(a sermon for February 18, 2018, the First Sunday in Lent; first in a series, based on Matthew 16:13-20)
“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
It might have seemed a simple question, but when Jesus asked it of his disciples they knew immediately that there was any number of answers they could give. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the [other] prophets.” Basically, Jesus, it depends on who you ask and when you ask them; truth is, everybody out there seems to have a different take on just who you are and what you’re all about!
And so it is even now; I mean, of all the “FAQ’s” (that is, “Frequently Asked Questions”) with which I could have started this sermon series, this question about who Jesus is would seem to generate the most wide array of responses! For instance, for a whole lot of people their primary (and perhaps solitary) picture of Jesus is that of the baby in the manger; while others will immediately connect the name Jesus with the figure that hangs on a crucifix, even if they’re not at all sure what that even represents. The fact is, there are countless people who can easily name Jesus as a historical figure or know that he’s some sort of religious icon, and yet not really know much more than that about who he is!
Then again, even those of us who have spent much of our lives knowing Jesus to one degree or another can attest to, shall we say, a changing point of view where he’s concerned. For instance, if you grew up going to Sunday School, I’m guessing that somewhere in the back of your mind there’s an image of Jesus as having long, flowing black hair, milky white skin and a robe of white and scarlet; surrounded by children and cradling a lamb in his arms; maybe that’s still how you like to think of Jesus! Or if you are of, as they say, “a certain age” or perhaps more accurately, of a certain generation, it could be that your image of Jesus is that of the ultimate counter-culture icon; the one who vehemently turned all the values and assumptions of our middle-class world upside and inside out, the one, writes Philip Yancy, whose every teaching was “jarringly antimatrialistic, antihypcritcal, pro-peace and pro-love.” Indeed, in all times and especially in these times Jesus can appropriately be seen as the vanguard of social justice on every level of human society.
Dig a little deeper, however; get into the biblical and theological perspective as to the identity of this Jesus of Nazareth and you discover a whole realm of possibilities as to how we might know him. He’s the Christ; he’s Lord of Heaven and Earth; he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords; he’s the Messiah, and our Savior; he’s the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Redeemer; he’s the Bread of Life, he’s Living Water and he’s the Light of the World; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the Anointed One, Son of God and Son of Man; and he’s our Emmanuel, God With Us. Jesus is the one to whom John refers to in his gospel as the “Word made flesh [that has] lived among us,” (John 1:14) and who Paul described to the Hebrews as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3) He is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and he’s the Incarnate Word of God!
And yet for all of that and so much more that I could recite to you here, we really can’t tell you all that much about what he looked like; about his life between the time he was born and the beginning of his public ministry nearly 30 years later, or even if he had brothers and sisters (biblical scholars have been debating that question for centuries!). We really don’t even have a sense of everything Jesus might have said or taught in those three years of itinerant ministry; all we can claim as truth are the accounts of the four men who wrote the gospels, with the rest coming from biblical history, church tradition and the kind of discernment and analysis that is renewed with each successive generation.
So… when Jesus asks that question – “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” – I guess the answer does come down to who you ask and when you ask them! (Actually, maybe the best response came from the renowned theologian Karl Barth; who when asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence, he answered, “Yes, I can… [it’s] ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”)
But then, in our text this morning Jesus asks another question; and this one cannot be answered in such a second-hand manner: “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” This is where things got personal very quickly! I have to imagine that at this moment the disciples were all very quiet and looking to the ground, each one of them careful to avoid eye contact with Jesus, like students in a classroom hoping and praying that the teacher won’t call on them! Because it’s one thing, you see, to report the “conventional wisdom” of the people and even share a bit of the gossip that’s out there; but it’s quite another to commit yourself! Answering this kind of a question requires something of you; as if to say it means that you know it and you live it! Those disciples knew full well in that moment that however they answered Jesus, life as knew it would never be the same again; they knew, as do you and I, that we are what we claim!
It turns out, you see, that as much as we might try to seek out answers to this question of who Jesus is, ultimately the real question that needs to be asked is who Jesus is to us; and the thing is, friends, how we answer that question will inevitably affect our responses to every other question of faith and life itself. And it’s not to say that all the things we’ve seen, heard and learned about Jesus don’t come into play here; in many, many ways we are all the by-products of two millennia of Christian teaching and tradition, not to mention all those years we spent hearing Bible stories and doing arts and crafts in Sunday School! But in the end, what all that means and how all of it comes into focus in our lives is revealed by our own confession of faith; it is what and who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who we are and who we’re willing to be!
