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The Second Question

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. So here’s the question:


“Who is Jesus?”


That’s not a rhetorical question either. I’m going to pause for a bit, and I want you to answer that question, either in your head, or if you like, you can write down your answer. I’m not looking for anything complicated or long, 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 us 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 repeat what other people 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, fully God and fully human, the second person of the Trinity, God with us, the Messiah and so on. In fact, we’ve spent a couple of thousand years thinking about and debating who Jesus is, and trying to formulate those right answers.


And so, when I was a boy and I was preparing 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?”


That’s a much different question, isn’t it? It’s a question that you can only answer if you know the person who is asking. It presumes a relationship. In fact, it’s actually quite an intimate question, one that requires a great deal of humility and vulnerability both on the part of the one who’s asking and the one who responds.


“Who do you say that I am?” That’s the harder question. 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, he uses 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.”


Peter’s response certainly draws on the language of his tradition. It’s good theology.


But when I hear Peter’s response, I also 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.


I once preached on this passage to a group of theology students at Huron College in London, some of whom were preparing for ordination. I said to them, “You know, you will get your theology 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, if you want to be empowered in your faith like Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives we read about in our Old Testament reading, you need to answer the second question. “But you, who do you say I am?”


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 contextual and experiential, and these may change over time. 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. Jesus shows me 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 these ways, my life is better, more abundant, and so are the lives of those around me.


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 second question:


“Who do you say I am?”


Amen.


Homily: Yr A Proper 21, Aug 27 2023, Trinity

Readings: Ex 1.8-2.10; Ps 124; Rom 12.1-8; Mt 16.13-20

Image by Alberto Begue GPE, Creative Commons



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