8/24/2014 Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The text for today’s sermon is Matthew 16:13-20.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago, a magazine article reported on the way in which North Americans seek power and identity through their choice of cars. A Mercedes identifies a person as being classy and a big wage earner. A pickup truck identifies a person as a “good-ole-boy” in certain parts of the country. And old, beat-up tank of a car is usually associated with the elderly.
It’s funny how an inanimate object becomes the source of identity and a symbol of status. It isn’t who you are, it is what you drive – or if not what you drive, then it’s where you live or what school you attend or how many diplomas you have on the wall. Identity and value get wrapped up in things, and the image which is projected becomes more important than the truth about who you are as a child of God.
Concern with identity, concern with image – these were more than trivial matters for Jesus. His own identity, wrapped up in his relationship with his Father, was not a concern for he knew who he was and who he was not. But, Jesus was more than mildly interested in how he was perceived by others.
Yes, there had been crowds following him everywhere, as many as 5,000 men plus women and children at one time out by the lake. Sick folk and people with deformities flocked to him in order to be healed. Religious folk and a lot that could only be identified as sinners sought him. Farmers, fisher folk, townspeople, soldiers, kids, even a sprinkling of revolutionaries were drawn to him. Expectations of who he was and what he could do were as diverse as the people who came to him. So, Jesus, as he headed back to Galilee with his disciples, did a reality check.
Jesus asked his disciples a straightforward question, “Who do people think that I really am?” The answers came quickly:
“John the Baptist, come back to life!”
“One of the ancient prophets!”
All of them heroes of the past, recent or remote, all of them champions of God and God’s way. But all of them slightly off target. For, the image and the true identity of Jesus had not come together for the crowds which sought after him.
Then it was time for the real question, “Who do you say that I am?” As always, Peter had an answer, but this time one with heavenly insight. “You are the Christ – the Messiah – the son of the living God.” Peter was not repeating an answer he had learned in the Lord’s roving confirmation class. In a flash of insight, the truth dawned. “You are the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of our people. You are the Christ, the Messiah. You are the son of God.”
Jesus, according to Matthew, never made those claims for himself, but by the Spirit, Peter put two and two together and put forth an answer that surprised even the answerer. For, he did not fully comprehend these words or what they would mean for his life and for the restoration of all people. It wouldn’t be until after Jesus’ resurrection and the Holy Spirit became part of him that he would be able to proclaim his confession to the world. And upon this rock, the rock solid ground of Peter’s confession, the church would emerge. Upon the solid rock of this confession, salvation would become a reality.
Yes, the image and identity of Jesus remained a mystery and it remains so even today for many in this world. If we ask the same question about Jesus that he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that he is?” we would still get a wide variety of answers. Some would say, a teacher (and that he was…people of his own time recognized him as one who taught with insight and authority). Others might respond, “a friend – a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (for, somehow, they know that what a friend we have in Jesus is more than just the title of a hymn – it is a reality). Still others might claim that Jesus is nothing more than a hoax and charlatan, a good man who claimed to be God but nothing more.
Yet, if we want to know God, we are to look at Jesus…for he is more than a teacher and a friend; he IS the Son of the living God. We can only know Jesus if his image and his identity become one of the same. We cannot correctly answer the key question of who do you say that I am and remain uncommitted. For, the confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior requires heavenly insight and faith.
It’s like this. One day, I caught a cab from the airport and soon got into a conversation with the cab driver who noticed my collar. “I really love the Bible,” he said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it. I know whole chapters by memory. It’s my all-time favorite book.” My innocent response was, “and what church do you belong to?” “None, I’m not a Christian.”
My friends, knowledge and faith are two different things. Knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing him and confessing him as Lord of all. We may acknowledge Jesus as teacher, claim him as friend, see him as God’s supreme revelation, yet we may still share a seat with the cab driver. For, the true confession only comes through faith – the faith upon which the church has been founded.
Our best response to the question of “Who do you say that I am?” may be founds in the words of Luther who said, “I believe that Jesus Christ…is my Lord, who has redeemed me…in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness and blessedness.” Now that is a commitment. It is a commitment that becomes a way of life. And it is a commitment which we need to renew throughout our lives through what we say about Jesus, and in the way we act out our faith. For, our identity is not found in the things which we own or have gathered in this world. Our identity is not found in what people say about us. Our identity is firmly planted in our confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and as children of God, gifted by the Spirit, we confess, “You, Jesus, are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Yes, Lord, Jesus, you are my teacher, my friend, and my savior. It is you alone that I trust above all things in this world.”
May we find our true identity in this confession in Christ and in him alone. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.