by Ellen Sims
texts: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
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 way 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?” (Matthew 16: 13-15)
Who do YOU say Jesus is? I’m not asking what scholars say about Jesus, or what your parents believe, or what your pastor teaches, or even how, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Simon Peter answered that question. Because if we just repeat Peter’s response, it’s no longer a living question that can animate our faith life. In fact, I have intentionally violated the integrity of this passage of scripture by lopping off Peter’s answer from today’s Gospel reading so we might, right now, imagine ourselves in the disciples’ position. At this point in their journey with Jesus they didn’t know he’d be crucified and resurrected. They didn’t know a new religion would spring from this movement Jesus was inspiring as they walked the countryside with him, and they certainly didn’t know they’d one day be canonized as “saints” by something called the Church. I suspect we ought to have a different answer from Peter 2,000 years later.
And if you do have an answer, will it, like Peter’s answer, fit on a bumper sticker or a Facebook meme? Mine won’t. I’m not as quick as Peter was with words or a sword, so I may need a lifetime to form my answer. But even if I’m able to articulate a partial one in this sermon, I think you would want to find your own.
Jesus affirmed Peter’s answer—which was “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Which might be your answer. Even though you may then have to parse what Messiah and Son of God mean to you. But I suspect if, say, disciples Andrew and Thomas and Bartholomew had piped up a few minutes after Peter rang in with their different responses, Jesus might have said, “You know, Andy and Tom and Bart, those are good answers, too.” Jesus never drilled his disciples with catechism; he filled them with questions.
The fact that Jesus asked his friends and the fact that Simon Peter’s specific reply mattered to Jesus mean that your response matters, too. The answering of Jesus’s question rather than the answer to the question is what’s important.
Think back to last Sunday’s Gospel text and recall that an obnoxious foreign woman changed Jesus’s mind and may have expanded his self-understanding and his mission. Today we hear Jesus asking his disciples, first, “What are other people saying about me?” They report, “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah or another prophet,” by which they may mean he’s seen as being in line with prophetic figures in their tradition who spoke truth to power.
He’s wondering what people think of him, not to gauge his popularity like a demagogue bragging about how well his rallies are attended and what great things everyone says about him. Jesus may be asking because group orientation rather than individualism marked first Century Mediterranean psychology. Cultural anthropologists tell us Jesus’s contemporaries depended on others to shape their identity. Psycho-logically speaking, Jesus and company learned their identity primarily through their group—far more than we do today—we, who emphasize individuality, finding one’s self, differentiating self from others, being responsible for one’s own actions, thinking of each person as unique (Malina 62).
But Jesus lived in a culture in which one’s identity was forged in a group. One’s family group or other groups essential communicated that your primary identity was found through them. Our modern Western notion of individualism did not exist. So it’s possible that, in a sense, Jesus needed Peter to tell him who he was. Jesus asked his friends what they thought because for psychological and social reasons it apparently mattered to him. He seemed to be developing self-understanding as he moved through life.
If we’d had time in last week’s study of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we could have probed this potentially scary hypothesis: that the God we meet in Jesus is changeable. I love the old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” that affirms “Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not.” But last Sunday we sang a different hymn that named the Divine as a “young, growing God.” The idea that God, like God’s universe, continues expanding and evolving does not contradict the biblical promises of God’s faithfulness. Can Jesus have been committed and faithful to God and also a person who was developing more fully in commitment and faith? How can you be fully alive and NOT be growing and learning? Faith is not calcified catechism. As Paul Tillich said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Faith is not a destination but a path.
