Sunday the 27th of August 2017
Matthew 16: 13-20
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16, Jesus has taken his disciples on a journey throughout the region of Caesarea Philippi. Now this region was outside the borders of Israel and it was a place that was heavily influenced by Roman gods. It, in fact, was a place where many pagan religions co-existed. It would have been an intimidating place for the disciples, who were all committed Jews, to be. Yet it is in this environment that Jesus chooses to challenge his disciples with key questions of his identity. He begins by asking them who others say that he is, getting them to give their thoughts on what others say. The disciples respond by speaking about the fact that some people say that he is John the Baptist; others declare that he is Elijah, and still others claim that Jesus is Jeremiah or some other prophet. A key thing to note here is that people don’t agree on who Jesus is.
If we were to ask people in our society, ‘Who is Jesus?’ what kind of responses would we find? While studying at ALC, I read some research which suggested that on the whole, Australians don’t have a problem with Jesus; they have a problem with the church. But I wonder if we pressed them further and asked the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ what would they say? Many people believe that Jesus was a pious Jew who was trying to change the religion of his day. Some believe that Jesus was a wise teacher who gives us good ethics to live by. Many people respect Jesus as some kind of guru, in other words, he is right up there with Buddha, and Gandhi perhaps as a spiritual leader. Many in our society see Jesus as a religious option, you can choose to follow him, or another leader, because in the end, we all get to heaven anyway. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, someone to be respected for his teaching, but he is inferior to the prophet Muhammad.
Having the freedom to choose what we believe about Jesus and not having our views challenged is a major stumbling block to the Christian faith in this country of ours. And what people believe about him is just as diverse as it was when he was walking this earth, two thousand years ago.
But Jesus does not leave it there; he challenges the disciples when he asks the more personal and perhaps confronting question, “Who do you say that I am?”
It is perhaps here that many Christians really struggle. The question Jesus asked his disciples was a very direct question. And he asks you and me the same question requiring a direct answer. I am convinced that Jesus is not wanting us to answer with things like, “My church says, or the Lutheran church says, or perhaps my pastor says”; no, that is not what Jesus is asking. He is asking, “Who do you say I am?” As Christians who follow Jesus you would think that we would be able to answer this question straight forwardly, but in my experience, many people struggle to do this. They would rather defer their answer to others’ opinions about him; refer to others who are more learned perhaps than they are, to people who will give the right answer perhaps.
But hearing Jesus’ question means answering in the moment. It means not waiting to gather the facts, weighing the consequences, waiting to decide what the best side to be on is. The fact is that when it comes down to it many of us have been more cautious and reserved than courageous and we tend to remain silent behind the security of our church walls, keeping our opinions to ourselves.
Peter’s response to Jesus’ question is quite remarkable. It says: 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Notice here how Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” The response of those around Jesus at the time saw him in terms of the past, referring to the greats who had gone before him. Many today refer to Jesus as a historical figure of history, someone who lived two thousand years ago. However, he is the son of the living God.
As I began to think about this it occurred to me that how you and I identify Jesus needs to be based on personal encounters with our Triune God, as he speaks to us through his word and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. How we identify Jesus should be grounded in a lifelong conversation with God. Our Lutheran Church, our local church, our pastors, our mothers or fathers, our siblings and others will have their opinions, but in the end, we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God how we will identify Jesus. No one else can decide for us, or on our behalf. Jesus is the Messiah of the living God. This means that he continues to speak to us and to act in our lives to this very day.
In response to Peter’s response, Jesus says: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 16:17). This confession by Peter did not originate with him, it is not something that he concocted, it was not based upon rumor, but his confession came from the fact that God had revealed himself to Peter. This is true for you and me also. The fact that we come to worship our God, that we confess faith in our Lord Jesus, is a result of the work that our Heavenly Father is doing in our lives to reveal who Jesus is to us.
Peter’s confession of Christ is a high point, but the reality of Peter is that even with his strong and bold confession, he struggles. In verse 22 Peter is quick to set his mind on the things of man and not the things of God. (v.23.) Peter makes the confession of who Jesus is—the Christ. But when it comes to what Jesus is going to do, he struggles. The Christ is the one who “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’” Confessing Peter quickly becomes rebuking Peter. He does fine with who the Christ is, but struggles with what Jesus is doing.
This is the hardest part of the Christian faith to accept. To believe that he is the son of the living God is one thing, but to accept what Jesus does is another. To admit that the Christ must suffer and die requires one to admit there is a reason for this suffering and death. God’s law shows to you and me clearly and very powerfully that the reason is us. God’s Word shows that the penalty is severe. You and I have certainly sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. You and I are dead in our sins. You and I have not lived this week according to the good and gracious will of God. You and I have not delighted fully in the gifts God offers. You and I have sought to find our own misguided solutions to that which troubles us. The truth that must treat our condition comes down to this: the Son of Man must suffer and die. This is the Christ! This is who Jesus is and what he does for all his children.
This is at the very heart of who Jesus is and who we are. This is what our world and our society find so hard about Jesus. They don’t want this kind of Jesus. The Jesus who is honest with us about who we are before God. The Jesus who comes to save us. The world wants a Jesus in their own image, one that will tell them what they want to hear, not a Jesus who tells the truth.
At the end of the day, all of us have to answer Jesus’ question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is a question that will continue to challenge us as his followers. As the world around us is becoming more and more unstable, it is my belief that Christians are going to have to make a stand. But my encouragement to you all is that even in our confession of who Jesus is: the one that saves us from our sins, this confession is given to us by the Holy Spirit. We are not alone in our faith; we are called by our God to faith in Jesus and we belong to him and we belong with each other. When Jesus asked the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ the ‘you’ here was plural. He was asking all of his disciples, so when Peter spoke he spoke on behalf of all of them. We too stand here today united in our faith in Jesus, standing together in our confession of him.
I encourage each of you to think about who Jesus is to you from time to time, to reflect on his word to you so that you too may come to a place where you can confess that indeed Jesus is the son of the living God, but also that he is your redeemer, the one who takes care of your sins.