Who Do You Say That I Am?

Today’s scripture readings:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon audio:

Pastors will sometimes tell you that a situation they dread is boarding an airplane, finding their seat, and getting settled, only to have the person seated next to them ask within the first few minutes of the flight, “So what do you do?” I’ll confess I sometimes leave my earbuds in when I board a plane to make it look like I can’t hear anything else that’s happening around me, or I bury myself in a book as soon as I board, trying to make myself unavailable to others, just to avoid the possibility of being asked that question, “So what do you do?” I try to avoid being asked that question because if you reply that you’re a pastor, the other person usually makes certain assumptions about what kind of person you might be. One pastor jokes that when he’s in this situation on an airplane and someone asks, “What do you do?”, he likes to get a little creative and say something like, “Well, I work for a global enterprise. We’ve got outlets in nearly every country of the world. We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters. We do marriage work. We’ve got orphanages, feeding programs, educational programs. We do all sorts of justice and reconciliation things. Basically we look after people from birth to death.” And only then does he say, “I’m a pastor. I work for the church.” Maybe that’s how I’ll answer the question next time I’m asked.

Actually, I think the reason I dread telling strangers what I do is that a lot of people have heard a thing or two from people like me about who Jesus is and what Jesus is like. And a lot of the time, what they’ve heard is pretty awful. Some people have said Jesus is a capitalist who desires for each of us to get rich. Others say Jesus stands against LGBTQ people. Still others say Jesus is a white nationalist. So who do you say Jesus is? When strangers find out what I do for a living, I think that’s what they really want to know. With so many other voices making claims about Jesus, who do I say Jesus is? Sometimes—like when I’ve just boarded an airplane—I just don’t have the energy to engage that conversation. Other times, though, I’m not really sure I know my own answer to that question. Who do I say Jesus is?

Who do you say Jesus is? How do you answer that question?

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In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and they give Jesus a report. “Well, some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah. Still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Now, to be associated with any one of those heroes of the faith would be a high honor. But Jesus isn’t just another one of the greats. He’s not just one among many. The people who think Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah—they don’t fully understand who Jesus is. But Peter does. At least in this moment, Peter understands that Jesus is greater than John the Baptist, greater than Elijah, greater than Jeremiah and all the other prophets. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks, and Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Peter gets it right. It’s the answer Jesus is looking for. And because Peter gets it right, he receives Jesus’ blessing. Jesus says Peter is the rock on which he will build the church.

Peter gets the answer right, but it’s clear he doesn’t really get what that means. Jesus knows that being the Messiah means he’ll have to go to the cross. But Peter just can’t accept that. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, he will resist Jesus’ turning himself over to the authorities. The next day he’ll even deny Jesus three times and desert him. Peter can say Jesus is the Messiah, but it’s going to take him awhile to come to terms with just what kind of Messiah Jesus is—to accept that he’s a Messiah who’s going to the cross and expects us to join him there. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t seem to realize what that confession means for his own life.

Peter can say Jesus is the Messiah, but it’s going to take him awhile to come to terms with just what kind of Messiah Jesus is, to accept that he’s a Messiah who’s going to give his life. Maybe that’s why Jesus orders his disciples in today’s reading not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. They should keep that knowledge to themselves until they fully understand what it means.

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Each year we ask our tenth graders in their final year of Confirmation to create a Credo project. “Credo” is the Latin word for “I believe,” and with this project we ask confirmands to put together some sort of visual display that communicates what they believe about who God is and how that shapes their own lives. The point isn’t to get the answers “right.” If that were the purpose of Confirmation, we would just make every student memorize the Apostles’ Creed and sign their name on the dotted line. It’s not just about being able to say, “Jesus is the Messiah.” It’s about wrestling with what that really means for our lives, and allowing that truth to change who we are. To put it in the words of today’s second reading from Romans, we shouldn’t be conformed to the ways of the world, but we should be transformed by our newfound understanding.

So, who do you say that Jesus is? What would you say?

It’s not fair to ask a question I’m not prepared to answer myself, so I’ll go first. Who do I say Jesus is? Jesus is the one who teaches us that giving in to death is the way we discover new life. In other words, he’s the one who teaches us that sometimes we have to give up what we think is rightfully ours; we have to “put to death” our claims to what we think we deserve for the sake of our neighbor. In other words, he’s the one who teaches us that answering violence with more violence only perpetuates injustice; that turning the other cheek brings shame to those who have already struck us once; that loving the unlovable and forgiving the unforgivable dismantles the power of hate. There’s probably more to say about who Jesus is. You probably have things you’d want to add. But that’s a start.

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If that’s who Jesus is, what does that mean for those of us who profess to be his followers?

During the protests in Charlottesville a couple weeks ago, clergy and other faith leaders showed up to be a peaceful presence, resisting violence and trying to create a barrier between white nationalists and counter-protestors. One pastor who had stood arm-in-arm with other faith leaders just a few feet from armed militiamen donning neo-Nazi and neo-fascist regalia, reflected on what she observed: “I saw fear in [their] faces,” she says. “I tried to look them in their eyes and they would not make eye contact. I saw and felt their fear. I felt sadness for them… What lies behind anger is often deep hurt. We are called to compassion and love. Always.” This pastor reminds us what Jesus first taught us: that loving the unlovable dismantles the power of hate; that love is the only way to neutralize hate.

I heard another story this week about Daryl Davis, a black man and blues musician who has spent the past three decades befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Because of the relationships he has built, over 200 white men have left the Klan and disavowed their white supremacist views. It all started one day 30 years ago when a white man entered the club where Daryl’s band was playing. After the performance, the man approached Daryl to say how much he enjoyed the music. The two sat down for a drink and the white man admitted to Daryl that this was the first time he’d ever had a conversation with a black man; and then he confessed that he was a member of the Klan. This newfound friendship shattered the man’s white supremacist ideology. Daryl says this launched him on a mission, going around the country trying to find out from other Klansmen, “How can you hate someone you don’t even know?”

In an interview last week on NPR, Daryl described his approach. He says that when two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting; that if you spend five minutes with an enemy, you will find that you have something in common. Building upon those commonalities, you begin to form a friendship. Loving across lines of division and trying to chart a new way forward disrupts the status quo of fear and hate.

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Those of us who confess Jesus is the Messiah are called to a new way of living, no longer conformed to the world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. We follow Jesus in practicing radical love; love that leads us to uncomfortable, even dangerous places—even to the cross, where hate is destroyed once and for all and we discover new life.

Next time I board an airplane and someone asks what I do, that’s what I’ll say.


Resources consulted:

Dwane Brown, “How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes,” on All Things Considered, August 20, 2017, accessed August 26, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes.

David J. Lose, “Pentecost 11A: Who Do You Say I Am?”, on …In the Meantime, August 18, 2014, accessed August 26, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-12-a-pausing-to-give-thanks/.

Steven Martin, “Reflections from Charlottesville,” from the National Council of Churches, August 14, 2017, accessed August 26, 2017, https://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/reflections-from-charlottesville/.

Brian Orme, “A Woman on the Plane Asked This Pastor What He Does. His Answer Is Shockingly Awesome,” on ChurchLeaders.com, October 3, 2015, accessed August 26, 2017, http://churchleaders.com/daily-buzz/265718-a-woman-on-the-plane-asked-this-pastor-what-he-does-his-answer-is-shockingly-awesome.html.


The featured image for this post, “Jesus Gives the Keys to St Peter” is copyright (c) 2015 Lawrence OP and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.


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