Encounters with Rabbi Jesus, III: Truth and Lies
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Jesus said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” —Matthew 16:15
This month we have been students of the Rabbi Jesus as recorded by the evangelist Matthew.
Early in August our disciples were out in the wilderness with more than 5,000 men and women who were hungry. Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to see there was enough and then gave them the privilege to learn by doing: when the disciples fed so many, they experienced God’s will to provide for those who were in need. God is generous and so are we to be.
The following week, when the disciples were out on a storm tossed sea, Jesus came to them by walking on water. In this encounter, Jesus revealed it is never God’s will that crisis or tragedy occurs, but that if and when we are in the grip of evil, God will be present. His grace was so powerful, Peter took a step into his faith by getting out of the boat to meet him.
Last week, Sam reminded us that humans are tempted to think too highly of ourselves and behave as if we are God. Just as much as making false idols is heresy, so too is narcissism. God is God and we are not.
Today, we are back in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus just had a testy encounter with some Pharisees who had challenged him to create a sign from heaven. They were so caught up in their dogmas and identities they could not imagine he was the long awaited Messiah. They could not see Jesus.
In this text, we overhear his conversation with his disciples. Listen for God’s word.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
God we gather to hear your words. May you silence any voice but your voice. May your Holy Spirit stir within these walls and our very beings that we are startled with your truth. May your word guide us so that we may follow the example of the carpenter of Nazareth in all we do. In the name and spirit of Jesus Christ, Amen.
About this time last week, I already had what I am calling “eclipse-fatigue” from the hyper attention on what we would see, when it would occur, and how to view this once-in-a-lifetime eclipse that occurred on Monday.
No doubt some of you participated in the exodus to Carbondale or another point of totality to see the moon pass in front of the sun. So many of the people who made a trip spoke of not just a visual perception but rather visceral reaction from their very personal engagement with the heavenly bodies as well as the communal experience of being surrounded by friends and relative strangers. They spoke of how breathtaking it was to witness mid-day darkness followed by brilliant light, prompting spontaneous tears of joy, and immediate plans to view the eclipse again in seven years.
On Monday, I did not have the same reaction standing with one other person on the sidewalk at Kenilworth Union for about 90 seconds. It was my choice to keep a packed schedule rather than make room to truly see what was unfolding either in the sky or with other people.
I may sound rather bah-humbug—but I am mocking myself for being bah-humbug. I know I missed something spectacular.
We can go about our days in such a routine that we are immune to seeing what is just in front of us. It took the disruption of the eclipse for many stand in awe of God’s creation. We are each but a small part of God’s grand scheme and yet blessed to live in universe that continues to stretch our imaginations and yet remains beyond our mastery.
In hindsight, the eclipse was a welcomed diversion from the hatred we saw in Charlottesville two weeks ago or that continued on the national stage. The racism and white supremacy that burst out and has slithered around since it cannot be shoved under the rug. By seeing this, ugly reality calls us to do something about it.
Just as we can go about our days in such a routine that we are immune to seeing the spectacular, the same routines allow us to avoid seeing the darkness living in our midst.
Both events call us to consider our individual and collective clarity of vision. It takes practice. It will demand disruption. Clarity of vision also requires courage. What we honestly see may make a claim on our lives for which we are unprepared.
Jesus needed to get his disciples out of their routine before they could have honest conversations.
Some of you may have been to the area where Caesarea Philippi was thought to be. It was so far from any of the disciples’ homes in Galilee that they were out of their comfort zones and far enough from Jerusalem that their religious traditions were not staring them in the face. Around the first century, Caesarea Philippi was a pagan outpost, once named for honoring other gods, and renamed after Roman occupation to honor one of the Roman rulers. Everything about the place upset the disciples’ equilibrium.
But was also a somewhat private locale. They were away from their religious opponents and the adoring crowds Jesus had aroused after his Sermon on the Mount. It is on this dusty crossroad, Jesus asks, “who do people say that I am?” In other words, he is beginning to ask, “Are you aware of what is going on?”
I wonder if their collective response was simply crickets? I imagine they might have looked at one another before they replied.
The disciples began to speak of the infamous and anonymous “they.” You know who “they” are. At one time or another in your life, you may have been new to an organization or a leadership position. When someone wanted to tell you that you are heading in the wrong direction, you were politely told “they say” only to be followed with the barrier you were about to breach or the sacred cow you almost killed. And yet, you have never met a person named “they.” We’ve all encountered these “they” that are responsible for popular opinions but yet are hidden. “They” are very persuasive even though unnamed.
The disciples replied, they say Jesus was like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.
What the people supposedly thought of Jesus was not a slight. These prophets were revered in Israel for the way they had stood toe-to-toe with kings, delivered words of doom to tyranny, and Yahweh’s words of hope to the oppressed. But, these prophets were all dead. “They” were stuck seeing Jesus through the lens of the past and only imagined Jesus in a very limited human, capacity.
