Sermon preached at FBC Worcester
August 27, 2017
Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Cone find themselves all at the same time at Caesarea Philippi. Who should come along but Jesus, and he asks the four famous theologians the same Christological question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Karl Barth stands up and says: “You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism.”
Not prepared for Barth’s brevity, Paul Tillich stumbles out: “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities.”
Reinhold Niebuhr gives a cough for effect and says, in one breath: “You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming oughtness in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships.”
Finally James Cone gets up, and raises his voice: “You are my Oppressed One, my soul’s shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.”
And as he would do from time to time, Jesus writes in the sand, “Huh?”
This is a question that Christians have asked themselves for 2000 years now; who is Jesus?
As Jesus asks this question, the disciples are with him in a predominantly Gentile region known as Caesarea Philippi. It’s here that both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels place this interaction, and it seems to give us a glimpse into the meaning. Jesus asks two questions, actually. Who do people say the Human One is, and then after they answer that, he asks who do you say I am? The implication is clear, there is a distinction between what the outside world thinks and what the disciples think about Jesus.
A sense of revelation comes for those who walk more closely with Jesus in his ministry. For those who know him and ask him questions. They can come to know this mysterious figure differently. It’s the same as it is with any of us who know people better than others know them. Some people might say I’m really funny, but you’ll say, No, he’s my pastor; he’s never funny.
Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. That’s what other people think of Jesus.
What do the disciples say?
That he’s the Christ, the messiah, the anointed one, the Son of the living God.
Someone’s been paying attention in Jesus’ Sunday School classes. Or really Shabbat classes, but you catch the joke.
Of course, we know from the following verses of this story that Peter clearly misunderstands what all of those titles mean. He might’ve had the correct answer, the Sunday School answer, but when the test became something more tangible, he failed.
As the story goes on, Jesus begins speaking of the difficulty that comes with living out His Way in the world. It will be a way that disrupts the status quo, and upends systems of injustice, it upsets people, it will be political, not partisan, and will ultimately lead to his death. Like happens for so many leaders who do this; physical, emotional, vocational deaths.
And Peter then says “God forbid it, this won’t happen to you!” And Jesus says get behind me, and calls him the devil.
Then Jesus explains to Peter that he has human thoughts and not the thoughts of God. In a context where Rome is an occupying force, where rebellion has been stifled and dreamed up again and again amongst the Jewish people longing to return to the days when Israel was great, Jesus is saying to give up those dreams and join in dreaming the dreams of God.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus preaches what it means, what it looks like in His kingdom, and not Caesar’s or Stalin’s or the Founding Fathers’. Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for doing right by others, blessed are those who mourn, and so on.
It’s as if Peter had selective hearing, and only heard what he wanted to hear; that Jesus would be a hero to save the Jewish people from Roman occupation once and for all, and not this entirely new way of being.
After passing the pop quiz about who Jesus was, he flunked when Jesus used it in a sentence.
I imagine it’s because Peter hadn’t come to terms with what Jesus had been preaching. He hadn’t come to see Jesus in that way yet. He still had his own image of who he wanted Jesus to be.
We could go down that road ourselves. Do we see Jesus as an American hero, as a socialist, as a capitalist, as an anarchist?
The telling thing for us this morning, isn’t what answer was right and which was wrong. The verses we read this morning only dealt with what Peter answered. Jesus didn’t correct him here, or ask him to explain it. That comes later.
At this moment in Matthew’s version, Jesus accepts Peter’s answer and builds him up by speaking of how he would use him to further the work of the church.
And that’s how God is with us, taking us where we are, and building us up, so that as we grow, as we learn, as we listen, we can continue to change, and to become.
So that, like Peter in the next verse, as the setting changes, we too, will come to shift our understanding to be in line with Jesus’ ultimate purpose of a Way in the world that is different that how it always is.
So let us pause again this morning, and reflect as we’ve been doing already, on who Jesus is to us today.
And without any pretenses. No wrong answers this day.
Who do you say Jesus is?
Because as much as I want us to embody Jesus’ teaching of a Kingdom and Way that invites everyone in, and declares that all are equal, that trespasses the artificial boundaries we put up and excuses we hide behind, we can’t do that, until we truly believe that Jesus also loves us.
Not only us.
But we must believe that God is for us and with us, before we can ever proclaim that and try to embody that in our community.
So in your own world this morning,
the one inside your head,
or the one that feels like it’s closing in around you,
or the one where you feel like you don’t have a voice,
or you are invisible
or you can’t make ends meet,
the one where you feel like everyone is against you
or life isn’t fair,
where you’re scraping by while others get help,
where you’re fighting emotional or physical health battles and nothing seems to improve,
where you feel trapped beneath an avalanche of debt,
or relationships with your children won’t seem to grow any stronger,
or family from whom you’re separated by borders or arguments or hurdles we just won’t understand,
whatever is going on in your world this day,
hear the good news, the Gospel,
that God is for you,
on your side,
and that God is with you in the midst of all of it.
Who do you say Jesus is?
your saving one,
or the one who comforts you,
or the one who creates new hope for you,
or dreams new dreams with you,
who hears your cries of loneliness when no one else does,
who’s near to you when no one else is,
the peacemaker in your personal chaos,
the provider in your poverty of resources
or poverty of spirit,
the forgiving one who releases your shame,
the healing one who relieves your pain,
the listening one,
the still-speaking one,
your prologue and epilogue,
your consonance and dissonance,
your covalent bond,
Who do you say I am, today?
Before we invite others to follow the Way of Jesus with us, we must first understand who he is to us.
And so we pray as we do every week,
“For all that you’ve done, for all that you’re doing, for all that you’re yet to do, we say thank you.
For who you’ve been,
for who you are,
And for who you will show yourself to be,
we say, may it be so.”