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13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 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.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
I cannot hear this Gospel reading without thinking about something that happened 6 years ago. I had only been a pastor for about 4 weeks or so. And I was at one of my first clergy text studies – that’s when clergy get together to steal ideas from each other about what we can preach on that week. With me were a couple of new preachers as well – and a few steady on their feet pastors to balance us out. We were a relatively new group – a little nervous, a little excited.
And this was our text for the morning. Jesus asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
And so we started out with a little bit of polite conversation and wondering together.
But then about 10 minutes in, the senior pastor of the church we were at (who happens to be one of my best friends) barges in with his big floppy Bible in his hand and with little introduction, he stood over all of us, and with a smirk on his face, he said, “Who do you say that Jesus is?…Who do YOU say that Jesus is? And I don’t want to hear anything lame or boring.”
Can you imagine the hush that fell over the room?
One person, with a shaking voice said, “He is the Christ.” – LAME, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
Another confidently said, “He is the Son of Living God.” – YEAH, THAT’S WHAT PETER SAID. I’VE HEARD IT BEFORE! I’M ASKING YOU.
I’m not really sure what happened after that. I think I blocked it out.
But you know, more startling than his entry and his interrogation of us, was the fact that I as a new pastor didn’t have an answer. Caught in the moment of truth – “Who do you say that Jesus is?” – I found myself more filled more with panic than proclamation.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever been confronted with a question where you felt like you should know the right answer but didn’t, and as a result, either faked your way through it or simply remained silent?
A couple of years ago, I learned a phrase for this all-too-often moment in life– it’s called Imposter Syndrome. Have you heard of it? It is that persistent and pervasive feeling of inadequacy or out-of-place-ness. That feeling that everyone else fits but you. That feeling that everyone else gets it but you. That feeling that you don’t nearly have it all together as you should at this stage in life and that it is only a matter of time before others are going to figure it out. That others will see you are an imposter.
Have you ever looked forward to a time in life – when you think, “It will be so great to be at that stage.” Like then you’ll get what life is all about? And then when you get there you feel just terribly unprepared for it. As a kid, I can remember all I wanted to be was a senior in high school. I can remember looking at my brother and his friends, and their beards, and their senior pictures which just had this way of making them look like giants with wisdom I could only dream of. And then next thing I knew, I was a senior in high school, and it did not feel like I thought it would. I felt like an imposter.
So I looked toward being in college. When in college, I looked toward those with a job and a family. As a parent with young kids, I look toward parents with older kids. Constantly searching for that moment…and nothing seems to highlight this feeling of imposter syndrome quite like the slow yet consistent passage of time.
And I wonder how many of us feel like imposters especially when we are in this space. Like we don’t get what everyone else seems to get. Like we don’t feel and know the presence of God like others seem to feel and know it. I suspect its many if not most of us who feel that way at some time.
And so it gives me great comfort to know that in this story – this moment of truth when Jesus confronts the disciples with this critical question – who do you say that I am – there are 11 disciples in the story who remain silent. And yet are still counted as disciples. That there is room among the followers of Jesus for those who don’t know the answer. Room for those who aren’t there yet.
And at the same time, I think it is a good question (Who do you say that I am?) for us to sit with as the Church. Jesus asks his disciples, “Why are you following me? Why have you left everything you know? Who do you say that I am?” And so it might be worthwhile to ask ourselves a similar question. Why are you here? Why have you chosen to follow this Galilean peasant? Why are you on this path?
Who do you say that Jesus is? Really. You. Not the Church, not the Creed, not your mom, not your pastor. Not Paul Tillich or Barbara Brown Taylor or Sam Wells.
You. Who do you say that Jesus is?
And that can be a scary question. But we can learn some things from this text that can help us find our answer.
The first thing I learn, is that the context of our life – who you are today – the context in which this question is asked matters. Our Scripture this morning begins this way, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples…” Now most of us might simply hear this as meaningless introduction and skip over it. But I think it is crucial to this passage. Caesarea Philippi. It is an area named after Caesar – meaning the Roman Emperor, and Philipp, King Herod’s brother, ruler of the area. So, Jesus has just taken his disciples in a place that reeks of the Roman Empire. Of ruthless power and oppression that is slowly crushing the Jewish people. And get this, the Roman Emperor, Caesar, was sometimes referred to as “the living Son of God.”
