“Who Do You Say That I Am?” 12th Sunday after Pentecost Matt 16:13-20 August 27, 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
My beloved siblings in Christ, let me first say what an absolute joy it is to be back with you all. As many of you know, I have just recently moved back from the Midwest where I spent four years in seminary training to be a pastor. And let me tell you, it’s so good to be home. I also wanted to briefly thank you all. Even though my time with you all has been fairly limited, I will be forever grateful for this congregation. This community helped me hear God’s call to pastoral ministry and nurtured my vocational journey – in fact I preached my first two sermons before I started seminary right here from this spot.
This congregation embraced Ryan and me at a time when I was unsure of what community I could join and be welcomed as fully me – and we were so honored to be married in this space. And even when we moved halfway across the country, your love, friendship, prayers, and financial support stayed with us and sustained our sojourn. So thank you, beloved, for your all you have done and thank you for welcoming me back into this pulpit today.
But as I have been gone for four years now, I’ve returned to a changed community here at University Lutheran. There are new faces here – people I have yet to meet. I’ve been introduced to so many people since coming back. And this got me thinking – when you meet someone for the first time, how do describe yourself?
What words would you use to tell them who you are? Maybe your occupation or family role? Maybe your hobbies or what sports teams you root for? It can be hard sometimes, because we don’t want these labels to define us, but they do tell a person more about who we are – more about our identity. I think about this a lot. I sometimes wonder how much I want to tell a person when I first meet them. Do I give them my life story? Just tell them a few things? Do I keep some things secret?
Today we hear about Jesus’ identity as well. In some ways it’s a new introduction for him to his disciples. We hear what others have been saying about him and what they think of him. Perhaps he is one of the great prophets returned from the dead. It’s a great, if not confusing, legacy to have, of course. A strong and bold lineage to be tied to.
But when Jesus his asks disciples about what they think of his identity in today’s gospel reading, I think he is asking an even deeper question. “Who do you say that I am?” They had been journeying together for some time by now. They had seen great works of power, teaching, and healing. I think Jesus is saying ‘tell me what you think you know about me.’ Why are you here? Why have you uprooted your lives to follow this roaming rabbi through the countryside?
And of course it is Peter who speaks up. It’s always Peter. “You are the Messiah,” he says, “The Son of the living God.” Obviously the right answer. But it can be easy for us to take Peter’s answer for granted. We come into this story knowing the right answer: This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Of course we know who he is. This understanding is literally the foundation of our entire religion – that Jesus is God’s Son. Every time we recite the Apostles or Nicene Creeds we make the same confession that Peter did: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord.”
But these theologies and creeds did not develop overnight – they are the result of centuries of debate over this exact question, “Who is this Jesus?” Is he a man? Is he God? Is he both? These debates literally divided the early Church – separated those who were labeled heretics from the orthodoxy – the truth faith.
Today, we have doctrines to back us up. We have shelves of books that try to explain this exact question – and I’ve read quite a few of them by now! And these few words from this poor fisherman in first century Palestine give us the firm foundation on which this entire faith stands. And even the Satanic forces of evil cannot overcome it.
Since we know the whole story, we can forget how revolutionary Peter’s statement is – literally revolutionary. Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi – a city named in honor of Caesar Augustus and itself a symbol of Roman power in the region. It is here that Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one – a new ruler in Israel.
And more than that, he is declaring that Israel’s new king is “the son of the living God.” A primary claim to power for the Roman emperors was that they were descendants of the gods – and now Peter says that Jesus is the son of the God of Israel. He is claiming that in the person of Jesus, God has established a new kingdom not based on the military might and domination of Rome, but based on Jesus’ ministry of love and compassion, healing and justice.
Rather than catering to the powerful by oppressing the poor, this new suffering king willingly spends time with the marginalized and seeks to overturn the injustice of Rome’s system of power. This new reign that Peter names is so against the ways of the Empire that even Rome’s execution of Christ cannot contain its revolutionary power.
And it’s on this confession of God’s presence among God’s people that Jesus builds this Church. This proclamation by a poor fisherman that Jesus is the anointed one – the Son of the living God who embodies God’s transformative and life-giving love.
Ultimately, I think Peter’s confession is less about doctrine and determining the exact parentage of Jesus as it is about the mission of the Church – a new community following the example of Jesus that subverts the oppressive and corrupt power structures that exist around them. A group of people who recognize God’s love for the least among them and who work to enact that love. A movement whose foundation is that Jesus is the Son of God, and indeed, Immanuel – God with us here – on earth.
Peter’s words, as simple as they may seem, help reorder our imaginations of what the world can be. And by joining in this confession, we too can see the possibilities of a world where God’s reign of love is stronger than the empires of hate that surround us. We see a world where God’s justice is a light to the peoples and will drive out all the oppressive forces. We see a world where the evils bondages like racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia will be loosened and forgotten as we see each other as beloved children of God.
This is the power of the foundation on which we stand. This is the firm grounding of Christ’s Church as we join together to transform the world.
One of the many things I love about this congregation, beloved, is it is clear to me that we as a community enact what it means to be this transformative Church. You are a Church whose foundation is this confession and you enact its world-changing power. Through ministries like the Elizabeth Gregory Home and Teed Feed and Sanctuary Art Center and more, you meet the needs of those in our community who have been forgotten, abused, and neglected and respond with Christ’s love. Through advocacy for environmental protection, economic fairness, and social justice on the local, statewide, and national levels, you help our leaders envision the world as it should be.
By raising up future ministers and supporting them in seminary and by sending high school delegates to Ailanga, Tanzania you help ensure a future of the Church that stretches far beyond these walls. And by welcoming all people who walk through these doors you display the vastness of God’s love that knows no boundaries.
This is part of how we as a community confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
That’s my understanding of what this confession could mean – what this idea of Jesus’ identity could implicate. But I wonder, what do you think it means? Who is Jesus to you? What does it mean for him to be the Son of God? Many of us have been saying these words our entire lives, but do we see the power in them? To be honest, this is a lot to think about and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by these ideas. And we will surely never get it exactly right.
We’ll see next week how even Peter, just minutes after this foundational confession, will proceed to stick his foot in his mouth by not understanding the implications of what he just said. But between now and then, I invite each of you to think about these words and what they mean for you. What does this Peter’s confession mean in your life?
And really, like Jesus asks his disciples, I think he asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” Why are you here? Why do you come to this community on Sunday mornings? When so many of our fellow Seattlites find other activities for Sunday mornings, what draws you here? And I invite you to see how confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God might shape your lives this week.
And as we go into a world that is still held hostage by empires of hate and destruction, may you continue to be inspired to see a world transformed.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 8-27-17” name of the sermon.