Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist, some say Elijah, still others, one of the prophets.”
Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”
There is always a lot of scuttlebutt on the street about who Jesus is. Everyone has an opinion. The Presbytery Exec, the religious columnist in the paper, the 20-something blogger, the Facebook memes, the woman who does your hair, the guy you hunt with.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus askes. Thumb through the gospels and you’ll see that people say a lot of things about who Jesus is. He is King of the Jews. He is Mary’s son. He is the light of the world. He is a prophet without honor in his own country.
Jesus is the one who can heal your child, cast out demons, forgive your sins, lead your revolution. Jesus is the one invite to dinner—and then invite to leave the presbytery. He is a messiah, a prophet, a rabbi, a pain in the neck. He is alive, he is dead, he is risen, he will come again.
Ask around today and you can’t help but notice that people say a lot of things about Jesus now too. Theologically, historically, sociologically, pastorally, colloquially, politically, biblically, you name it. They say it out loud and on street corners. They say it across the kitchen table and on the internet. They say it in classrooms, and in pulpits. In just about any context you can imagine, people say all kinds of things about Jesus, because nearly everyone has an opinion.
You don’t have to be a follower to understand the man is big! He is about as influential a figure as the world is likely to see. So people say a lot of things about Jesus. They describe him, decry him, defend him, deconstruct him. They believe him and complain about him and just plain old shoot the breeze about him. Jesus is easy to talk about in this world. Just pick your context, pick your method, and go!
“Who do people say that I am?”
In the church this can get tricky. We have boundaries. We have orthodoxies. We have limits to interpretation. We even have exams for our various ordinations so we can monitor our educational and denominational practices.
People say a lot of things about Jesus, but you can’t if you want to be a Presbyterian preacher. Not during an exam anyway. I figured this out in my first theology class in seminary, then had it confirmed in my first meeting with a committee on ministry discussing ordination.
Each denomination has its particular doctrine and you must honor it faithfully and with as much integrity as you can. So that what we say, you and I, intersect. That’s how we become part of the Presbyterian tradition. And how we live into it. And how we pass it on. What people say, shapes us. And through the Spirit’s power, what people say becomes so much more than their words ever could. We hear what God is saying too, through us. And sometimes in spite of us. So how do you make the move from what people say, to what you say, about Jesus?
Maybe it is a matter of growing up. That’s what confirmation addresses. At the end of the process, teenagers get a chance to stand up and affirm the baptismal vows that were made for them. They get a chance to say, “I choose this for myself. I choose to say what my people say about Jesus.”
Maybe it is a matter of faith formation. That’s what our Christian practices address. Believers like us get a chance to grow into new places in our faith by participating in traditional Christian practices: singing, and praying, serving and feeding, testifying and protesting, labyrinth walking and foot washing. These practices deepen our relationship with Christa and with one another. They deepen what we say by plunging us into what people say about Jesus.
And maybe it’s a matter of knowledge. That’s what Christian Education addresses. You can take one of our Sunday school class. Enter a degree program, even go to seminary to learn more about church history, doctrine, Bible, theology. You could finally learn what eschatology means, and how to pronounce it. You could take a Greek class and read Mark in the original language.
You could memorize the names of saints and heretics, popes and emperors. You could become an expert on Jeremiah or a scholar of the Reformation. You could teach what people say about Jesus to others simply because you have access to so much knowledge.
But how do you make the move from what people say, to what you say about Jesus? There must be many factors involved. No doubt growing up has something to do with it. I’m sure faith formation is key. Knowledge helps too.
But listen to old Peter for a minute; he gives us another view:
“Peter answered Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah.’”
When you think about it, it’s great to hear Peter get it right for once. Although “right” isn’t the word for it. He isn’t “right” in the doctrinal sense. He isn’t “right” because he answers Jesus correctly- understands the terms or wins all the points for disciple maturity.
I think Peter is right because he sets aside what people say and listens to what God is unfolding in his soul. He allows God to tell him who Jesus is. And then he confesses. In Matthew’s version of this text, Jesus is thrilled about his answer. “Blessed are you Simon,” he says. “No human being could have told you that- you must really be listening.”
For each of us, I think the moment comes when what people say about Jesus is no longer enough. We can’t hide behind it. We can’t pretend it is ours. We can’t substitute what people say for what we say.
We have to listen closely to God and speak up for ourselves. But confessing that Jesus is the Messiah like Peter does is only the first step.
Then we have to let Jesus teach us what kind of Messiah he is. He is not one who will fight and win for us. He is one who will suffer and die for us. He will teach us what it is to serve rather than conquer, give rather than take; love rather than hold anything back.
Jesus is a different kind of Messiah than we were expecting and always will be. Peter didn’t like that. Especially the undergo great suffering part. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.
And Jesus had to set him straight” “Get behind me Satan. You’re not setting your mind on divine things, but on human things.
“Do you want to know what kind of Messiah I am? The kind that asks you to follow. Take up your cross and follow. Those who want to save their lives will lose it. And those who lose their lives for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. But what does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
“Oh don’t be ashamed of me, Peter,” Jesus said. “Don’t be ashamed of the kind of disciple I’m asking you to be. The kind of church I’m asking you to build. It’s not a victory story, it’s a servant story. Take up your cross and follow, and don’t be afraid.”
This passage is often referred to as Peter’s confession. Perhaps a better title might be: “How Peter worked up to a confession and once he’d made it realized the whole point was to revise it immediately.”
Of course that takes too long to say. But there’s an order here that’s important. Maybe we have to say who Jesus is, before we’re ready to hear the rest. Maybe we have to confess that he saves us before we’re ready to hear why. And for what purpose.
Who do people say that Jesus is?
Who do you say that he is?