by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 16: 13-20
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew invites us to try to answer the most basic question of the Christian faith: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, Jesus didn’t catechize his followers, didn’t demand they answer questions to his satisfaction. In fact, in this situation it seems he was earnestly seeking the disciples’ impressions of him. Some scholars believe his question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” reflects Jesus’s genuine desire to see more clearly his own identity and mission through the eyes of his friends. In Jesus’s culture, people formed their identity through their social situation of their birth and through friends and family. That is true for us, too. But in the Ancient Near East, people didn’t develop self-understandings independently of their group to the extent that our culture’s focus on individuality fosters independent self-exploration and self-expression. In Jesus’s culture, one’s family and community had a greater role in shaping one’s role and status and expectations.
Can you recall from your childhood a time someone commented upon a characteristic or ability or flaw of yours and how that comment stayed with you and perhaps shaped who you became—-whether that person was objectively right in their assessment of you or not? Most of the time we don’t explicitly request people’s assessment of us, and we often dread school exams or workplace evaluations. But the truth is that in some sense we learn who we are from other people. That was especially true in Jesus’s far less individualistic and more communal society. He was Joseph’s and Mary’s son in a more essential way than I am Louis’s and Molly’s daughter. His group told the members of his society who they were because the group’s coherence was more fundamental than the individual’s unique development. So Jesus wasn’t testing the disciples to see if they were apprehending who he was; instead, he may have genuinely wondered how they were seeing him because he needed to factor in their experience of him into his developing self-understanding. At least that would have been typical in the Ancient Near East culture of his day and in similar cultures to this day.
However, Jesus sometimes deviated from this cultural norm. Just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 12, Jesus had distanced himself from his mother and brothers when they tried to speak to him from the crowd, and he may have shamed them by asking, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” in what might seem like a disavowal of his family. Instead, he turns to his disciples to answer what seems to be a sincere question: “Who do you say I am?” Maybe Jesus was intentionally provoking his disciples to reflect on not only his but THEIR identities. Maybe his hurtful response to his family request was a dramatic way to declare that God was creating a new family: “Here are my mother and my brothers!” Jesus said, no doubt with a sweeping gesture meant to include all who were following him. Then he added, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Claiming his heavenly family would be explicitly composed of brothers and sisters and mothers, Jesus may have shocked his hearers by omitting earthly fathers, implying that God’s kin*dom privileges those who’ve previously been left out; God’s family upends hierarchy and upsets the usual roles and elevates those who’ve been disregarded.
Who do we say Jesus is? Maybe our sibling. Maybe a reflection of God that continues to grow and expand and diversify even while remaining as close and familiar and personal to us as a brother. Who is Jesus’s King if the Kin*dom of Heaven rather than the Kingdom of Caesar demands his fealty? Who is Jesus if relationships are not based on the family of birth but on the family of God? Through Jesus a holy community can exist where the weakest are privileged. Like the disoriented disciples, we have to get reoriented to a different pecking order, a new way of relating to one another, which challenges those who prefer the kingdom of this world and its Caesars.
When THIS imperfect kingdom or social system we live in needs a savior, who is Jesus then in, for instance, a persistently racist society? And how do today’s disciples respond when racism is exposed, raw and real? God is trying to create new forms of family among us today. How should I, a white woman, behave when minority voices need to be heard? Who am I when I recognize and try to give up privilege? How do I react if my sisters and brothers are trying to show me my embedded racism by answering my implicit question, that universal question we keep asking, “Who do YOU, my sisters and brothers, say that I am?” Can I accept that my siblings may be trying to tell me to listen more and talk less? Can I speak words of contrition to sisters and brothers whose experiences I’ve not fully valued and learned from?
We cannot ask our siblings, literally or figuratively, “Who do YOU say that I am?” or “How do YOU view me?” if we really don’t want to learn from those who’ve been silenced. And we cannot move into more just relationships if we aren’t welcoming new mothers and sisters and brothers. What if our divisive nation could be vulnerable enough to ask people across the political divides, “Who do YOU think I am?” and be able to hear their hurt as well as trust and share our perspective with kindness. The fact that Jesus himself often shocked his listeners into recognizing their culture’s injustices should convince us, comfortable Christians, to question the status quo and err on the side of that which challenges us to see from another’s perspective.
Some white folks think a Black Lives Matter sign—-like the giant black and white banner our friends at All Saints emblazoned across the door to their church this week—-disrespects white people or deprives them of their rights. They don’t understand that it’s bringing attention to longstanding and pervasive injustice. They’ve forgotten that Jesus preached, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, not because rich and proud folks aren’t loved by God, but because we have to rebalance this world to make it just. Jesus didn’t have to say “All lives are blessed” or “Rich lives matter, too.” He focused on affirming that “poor lives matter.”
Maybe Jesus is asking us today through the Black Lives Matter movement and other actions for justice: “Who do you say I am?” I hear some Christians answering, “Well, you’re the Jesus who loves all the children of the world. But don’t expect us to provide those children with safe environments and enough food on the table and quality education. Don’t expect us, Jesus, to admit we’ve done anything wrong as individuals or as the majority race. And please don’t expect us to acknowledge that ‘Black Lives Matter’ because that’s showing favoritism. We may admit that historic inequalities gave our great grandparents privileges, but everybody today is on the same playing field. If we let people say, ‘Black Live Matter,’ then we’ll be siding with one group of people, which isn’t fair. Right, Jesus?”
I wonder which Jesus they are following. At different points in my life as a Jesus follower, I find myself answering this recurring question differently: “Who do YOU say that I am, Ellen?”
Some days I respond, “Thanks for asking, Jesus, but I have no idea.”
Some days I think, “You’re a human picture of a holy God” or “You’re the one who walked the earth 2000 years ago yet somehow lives on wherever your followers love God and neighbor as you did.”
Or sometimes I accuse, “You’ve been used to justify wars and imperialism, racism and hierarchy.”
Some days I feel deep gratitude for him, a closeness and tenderness.
But today I recall words from a song by William Flanders, who has given our church permission to use his composition, “Where is Jesus Now, For Me?”. The first stanza sets the question:
Where is Jesus now for me, what relationship have we?
Gospel words aside, and creeds, and church, in my life what place has he?
Many Jesus books I’ve read, many sermons fill head.
Is it I who seeks, is it he attracts? Where have all my questions led?
But by the third stanza, the songwriter zeroes in on the thing he finds most compelling about Jesus:
No, it’s not that he’s all wise that exalts him in my eyes.
It’s his need for God, my same need for God, that can fade but never dies.
I appreciate William Flanders’ recognition that we’ll understand Jesus differently over time. But it’s his need for God, which I share, that keeps me loving Jesus. If I had to use one phrase from this song to answer Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” I might, well, today at least, borrow words from William Flanders to say, “You are the one whose need for God stirs in me a recognition of my need for God.”
God whom we know in Christ Jesus,
Thank you for giving us a life that allows us to love others with a Jesus love that privileges those on the margins. Help us to continue to live the questions, as Jesus did. Amen