As I started to post my sermon from this past Sunday, I realized I had not yet posted the one from the week before. The passage is from Matthew 16—a conversation between Jesus and his followers about who they thought he was, which was a fair question, and one we still wrestle with.
When Ginger and I first moved to Boston, I worked at the Blockbuster Video in Charlestown, where we lived. It wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, but I had a chance to talk to people about movies and I enjoyed that. Over time, I came to know some customers that would ask me for recommendations other than what was brand new. I liked being the Movie Guy.
One evening, I approached a customer who had been wandering around the store and asked if I could help her find anything. She seemed a bit taken aback and said, “Oh—no, thanks. I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”
I thought I was the Movie Guy, but she thought I was the help.
I had a small existential identity crisis right there in the Drama aisle. I knew I was not who she thought I was, but I had no idea how to communicate it.
I thought about that experience as I read about Jesus asking the disciples who other people thought he was. By the time this conversation took place, Jesus and his disciples had traveled about Galilee and Judea a good bit. He had preached to large crowds (and fed them), healed people of their diseases, listened to people’s stories, endured the seemingly constant badgering of some of the religious fundamentalists, and persisted with followers he had chosen, but who didn’t always seem to understand what he was trying to do.
I don’t think Jesus was having the same kind of existential crisis that I had in the aisles of Blockbuster, but one day, in the middle of it all, he asked the disciples who other people thought he was.
“Who do people say that I am?”
They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” People knew Jesus had some sort of spiritual power and presence, and they described him using the stories they knew. They weren’t with Jesus every day. They had heard him speak a few times, or perhaps they had seen him heal people and reach out to love those who were deemed unlovable. Who else would do that but a prophet?
In Matthew’s telling, Jesus answered their reply with a more personal question: “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus wasn’t testing their doctrinal orthodoxy, and I don’t imagine was he looking for some kind of personal validation; he was asking for a relational question. He wanted to catch a glimpse of how they understood who he was and what he was doing. It was a question of profound vulnerability.
I remember a pastor friend telling me that he asked his young son one day what he thought his dad did at work. “You talk on the phone and go to lunch a lot,” the boy answered.
For Jesus to ask, “Who do you say that I am?” was a risk—and a way of starting a conversation. “Who, exactly, do you think you are following?” might be another way of saying it, or “Why do you trust me enough to commit to this relationship?”
The question was less about certainty and more about possibility—about imagination.
Peter was the one who piped up: “You are the Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One), the Son of God.”
And Jesus said, “That is the kind of trust on which I will build my church.” Then, as he often did, he began to talk about difficulty, and even about the reality that the life he had chosen was going to get him killed.
(Our lectionary divides the reading between this week and next, so we don’t get the full force of the encounter, so I think it is helpful to look at the whole scene.)
Peter’s image of what it meant to be the Anointed One didn’t have room for suffering. When he called Jesus the Messiah, he must have had a triumphant savior because when Jesus talked about being killed for who he was, Peter was emphatic: “God forbid. We won’t let that happen to you!” And then, just five verses after Jesus had called Peter a rock worthy of a foundation, he looked at him and said, “Get behind me, Satan,” which probably felt a little harsh to Peter—and they were the same words Jesus said when he was tempted in the desert and enticed to forsake his calling so he could be safe and comfortable. And Jesus had more to say:
“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
The conversation had taken quite a turn. As I said, Jesus’ question was less about certainty and more about possibility—about imagination.
So let’s do some imagining of our own: Who do we say Jesus is?
What we think about Jesus is a crucial question that goes beyond doctrine. Who we think Jesus is and who we think we are in relation to him shapes the way we live our lives. It is at the heart of what we mean when we say we choose relationship over doctrine. Both our sign and our stationery say we are “a United Church of Christ.” What do we imagine those words to mean in the way we live out our lives together?
Choosing relationship, whether with God or with one another, means choosing vulnerability. It means choosing to live with what we can’t control. It means choosing the pain of love over the comfort of certainty. And it means trusting one another enough to answer the question of who we think we are, not just once, but over and over as the circumstances of life invite us to deepen our connections in Christ.
If we were to go around the room this morning and each answer who we think Jesus is, we would have a variety of responses. We would learn a lot about each other, as well as a lot about Jesus, I think. And maybe, like Peter, we would get a better sense of what is at stake in our image of Christ and the way that shapes how we see ourselves.
I hope those are conversations we have at coffee hour and other gatherings. I hope we will risk talking to one another about Jesus, not as a matter of intellectual understanding but as people sharing their faith with one another. We need to risk the conversations to be better able to combine our head faith and our heart faith.
In two weeks, I am a part of a panel at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, which is in Woodbridge. An imam, a rabbi, and I have been invited—I know that sounds like the opening to a joke, but it’s a really cool event—we’ve been asked to talk about what is most important to our faiths, and I’m pretty sure all of us are going to point to some version of “Love God with all of who you are and love your neighbor as yourself.” Christianity doesn’t have a corner on compassion or kindness, but our call to love the world comes from Christ. Jesus walked the earth as Love Incarnate, as God’s Anointed One, but instead of seeing that as something to lord over people, he loved them and included them and cared for them and changed them.
How have we been changed by Jesus? Why are we here? Who do we say that Jesus is?
Let us continue to answer those questions out loud, together. Amen.