So rather than giving you a certifiably orthodox answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”, I’m going to use the other lectionary readings for today to exemplify ways you might work out that answer for yourself. Even Old Testament stories can teach us about Jesus. I don’t mean those scriptures that some consider prophesies of Jesus were predicting who Jesus of Nazareth was. I’m talking about the way the writer of Matthew reached back to the Hebrew Bible stories to build the Gospel account of Jesus. We began our service with the nativity story of Moses, written long before Jesus was born. Matthew’s biography of Jesus, a very Jewish Gospel, alludes to that story in his own nativity story of Jesus. In Matthew Jesus is presented as the new Moses. For instance, in Jesus’s birth narrative, King Herod’s plot to kill the babies two-years-old and under resembles Moses’s birth story and Pharoah’s decree. When Matthew tells us the holy family fled to Egypt, the place of Moses’s birth, the connection between baby Moses and baby Jesus becomes clearer. Matthew will continue to build on this comparison of Jesus to Moses to communicate a Matthean theme that Jesus is a liberator of his people, a defender of the oppressed, a harbinger of God’s empire, which is the antithesis of this world’s empires. Recognizing Jesus’s role as similar to that of Moses is a starting place from Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus is liberator, and Jesus saves by freeing us if we follow him in this world’s ongoing story of resistance to the world’s oppressors. This Jesus is fully acquainted with the terrors and tyrants of this world—and fully committed to bringing in a completely different way of favoring the least and the last.
Next let’s revisit today’s Epistle lection to hear what Paul emphasizes about the Jesus Way. Like Open Table’s mission statement, this key passage from Romans calls Jesus followers not only to social transformation (the theme from today’s Hebrew Bible and Gospel readings) but also to spiritual transformation: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Transform society, but also transform your minds, an ongoing recursive process. I engage in social transformation, which instructs me in my inner life, which sends me back into the community.
When I think about the hard work that lies ahead for those of us feeling called to openly repent of our own prejudices and acknowledge white privilege; when I recognize that dismantling racism will include literally dismantling monuments to the Old South/the Old Empire; when I hear even people who name themselves progressive get defensive if people of color rightly remind allies to listen first and let others lead. . . I realize that the only hope I have of contributing to this work for justice is by an ongoing inner transformation.
To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, if I don’t have spiritual depth, if I don’t have humility, my speeches at prayer vigils will sound “like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” And it is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, that can guide me, if I have any hope at all of dethroning ego. Just a few verses later in Matthew 16, in a section we’ll read next Sunday, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering . . . and be killed . . . and on the 3rd day be raised” (16:21). Friends, this is the grim and hopeful Gospel in one verse. This is the way of Jesus. If we can commit fully to Jesus’s way of compassion, we will have the inner resources that can meet this world’s powers and principalities. By the renewing of our minds, Paul’s phrase, we take on the mind of Christ. The realization of our oneness in Christ means, as Paul says a few verses later, that you will “not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3). And the Christ that Paul experienced requires us to “love one another with mutual affection” as we “outdo one another in showing honor . . . rejoice in hope, [are] patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers, bless those who persecute [us]. . . live in harmony with one another, [are not] haughty but associate with the lowly, . . . do not repay evil for evil, . . . and overcome evil with good.”
That sounds like a page from a handbook that needs to be written for activists if they are to do the inner work necessary for engaging injustice. Recognizing that need, Open Table is going to offer in our 9:30 hour a class or two in a new curriculum on how to de-escalate violence if someone tries to beak the peace at a public protest or vigil. We’re not just playing around here. We need spiritual practices that keep us centered in a commitment to peace and we need wise strategies for safety. And we need to count the cost of public stances and protests. You’ll hear more about this “bystanding training” soon.
Who is Jesus to me? The Jesus I READ about in today’s scriptures is the Jesus who has the power to usher in God’s kin*dom—not by force and self-righteous anger, but by self-giving love.
Who is Jesus to me? The Jesus I EXPERIENCE at work in the world today is also partly knowable through persistent prayer and in the unity of Christ’s body and in transformed minds centered in Christ.
Your answer does not have to be Peter’s. Or mine. Your answers may change along life’s journey. Maybe the process of answering is what’s important. But “who is Jesus?” is a question worth devoting ourselves to, a question we continue to answer—both as a community of faith and as individuals. If we can at least make a tentative start on an answer and live out that partial answer, we will contribute to what Jesus thought of as the kin*dom of God.
Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Third Ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Because I learned of Bruce Malina’s recent death while preparing this sermon, I looked for his obituary, which I share to express appreciation for a man who devoted his life to furthering biblical scholarship and to illustrate the way many a scholar integrates “a keen mind and generous heart.”