Jesus’ disciples were different. Having left home and family, they had no vested interest in preserving the status quo—they had already voted with their feet for the new life Jesus brought.
The disciples had been eyewitnesses to and participants in Jesus feeding thousands of people, several times in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus had healed. Jesus had walked on water. Jesus spoke of freedom and love and acceptance. Jesus silenced all the religious leaders with his unyielding grace for sinners and outcasts. His followers had seen curious mixture of humility, wisdom, inclusiveness, and uncommon power.
Jesus pressed them: “who do you say that I am?”
Although the “you” is plural in the original Greek, only one person mustered the courage to speak: Peter. Out of the all the potential contenders Peter stepped forward, just as Peter’s faith was enough for him to step out of the boat and on to the water. At that moment, Peter saw in Jesus the truth that had been slowly unfolding and was unmistakably divine.
That was the turning point in Peter’s life, the gospel, and is the turning point in our lives as well. Peter confessed: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Peter had not reasoned his confession. Jesus’ immediate response confirms this with, “Blessed are you…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
No one can reason his or her way to faith through doctrines or by the popular opinions of what “they say.” Doctrines tend to get ossified into perpetuating the ideas and institutions, not faith. What “they say” is usually a watered-down truth that does not demand too much from us.
Peter got it right just by trusting in the faith stirring within and the truth standing before him: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
But, lest we think he is the hero, next week we will hear the story of how Peter immediately gets it wrong. Later in the gospel, he will resist Jesus’ intention to turn himself over the authorities, and he will eventually deny and desert his Messiah.
But for now… for now, in just this moment, he has the courage to answer the question Jesus asked him and all of the others.
Jesus blessed Peter’s confession by promising, “on this rock (of faith) I will build my church.”
Jesus had a choice between building a church on the imaginations of and opinions of the “they say-ers” who liked a neatly curated story or to begin with one man’s faith who was willing to take a risk on new life and a living God.
“Who do you say that I am” is a question set to all of us at one time or another. Although we are a congregation that specifically shuns faith statements and catechisms to teach us what to believe, we cannot assume we are exempt from this question. If anything, within Kenilworth Union the challenge is greater since we are to look with our own eyes at our world and within our own hearts to find our way to confess who Jesus Christ is. Saying “ditto” or lining up with what “they say” is not an option.
We ask our confirmands to write a faith statement. It is hard. To examine your faith, you become vulnerable to God, the Bible stories you learned, the prayers your grandmother taught, the hymns you learned to sing. You think of the world around, people you love and those you have not been able to love. If your integrity matters, your confession is to be what you believe is true, particularly in what is beyond your sight and ability to reason.
I have had to write faith statements and every time I revise what already exists, it gets shorter but I am not so sure any clearer.
But a faith statement is not the end game. Answering the call to follow in faith is.
Theologian Hans Küng writes, “Jesus never questioned anyone about the true faith, nor asked anyone to profess his or her orthodoxy. He expects no theoretical reflection, but an urgent, practical decision.
Who do you say that I am?
I will confess writing this sermon was very difficult. During that time, I thought of taking my place among the disciples in Ceseara Philippi, I know I would have reached for standard language and examples. I don’t imagine I would have had Peter’s courage to speak.
So thanks be to God, Peter spoke and men and women throughout the ages have continued to have the faith to speak with their words; but more so with their lives. The answer to Jesus’ question is answered by a life of love for God, a life that loves the other as much as one loves him or herself, and a life in pursuit of justice and peace.
This past weekend, neo-Nazis were again demonstrating in full view. A chaplain I know at a small liberal arts college was also lamenting the incoming freshman were targeted with fliers and “welcome to campus” from a white supremacist group. I thought back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. In one of his sermons on this very text he preached:
If it were left to us, we would rather avoid the decisions which are now forced upon us; if it were left to us we would rather not allow ourselves to be caught in this struggle; if it were left to us, we would rather not have to insist on the rightness of our cause and we would so willingly avoid the terrible danger of exalting ourselves over others; if it were left to us, we would retire today rather than tomorrow to private life and leave all the struggle and the pride to others. And yet—thank God—it has not been left to us. In God’s wisdom…we are called upon to make a decision from which we cannot escape. 
Jesus is asking us to allow the spirit to move in us and for us to join with others from that dusty road in Caesarea Philippi to be a part of his church. Our lives are to confess who Jesus is—the son of the living God. Like Peter and those disciples it will not make us popular but it will be the place where not even the gates of death can extinguish us.
May it be so.
 Hans Krug, Christianity and the World Religions, (New York: Fount, 1987), 116.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Church Election Sermon,” No Rusty Swords (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1977), 213-217.