who was worshiped as a god by the Roman Empire, and had been given the title “Son of God”. That’s the context for Peter’s response: he sees people going in and out of the temple to worship Augustus Caesar, the Son of God. And so when Jesus asks him, who do you say I am, Peter responds using that language. He takes the royal title away from Caesar and gives it to Jesus, using the Hebrew royal title Messiah, and then Peter asserts that Jesus, not Caesar, is the one we should worship, the one to whom we should pledge our allegiance. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Your answer too will be contextual. It will depend on your own experiences and what God has revealed to you. I first remember answering the ‘who do you say I am’ question for myself when I was a teenager. It was a period of my life when I was lonely, and when I experienced Jesus as a presence, as someone who was with me, my answer to the ‘who do you say I am’ question was “You are my friend.” That answer wasn’t as memorable or inspired as Peter’s, but it was honest, and authentic, and it came out of my particular context at that time. Your answer too will be contextual.
It will also be empowering. Faith, the personal encounter and relationship with God, is a powerful thing. If you want an example of that power, look no further than our reading from Exodus this morning. Two women of faith, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, two women who knew God - their faith, their relationship with God gave them the power to defy the king of Egypt and to change the course of an entire people. Our faith is based on a personal encounter with God, and the way we know God is through Jesus. So we need to engage with the ‘who is Jesus’ question in a personal way. It will strengthen our faith. It will be empowering.
Then, once we have answered the ‘who is Jesus’ question for ourselves, we bring those answers into community. We are all members of one body, and we are all enriched when we share our experiences of God. For me, part of my answer to the ‘who is Jesus’ question is that Jesus is the one who reveals God’s ways to me, and what I see in Jesus, the ways of love, of compassion and of forgiveness, these are what give meaning and purpose to my life. But love, compassion and forgiveness, these are practices that have to be lived out in community, in relationship with others, and so this community becomes a place where our answers to the ‘who is Jesus’ question get lived out and put into practice.
There are two questions posed by Jesus in today’s gospel. Both are good questions. It is good to be able to answer the question, “who do people say that Jesus is?” It’s good, but it’s not enough. Sooner or later, you need to answer the second question.
“But who do you say that I am?”
Homily: Yr A Proper 21, Aug 27 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Ex 1.8-2.10; Ps 124; Rom 12.1-8; Mt 16.13-20
Image by Alberto Begue GPE, Creative Commons