And now standing this place, the real living Son of God asks, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s like Jesus taking us to Wall Street or Washington DC and asking, “Who do you say that I am? Whose kingdom are you building, the kingdom of America or the kingdom of God?” And so I have to believe that Peter, before he answered, looked around. At his context. And then he said, “You, O Jesus, are the Son of the living God. You are the ruler, the power in my life, not Rome.”
What I learn from this is that our answer to who we say that Jesus is will always have a context. It will always have a backdrop. It will be informed by the context of our life.
The second thing I learn from this text is that God is at work in our answer, even though we might not understand it fully right away.
Peter, seemingly with confidence, steps out and speaks up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Peter! But you didn’t figure that out our your own. God revealed it to you. God has been at work in you.” But here is the thing – good ol’ Peter doesn’t exactly understand what he is saying. As we will learn next week, while Jesus is the Messiah, Peter thinks that will look a little more triumphant than it actually will. God revealed it to him but he didn’t understand it right away.
Who do you say that Jesus is? Why are you here today? Really. And perhaps God is at work in you in that. If your answer is, “Because I love Jesus and I want him to lead my life,” then amen. God is at work in that. What if your answer is, “I don’t know who Jesus is.” Can God work with that?
I once heard the story about a man who family had decided to stop going to church. They asked themselves why they were going to church and realized they weren’t getting much out of church these days. They learned that church really wasn’t engaging them and the experiences they face in real life. They realized that the church speaks in a language they don’t understand and it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. And in light of all the other things going that they felt did impact their life, they wondered why they continued to go to church. So they quit.
But then this man sat next to Luther Seminary professor Rollie Martinson on an airplane. And Rollie will talk to anyone on an airplane. And not just about the weather –about Jesus too. Rollie turns to the guy and his opening line is….”So, do you go to church?” The man responds, “You know, funny you should ask. We have all of our lives, but we just quit.” He told Rollie the whole story. And in the end Rollie asked him to do one thing – talk to his pastor first.
The man told his pastor everything and the pastor said, “I would like to interview you for one of my sermons.” So the man shared his story of wanting to quit the church during the interview with the congregation and afterwards, 13 people came up to him and expressed that they felt exactly the same way. And now…that man has partnered with the pastor to start a group within the church that gets together to share real stories from their lives as a way to think about and engage their own faith life.
This man and family listened for what was true in their life, the voice of God. And they didn’t fully understand it right away, because they thought it meant they should quit their church. Yet God used it in a way they couldn’t have imagined.
Who do you say that I am, Jesus asks? Why are you here? The answer will come out of the context of your life and the truthful voice of God speaking into that context, though we might not fully understand it at first.
Finally, the last thing I learn from this text about confessing who Jesus is, is that whatever we say, Jesus will be the one who builds with it. Did you hear Jesus’ response to Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock (this confession) I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This is Jesus’ church. It’s not mine. It’s not Pam’s. It’s not yours. It’s Jesus’. And God through Christ has built this church out of the scrappy and fragile and persistent faith of people for 148 years. Jesus is the one who will build the church out of the broken and beautiful and failed and flawed lives we bring to him. Jesus can work with trembling disciples who are afraid to speak an answer, and Jesus can work with the overly confident ones who know the answer, but still don’t get it.
The church belongs to Jesus – the Son of the living God. And thank God for that. Because it means God is both alive and up to something. Today we get to proclaim that God is up to something in Mike and Rachel, and in the new church God is calling them to. And we get to proclaim that God is up to something right here. God is up to something here among us in our ministry to youth. In this context of transition and change.
Whatever God is up to I believe the answer will be hewn from the rock of our confession of who we believe Jesus to be. From wondering together why we come to this place each week and what God is up to in that.
Who do you say that Jesus is? It is a scary question. So, I’ll go first. Who do I say that Jesus is? Today? In my context? I trust that Jesus shows us who God is. That Jesus is the window into the heart of God. Through Jesus I see that God will not be God without us. Through Jesus I see that God calls on each one of us, the broken and the fragile and the unlikely, to do brave things in this world. Through Jesus, I that, in love, God reveals to us the truth about ourselves in order to heal the wounds we’ve created, or the wounds we’ve ignored. Through Jesus I see that forgiveness and grace are the gifts from God we are called to both receive and to give – which is some of the most beautiful and challenging work in the world.
So, there you go.
Who do you say that Jesus is? May we have the courage to consider the question. And when God whispers an answer in our hearts, may we have the courage to speak it. And better yet, the courage to live it. Amen.