Granted, to make that kind of confession does involve some risk. It’s no accident that of all the disciples with Jesus that day it’s only Peter – good ol’ impulsive, I-can-walk-on-water-just-watch-me Peter (!) – who even dares to respond to Jesus’ question: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It was a bold answer, albeit one as he ended up revealing again and again, that Peter didn’t really completely understand; but he said it, and with every fiber of his being, he meant it. Somehow, the whole mystery of what God had done in and through Jesus had gotten through to him, and though he couldn’t begin to explain or interpret it in any kind of way that made sense or that resolved the mystery of it, Peter knew that from now one every single moment of his life to come would be a reflection of his being in the presence of the promised Messiah of Israel, the one who was and is “Son of the Living God.” And indeed it would; as Jesus himself goes on to say, it’s upon Peter himself – the one whose very name, Cephas, means “rock” – that the church would be built, “a church so expansive that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.” (The Message) Peter’s confession of faith would be the catalyst for more than he could ever possibly imagine; a life, says Jesus, where “a yes on earth is a yes in heaven… [where] a no on earth is no in heaven.” [again, The Message].
See what I mean about what it is that we believe and say about Jesus making all the difference? We are what we claim!
So I lift up this “frequently asked question” to each of you this morning: Who is Jesus? Or more to the very important point, Who is Jesus… to you?
Let me tell you a bit of what I think; keeping in mind that what I think about Jesus – as a pastor, as a person, as a Christian – ever continues to grow and evolve over time and experience and changes in my life. Some years ago – sometime in the mid-90’s, I think – there was this song on the radio sung by Joan Osborne entitled “One of Us.” You might remember the lyrics: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.” The song was a big hit, and I think it even won a Grammy award; but I’ll be honest with you in that when it came out, I didn’t much care for the song! And mostly, it was because of that one line in the chorus that suggested that God might be “a slob like one of us.” It seemed to be to be yet another pop culture putdown of my Christian faith; and besides, I had to put up with all these confirmation kids who delighted in pointing out to the pastor that God might just be nothing more than “a stranger on the bus!”
But over time (and also, I must admit, hearing the song played over and over again on the radio!), I got to thinking about how actually one of the central truths of our Christian faith is how in grace and perfect love God did come to us… as one of us; first as a helpless, crying baby in the arms of a young mother, then as a young man with calloused carpenter’s hands and likely middle-eastern features; then as a teacher and healer and friend imbued with the fullness of God, one who spoke with boldness, compassion and unending hope even and especially to all those who were forever without hope and dwelling on the fringes of life; and finally, as one who went willingly to his own death on the cross for the sake of our having a relationship with God now and eternally! Beloved, of all the ideas and images that we’re given of the divine presence, the most remarkable and extraordinary of all is this incredible truth that God – God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth (!) – was “present, active, speaking, giving and healing through this [singular] human life!” And that’s everything; as Norman Pott has put it, “our faith is not so much resting on the hope that Jesus is like God… [but that] God is like Jesus, that is compassionate, forgiving, accepting, welcoming… if we affirm God in Jesus, we are opening to the possibility of God in ourselves.”
And I have to tell you… that though my pastoral sensibilities still tend to make me shy away from the image of God being “a slob” in any way, shape or form (!); the truth is that when I think of who Jesus is, it’s not the “stained glass window Jesus” that I envision, nor is it so much someone walking around as an earthbound angel with a golden halo overhead. It’s the Jesus who’s one of us; the one who’s just like me, who knows my joys and even more so my sorrow. It’s the Jesus who knows, like I do – like we all do – how hard life can be; and it’s the Jesus who weeps at the loss of children in an unspeakable act of violence, and who knows that somehow and in so many ways we can be better than that. It’s the Jesus who is one of us – but who is also one with God – that changes everything and makes all the difference for me.
Jesus comes to each one of us across the years, beloved; and he does so vividly, powerfully and beautifully. But in the midst of it all, his question remains: Who do you say that I am? And he waits for us to answer, each one of us in our own way.
So… what do you say? Who is Jesus… to you?
May God bless us with the faith and insight to make confessions of our own.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry