Beth Hoffman Faeth August 23, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 16:13–20
When Jesus came to the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, he asked the disciples this question, “What do people say about who the Chosen One is? And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “And you”, Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the first born of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon ben-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my God in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
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Several years ago, before my time began at Plymouth, I received a letter at my office that included an apology for not being able to grant me a specific credit card for business. My first thought was to shrug it off and throw it into the shredder and forget about it. I hadn’t ever applied for a business credit card, so it must have been some mistake. Just as I was in the process of tossing the letter into the shred pile I startled to a stop. I never applied for a credit card. But someone had . . . and used my name . . . and my personal information. And so began a many-month process of discovering that someone had stolen my identity, used my social security number and other confidential information and wreaked havoc on my credit. I might glean some sympathy from those of you for whom this has happened, too. A police report was filed, my bank got involved, the credit bureaus had to be alerted. It was messy and frustrating, and it took a long time to sort out. And the whole time I just keep thinking, “Why would anyone want to be me?”
Jesus might have been certain about his own identity, but it was clear others were not. So at the beginning of today’s scene, Jesus is walking with his disciples and asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And I imagine that the disciples trip all over themselves telling Jesus the latest gossip: “Some say you are John the Baptist, recently beheaded by Herod, come back from the dead. Others think you are the prophet Elijah, thought to return before the end times. Still others believe you are Jeremiah; the authorities didn’t like him either. . . .” Why do the crowds need Jesus to be someone else, do you think? Why do they struggle to accept Jesus as this unique individual, sent by God, come to direct the people towards a life with the Divine? It is a question we have asked for centuries. But then Jesus gets personal and turns the question to his disciples, and he asks what seems to be the question he wanted to ask all along: Who do you say that I am?
Who is Jesus? This is the question with which we all must wrestle—especially in this time and place. I think it is safe to say that Plymouth Church has a pretty subtle Christology. That is, we don’t talk much about Jesus as Savior or get too bogged down with finding proof in a physical resurrection, nor are many of us waiting on the second coming. Behind the scenes you may or may not be aware that the clergy take careful consideration around language as it relates to Jesus—careful not to use descriptors that would suggest we promote an image of Jesus not consistent with the purposes of Plymouth Church. We certainly do not want to be exclusive, and we know and value that Jesus is only one pathway to understanding God. It is, however, the path we have chosen as a faith community, rooting ourselves in the Christian faith, centering ourselves in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We believe in God, we follow Jesus and we are bound together by the Holy Spirit. This is what we proclaim. But is it enough? Especially right now?
Perhaps, more than ever before, the world is calling us to show up, be present, speak out and know what we believe. We are to take action based upon our convictions. As we continue to navigate the strangeness of this pandemic, knowing that, with each week of isolation and inability to gather in person, our susceptibility to depression and anxiety and loneliness only increases. What is it that impacts our ability to reach out to others, in whatever way is possible, to be a physical reminder that one is not alone, that care is a phone call or a Zoom encounter away? To do this takes stamina, which many of us may feel is in short supply, but it also takes a realization of the heart that we do what we can because of something—our faith, our beliefs, our values. How does our understanding of Jesus fit into that paradigm? And even as the weeks pass since George Floyd’s murder, our resolve to recreate systems that are just and equal must not wane. What will sustain us in our work of racial justice? What will give us the courage to keep saying George Floyd’s name, along with those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain? What will keep our spirit alive and bright so we can get in some good trouble and keep showing up where change is necessary? If our faith does not motivate us, root us, center us, challenge us, then what will?
Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” I think his question is so much bigger than those seven words. Jesus is asking us upon what we will wager our lives, upon what will we claim our being. Questions like this are risky, so risky. On what will you stake your identity, your life, your future? How do you want to be known?
Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, wrote a column about this scripture in 2014 that could have been written yesterday:
So much about our preaching, our ministry, is safe. . . . But Jesus is not about safe. . . . Nothing about God becoming human is safe. Too much of our theology, constructs, and convictions is wound so incredibly tight—and is determined by boundaries that were never meant to be so restrictive of proclamation. They do nothing except erect walls of exclusion and expectation and justification behind which we hide.
“Who do you say that [Jesus] is?” is [a question] about risk. Putting yourself out there. In full recognition of rejection. And judgment. And heartache. . . .
Everybody needs to answer this question this week. Every parishioner. Every preacher. Because “who do you say that I am” has everything to do with who you are willing to be.
Jesus asks the question not for his own benefit, but for the disciples, for us. And faithful yet flawed Peter answers without hesitation: “Jesus, you are the Messiah, God’s chosen one.”
Paul Tillich said it was at this moment that Christianity began; not at the cross, not at the empty tomb, not when Mary met the risen Christ and preached the first resurrection sermon. Not any of that, but here in this moment, when the disciples were faced for the first time [to define] who Jesus [was] . . . .
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great pastor and theologian, writing around the same time as Tillich, though while sitting in the darkness of a prison cell in Nazi Germany, determined this was the central question for the church in his time, and would be for every generation to come: Who is Jesus for us, today? he asked, adding urgency to the question. Who do we say Jesus is for us today?
So we have two questions to ponder: Who is Jesus to us, and what does it mean for us, as church, to follow Jesus in this moment? What does it demand of us? What worked in the past may not necessarily work in the present, or where we feel called to go, do and be now may be different from where we once were called. And so it’s important to see this not simply as a question asked to Peter in a one-time moment, but this is a question for us to ponder—especially right now, when the world has turned upside down, when there is much being asked of us and when the future is tremendously uncertain. We must root ourselves in a set of beliefs, we must trust in whom we declare to follow, we must be able to rest within an understanding that will provide meaning for this topsy-turvy time.
I would not ask you a question I am not willing to answer myself. My understanding of Jesus has evolved and changed over a lifetime of faith. Always, however, Jesus was my pathway to knowing God, to understanding a Divine rule in my life. Jesus provided me the humanity with which I could connect more deeply with an unfathomable God. Frankly, I could care less if he was born of a virgin or if he was raised from the dead. Jesus is the Messiah, the Chosen One, because he is the moral compass I need to make the next right decision in this time. Jesus is the one who teaches me how to uproot status quo, how to stand with the least and the lost, how to be in relationship with those who have been cast out, how to live authentically as a deeply flawed person blessed with more than is deserved. Jesus also reminds me that there is a God who loves beyond condition, who forgives my failings and who is my anchor in a rudderless world. And now, more than ever before it seems, my faith is what keeps my feet on the ground and my heart open to possibility. Jesus is my saving grace, which has nothing to do with what happens when I die, but everything to do with how we as individuals and a church community are to move into the future unafraid.
Scripture is filled with stories about people wanting Jesus to be someone he wasn’t—mistaking his identity for a political warrior, or a savior on a white horse promising a happy ending. That matters little now. Instead, what matters is right now. What matters is how you know Jesus and what difference that knowing makes on your current words and actions. What matters is for us as a church, bathed in the Christian faith, to determine how our understanding of Jesus makes a difference in a time such as this.
Delve into the question, my friends. Who is Jesus to you? And then, with boldness and conviction, live your answer.
Karoline Lewis, “A ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment,” Working Preacher, August 17, 2014, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3299 (accessed August 26, 2020).
Rev. Scott Dickison, “Living the Question,” First Baptist Church of Christ, August 27, 2017, http://www.fbcxmacon.org/media-blog/2017/8/30/82717-living-the-question-matthew-1613-20 (accessed August 26, 2020).