(A sermon shared with divinity students at Huron College in London)
Two questions. Two questions that sound similar at first, but really are very different.
“Who do people say that I am?” That’s the first question.
“Who do you say that I am?” There’s the second. Similar, but different.
Just to get a feel for the difference, let me use myself as an example. If I were to ask you those questions about me, how would you answer?
Who do people say that I am?
Well, to answer this you might pick up on some of the things that the Dean said when introduced me here today. Mark’s an Anglican priest from Ottawa, he serves at a parish called St. Albans downtown, he's written some books. Maybe you’ve heard people say good things about me, maybe you’ve heard some bad things. You could do some research, you could try Googling me or check me out on Facebook. All of these are the ways that you could answer the question “Who do people say that I am?”
But when I ask you the second question, “but who do you say that I am?” well, that’s more difficult, it’s a question that most of you can’t really answer. Because to answer that second question, you have to know me. It’s a direct question, a personal question. It’s a question that assumes a relationship. It’s actually quite an intimate question, one that requires a great deal of honesty, humility, and vulnerability on the part of both the one asking and the one who responds.
So most of you can’t answer that question about me. But at least one of you could. I’ve known one of you for five years. She’s been an intern with me, I presided at her marriage, which means we did marriage prep together, and we worked together as colleagues for two years. So if I was to ask, “who do you say I am?” she could answer.
Now, I’m not going to ask that question, partly because I don’t want to put her on the spot, but even more so because it is such an personal and intimate question, one that when taken seriously, requires a great deal of honesty, humility and vulnerability on both sides.
In today’s gospel, that’s the question that Jesus is asking you. “Who do you say that I am?”
What a contrast this is with what’s typically demanded of you as theology students. As theology students, whether in the M.Div. or other programs, the number one question that you are required to answer is the first one. “Who do people say that Jesus is?” In fact you’ve probably got an entire Christology course which is supposed to provide the answers to that very question. Much of the study of theology and church history is all about answering the question, who do people say that Jesus is? To cite just one example, Leo the Great, whom we commemorate today, answers by drawing on Paul’s idea of kenosis, of self-emptying, based on the beautiful text we heard today from Philippians. Leo the Great says that Jesus is the Word of God who assumed the form of a servant. And “the self-emptying by which the Invisible caused himself to be visible was a bowing down in compassion.” I like that, I really do. But those are Leo the Great’s words, not mine.
As theology students, you will get your degree if you can answer the first question, the “who do people say I am?” question.
But if you want to be a follower of Jesus, if you want to respond to a call to ministry, or if you’re really daring, if you want to discern a call to ordained ministry in the church, you need to answer the second question. “But you, who do you say I am?”
In today’s gospel, Jesus asks the two questions. When he asks who people say he is, he gets a series of answers: some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then he asks them the important question: “But who do you say that I am?”
And Simon Peter answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And here, trained as we are in theology and scripture, we can start to get all analytical. We can start to review the messianic literature, and talk about messianic expectations, and talk about the divergence between the messiah that people were expecting and the messiah that Jesus would turn out to be. That’s all good stuff, and that’s the stuff you will need to get your degree.
But when I hear Peter’s response, I hear it as a very personal response to a very intimate question.
“You are the Messiah.” You’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life, the one I’ve been hoping for, the one that I’m trusting with all my hopes and dreams, the one who will save me.
It makes me think of a somewhat parallel passage in John, also found right after the feeding of the multitudes, when the crowds start to turn away from Jesus and Jesus asks the twelve “do you also want to go away?”
And Simon Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
You see, this isn’t really about good theology. It’s not about scriptural literacy. It’s not about knowing the creeds. This is about relationship. Knowing and being known. Loving and being loved. Trusting and being trusted. Jesus’ question is an invitation into a faith that is personal, intimate, honest and vulnerable. It’s the question that each of us is being called to answer in our own way, based on our own unique relationship with Jesus.
How would you respond? Take a moment, try to set aside everything you’ve heard other people say about Jesus, and think about how you would respond, honestly, vulnerably. Who do you say I am? Who is Jesus for you?
The way we answer will change as our lives unfold. Our answers will be very much contextual and experiential, and our contexts and experiences will change. At times, we may not know what to say. Sometimes, articulation will be a challenge. Sometimes, we will need to borrow the words of our tradition to help with that articulation, as Peter did in today’s gospel.
Who is Jesus? For me, at this point in my life, Jesus is the one who shows me who God is, and what God is like, and how much God loves me, and that really matters to me. And, Jesus is also the one who teaches me, who shows me what it means to be fully human, who encourages me to live with grace and love, forgiveness and compassion, justice and generosity. And for that I am extremely grateful, because when I do live a little more in those ways, my life is better, more abundant.
I could go on. But that’s not the point. That would only give you more of the information that you need to answer the first question --
when what Jesus is inviting you to do is to answer the more important question:
“Who do you say I am?”
Homily: Nov 13, 2019. Leo the Great. Huron College
Readings: Lamentations 3.21-23; Ps 77.11-15; Phil 2.1-13; Mt 16.9-13
Image by Alberto Begue GPE, Creative Commons