Who do YOU say that I am? I think that this question from Jesus is a good place to start this morning. Who do you say that I am?
Jesus asks this question of his disciples that day in Caesarea Philippi. Fast forward a couple thousand years. What if Jesus came into our church today and asked us the same question?
Who do you say that I am?
How do we answer? Who do you say that Jesus is? When you talk about your faith, talk about who you know Jesus to be, because, we all know that that is on the top ten list of topics for conversation for all of us these days, right? – who do you say that Jesus is? How do you identify Jesus? Who is Jesus to you?
I think all of the answers that we could give to that question – “He is my Lord,” “Jesus is my Savior,” “Jesus is the Good Shepherd,” “Jesus is my friend,” – are all very good answers. There is nothing wrong with any of them, but now, what if you were asked to elaborate - what does this mean to you? What difference does your answer make in your life? How does the fact that Jesus is Lord, or Savior, or Shepherd, or friend, impact the way we live our lives?
Knowing Jesus as Lord, Son of the living God, our Savior and Redeemer should make a difference! Knowing that God is a living God, constantly moving around in the world, constantly active in the cosmos, should make a difference in how we live. Our lives should reflect not only what knowing Jesus means, but the centrality of Christ in our lives.
The gospel text this morning places this story in Caesarea Philippi, which is a significant part of the story. Herod’s son Philip, inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, and named this city in the northern border of Galilee to honor both Caesar Augustus – considered imperial Lord and High Priest – and himself. So, in Jesus’ time Caesarea Philippi was an incredibly politically charged place.
It was also a religiously significant place. Caesarea Philippi sat about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee at the base of Mount Hermon, and contained one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River. The abundance of water made the area very fertile and attractive for religious worship, and so, through the centuries, it served as a center for pagan worship. Therefore, we can assume that as Jesus and the disciples worked in that locale, they were confronted with the voices of many with different beliefs who ascribed fealty to different gods.
Numerous temples to various gods were erected over the centuries, and in the first century, a well-known center for worship of the Greek god Pan was located there. As the spring emerged from a large cave it formed a large grotto which became the ideal place for worship devoted to Pan. From about the 3rd century B.C. onward, sacrifices were cast into the cave to appease Pan. Into the rocky face of the mountain overlooking the area were hewn niches dedicated to Pan and various other deities – an ancient-day Mount Rushmore, if you will.
It is here that Jesus brought his boundary mission to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. There in that place, surrounded by images dedicated to the pagan gods, standing at the religious Mount Rushmore of the ancient pagan world, with homage to the gods of the world carved into the rock all around them, Jesus asks his disciples this vital question – who do you say that I am?
Peter immediately responds with the confession as bold and foundational as the one that we ourselves will make in just a few moments when we recite the Apostles Creed together.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter declares. And Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” And blessed indeed is Peter, for his ability to speak up and on behalf of all the disciples to state unequivocally that Jesus is Lord. But before we heap too many accolades upon Peter, Jesus continues,”
“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
You see, the realization of who Jesus is does not come forth from Peter’s great store of wisdom and knowledge, or his own innate ability to discern the truth. Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?” comes as a revelation from God.
It is this living and true God, the God who is not only alive but life-giving, who, by grace, reveals to Peter and to you, and to me, the true identity of Jesus Christ. It is not all those dead and death-dealing gods of the world to whom the sculptures and shrines around Caesarea Philippi were dedicated, or that surround us today, that grant life. Life and revelation come only from the true God embodied in Jesus Christ.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Martin Luther loved Jesus’ response to Peter. He found it liberating that only God can enable faith in Christ; God, whose will is so much stronger than the human will – than our will – can ever be, doesn’t leave it up to us to discover faith on our own, but grants us faith in Christ as a gift.
Luther found this immensely hopeful. It is a hope we share, today, that our faith does not originate in our brains and is not up to us to create or discover, but, is a gift from God.
It is a hope we cling to today, as we live in an increasingly complex and hostile world. Just look at the events of the past couple of weeks: Charlottesville; Las Ramblas; Cambrils; Sar-e-Pul Province, Afghanistan; North Korea. Hurricane Harvey in Texas; floods in Sierre Leone; mudslides in Switzerland; earthquake in Italy, just to name a few.
Like the world in which Jesus and the disciples moved, imperialistic claims on our loyalties, our actions, and even our beliefs are still pressed upon us. The powers of the world insistently clash with God’s intention for humanity.
In Caesarea Philippi the disciples stood at the foot of rock into which were carved images to honor pagan Gods. Standing in the shadow of those same rocks, Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am?
We live, surrounded by competing demands for our loyalties and attention. Jesus stands here among us and asks, Who do you say that I am?
When Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus declares that this word is blessed and it is on this Word – this rock – faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God – that Jesus will build the church.
Rocks created of compressed earth and all that is carved upon them will ultimately erode away, then crumble, and ultimately fall. The rock of God’s Word will never crumble or fall apart. It holds up over time. It is eternal.
Who do you say that I am?
This story becomes a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Peter’s confession becomes the unifying claim for all generations of the church: Jesus Christ is the Messiah – the anointed one – Son of the Living God!
The difference this confession makes in our lives shapes our actions, our thoughts, and our interactions with others. It means that God alone rules our hearts and our actions – it is not the Herods, or Caesars, or bishops, or popes who rule; nor is it politicians or presidents or kings, pastors or councils, that rule our lives. God alone rules – and that, my friends, that is the rock on which the church, the Body of Christ, is built!
The church, as Christ’s body, must live as his body, with God’s rule embodied in us as it was in Jesus. In an age when Jesus’ identity and the nature of God are continually and publicly challenged; when the existence of God is relentlessly and ruthlessly questioned – we are called to affirm this basic truth, that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in him all people, all creation rests its hope.
We are surrounded by the rocks of warring images and competing claims about who is in and who is out, about whose lives and livelihoods matter the most, and about the necessity to exercise power and supremacy at all costs.
How we answer Jesus’ question is more important than ever before: Who do you say that I am?
When we confess, as Peter did that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God we are not just reciting words. By the grace of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are declaring the truth that despite the idolatry surrounding us, and despite the competing claims for power and supremacy, there is but one God, who sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring light and life to the world. God is still alive, present, and active in the world.
We see God in the face of children preparing to return to school and the teachers and others who will serve them with dedication, love, and compassion. We see God in the work of the homeless shelters in the area and the staff and volunteers who serve them and share a glimpse of the mercy of God with them. We see God’s presence on a warm summer night at an interfaith gathering in a park in Oxford, where prayers and songs for peace and justice and an end to racism, hatred and xenophobia rang out. We feel God’s presence in a rain garden installed through the cooperation and sweat of church members, community organizations and neighbors come together to care for creation. We see God’s presence all around us and as followers of Christ we give thanks and join the throng of those who seek harmony, justice, and life.
Who do you say I am?
With our lives and with our tongues, may we cling to the rock that Jesus gives us, his Word, that will stand eternally, saving us from the brink of death and into life to be lived now and in the future. Amen.