Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 25, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
Sermon: "Who Do You Say Jesus Is?"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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.
Who Do You Say Jesus Is?
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - August 25, 2002
Have you been keeping up with the news lately concerning UNC and the reading of the Quran? Every day there are articles and letters about freedom of religion and separation of church and state. One letter, from an ultra conservative point of view, was concerned about the possibility of conversion of students to the Islamic faith. The writer was concerned that the reading of this book on thirty-two passages of the Quran would cause students to believe in Allah. Somehow the text and the discussions would result in students believing in the teachings of Mohammad.
Now, I have not seen a copy of the text. I do not know what the author is attempting to accomplish. From reports I do not believe the author was attempting conversion of individuals. I do believe these letters and discussions are very timely for our Gospel reading today. Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They respond with the names of prophets, John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah. Jesus then asks them, "But who do you say that I am?" The disciples are put on the spot. The cat is out of the bag. The moment of truth is upon them. Who do you say that I am? Peter responds for the disciples with the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Peter is told he is right and that God has revealed this information to him.
Yet, I wonder if we asked the question of people today what answers we might receive. Now, I'm not talking about people on the street. I'm talking about asking this question of people in the church. What answers do we think we might hear in response? I know of a few that I have already heard. Some people believe Jesus was a prophet. Some people believe he was a great healer. Some people believe he was a great moral teacher. Some will say Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Let's take a moment to look at some of the answers we might hear. Are they credible?
Some people say Jesus was a great prophet. The prophet is the one who comes to the world as a spokesperson for God. In the Jewish tradition of Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah, the prophet was sent to the people by God. The message they brought was one of getting their life right with God. Usually they called the people to repentance. The people strayed from God and God's ways. They were called to recognize their sinful ways, wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for forgiveness. John the Baptist continued this tradition. He called for repentance and baptism in cleansing water. Like these prophets Jesus did call the people into a relationship with God. Jesus called the people to action as well. Jesus called them to a ministry of love. This difference is not the only one. The major difference between the prophets and Jesus is their own self-identification. All of the prophets, including John the Baptist, identified themselves as prophets. They stated plainly they were speaking for God not as God. John the Baptist was of course the clearest. I am not the Messiah he says. One is coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. Jesus never identifies himself as a prophet. The other prophets do. They were clear about their ministry. They were clear about their position with the people. If Jesus were a prophet then it would make sense that he would have declared his position. As a prophet, the leaders of the Jewish people could have scoffed at him or punished him. Like John they could have killed him. His deeds would have been known, but the story would have ended there. So identifying Jesus as a prophet doesn't fit with the history of the Jewish people.
Instead of a prophet some people believe Jesus was a healer. The concept of healers was not new with Jesus. There were others who went from town to town as healers. They were called thaumaturges. They would come into a town and claim to have healing powers or elixirs. They were like the old west snake oil salesman. They stayed for two to three days, got free room and board, and then moved on. Yet, these healers did not restore withered hands to full use. These healers did not cure illnesses by speaking the words from a distance. No healer of that day ever restored sight to a man who was born blind from birth. On top of all this Jesus was not a trained physician. Jesus was a carpenter. I don't know about you but I always go to the nearest cabinet-maker when I'm ill. No trained physician of the day could have performed the acts of healing Jesus performed. Jesus was not simply a healer.
Now, we come to the last answer I hear most frequently concerning Jesus, the great moral teacher. The concept is that Jesus taught people how to live good moral lives. Let's look at the teachings of Jesus. He taught the first and second greatest commandments. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength is the first. Love your neighbor as you love yourself is the second. Contrary to popular belief they did not originate with Jesus. They are found in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Deuteronomy was written sometime before 535 b.c.e and Leviticus sometime before the seventh century b.c.e. The moral codes for Israel are exceptionally old. Jesus followed those codes. They were supposed to be followed by any observant Israelite. Furthermore the majority of Jesus' teaching concerned God and the kingdom of God. The beatitudes are prime example of Jesus' teaching. They are one of the focal points of Matthew's Gospel. They proclaim God's favor, God's blessings, on the people of God. The poor, the peacemakers, those who mourn and the meek are just a few of the people God blesses. Jesus proclaims that God's kingdom is at hand. He teaches about the kingdom in parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the treasure in the field. Jesus does not spend time teaching a new moral code or exhorting great moral ethics.
So Jesus is not a prophet of old. He is not simply a healer of his day. He is not a great moral teacher. Who is Jesus? We are left with only two options. Jesus is either exactly who he says he is, the Son of God, or he is a liar. Yet, we know Jesus lived. We know Jesus was put to death on the cross. Would a liar carry the lie so far? Could any of these kinds of people take a motley crew of fisherman, tax collectors, prostitutes and generally average people and turn the world upside down? Somehow I don't think so. Yet, like the disciples we have to face the question, "Who do we say Jesus is?"
In a few moments we will stand and say the creed. This creed was written in 325 about the nature of Christ. Today I invite us to say the creed a little more deliberately. I invite us to pay close attention to each line, each phrase, each word. I invite us to ask ourselves as we say each line, "Who do I say Jesus is?"