Prayer: Almighty God, give us wisdom to perceive you, intellect to understand you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, vision to uphold you, a heart to meditate on you, and life to proclaim you. Amen.-St. Benedict
Before we get going too deep into what I am going to offer this morning, let’s just take a moment to pause and reflect on that question.
“Who do we say Jesus is?”
If we think about Jesus…what are the words we use to describe him?
What is the mental image we have of him?
How do we relate to him?
I think the way we answer that question will speak to the how we see ourselves as we live and move and interact with others out there in the world.
I had this question posed to me once. It was asked rather pointedly, “Who is Jesus Christ?”
The person who asked it was a bishop from a state south of here…and it was asked, as I said, in a very pointed way.
My honest answer and the one that I stand by to this day was, “Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever.”
My vision of Jesus is the one who breaks down closed doors, flings open our minds, enters into the dark corners of our hearts and brings us light and walks with us during our times of trouble to remind us not to let our fears overshadow our joys.
Such a Jesus helps me to feel connected to all that is around me and know that even what I see is only a fraction of the greater picture. Whether it’s other people or the natural world there is always so much more…more than fine gold and sweeter than honey in the comb.
“Who do you say that I am?”
We hear Peter’s answer to that question.
Peter, the extrovert, the one who can hardly contain himself when the light bulb goes off in his head, we can imagine him grinning with almost a raptured look of awe and wonder when he announces, “You are the Messiah!”
Messiah, for Peter and the rest of disciples, is the one who is going to restore Israel’s glory and set them free from being under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
It’s an interesting side note that this whole scene takes place in Caesarea Philippi, which was one of the centers of power of the occupying Romans in Galilee. In the looming shadow of Roman Empire…here’s Jesus asking his followers…the powerless outsiders…who do you say that I am?
Peter gets it half-right that Jesus is the Messiah, but he gets it all wrong about the type of Messiah Jesus has been called to be. None of the disciples…despite having traveled all throughout the countryside with him... have picked up on the simple stuff.
Jesus has not used force in any of his interactions, not even when he was exorcising demons and certainly not when he was healing a hemorrhaging woman or the deaf or the blind. Their expectation was that a Jewish Messiah was going to lead an uprising, taking names and kicking some proverbial Roman butt.
But that’s not the way of “The Way” of Jesus.
Jesus is about a different revolution…about speaking words of love and wisdom, challenging the authority to get back to the basics of caring for the poor, liberating people from those habits and patterns that keep them captive, giving them eyes to see the people around them and freeing them from oppression. I can almost hear the Beatles tune…”You say you want a revolution…well, you know, we all want to change the world…but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out…”
Because of that…because he was using a non-violent way of living and being and speaking…Jesus knew he was going to face opposition. Authority doesn’t like being questioned…ever. And tyrants don’t want troublemakers, especially if they are making what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”
He probably didn’t know that his first opponent would be the eager beaver Peter! Peter gets angry and scolds Jesus for not being down with the revolution plan. And Jesus throws it back in Peter’s face: get behind me Satan! We aren’t going to change the world with more violence! The divine struggle is in the heart, in the soul. Will you love and see each other as beloved children of God? And if we’re going to believe that Love really wins, Peter, will you do as I do? Go into those places where people are hurting and feel forgotten to remind them that they are never alone, and that no outside force has the power to define who they are in the eyes of God?
After putting Peter straight, Jesus turns to the crowd and offers the greatest challenge: if you want to be one of my followers, you need to take up your cross and follow where I’m going. Into a confrontation in Jerusalem which pits the power of Love against the purveyors of Fear. This is the call of discipleship. “Who do you say that I am?” leads to “Will you follow me?” This invitation to follow as Jesus’ disciple has echoed over time and space to reach us today, two thousand years later.
We are commanded to follow him into places that will confront our comfort zones.
Challenge systems that oppress and demean people of color,
people who are low-income,
people who are disabled.
Ask the questions of why some places are labeled “good neighborhoods.”
Look around and say, “How can I make this a better, more beloved community?”
Right now, our Jewish relatives are in the midst of what are called the Days of Awe, the period between Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. These are days in which Jews throughout the world are called on to do some self-examination and to consider the path they are on and what things they may have done or left undone that they need to account for to have their names written in the Book of Life.
I think a question such as “who do you say that I am” requires us to do our own examination and consideration of what it really means to choose life. As we ponder the question it should lead us to yet-another: who am I as a Christian, a self-proclaimed follower of Christ?
How do I live into the path of discipleship?
Have I misunderstood the expectations of what it is to be a follower?
Do I think Jesus is a nice guy, quiet and docile?
Or is Jesus a radical seeker of justice and a social reformer or something else altogether?
Does he only come out to play with me for an hour on Sunday morning and the rest of the week I just stick him back on the shelf?
However each of us answers this question of “Who do you say that I am” we are probably like Peter only getting the half of it.
The discovery of knowing who Jesus is comes as God keeps working out God’s purpose in us with new people, new encounters, new experiences, new life turns…and not being afraid to grow and change.
Perfect love casts out fear. Stay strong. Keep the faith. And continue to explore and dialogue with Jesus:
“Who do you say that I am?”