SERMON A Pentecost L.21 2017 King of Kings, New Windsor August 26-27, 2017
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus asks his disciples this question on the way to Caesarea Philippi. Their answer? “Some say: You are John the Baptist—one who calls us to repentance and to forgiveness of sins. Others say: You are Elijah—a prophet, one who speaks and acts in the name of the Lord. Still others say: You are one of the prophets—like Amos or Micah, Hosea or Malachi, prophets who call us to righteousness and justice.” And then Jesus asks the question again, in a way that matters differently: “But who do you say that I am?” “After all,” he implies, “you are the ones who should know who I am.”
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus asks the same question of his disciples who are on the way to Monroe or Montgomery—or Walden or Washingtonville—or Central Valley or the City. Who do people in your community say that Jesus is? Your workplace? Your family? If Jesus asked you, “Who do people say that I am?” how would you answer? You might think of a neighbor who sees Jesus as a prophet, one who speaks the word of the Lord. Or of a co-worker who thinks of Jesus as a charismatic political leader, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Mahatma Gandhi or Aung San Suu Kyii. Or of a cousin for whom Jesus is a religious leader who helps us to see God—or ourselves—or the world—in new ways, like Joyce Meyers or Martin Luther or the Dalai Lama. Or of a friend who sees Jesus as primarily a “Great Physician” who helps people find healing, like Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton—or Oprah Winfrey.
And what if Jesus turned the question to you? If Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” what would you say? Perhaps you would say, “You are Chelsea Manning—a whistleblower, a truth-teller.” Or maybe you would say, “Mother Theresa or Betty Friedan or Leymah Gbowee—a drum major for justice, a renewer of society”. Or “Desmond Tutu or Deepak Chopra—one who shares spiritual wisdom”. Or, “Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a martyr for the faith”. Indeed, we might identify Jesus as any or all of these: a prophet, a charismatic leader, a theologian, a healer, a truth-teller, a justice-doer, a spiritual guru, a martyr—and certainly more than all of that, as well. How do you answer Jesus’ question, dear friends? Who do you say that he is?
Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question is bold; he seems to know that he has the “right” answer. Perhaps he cheated for this test by reading the Gospel of Matthew ahead of time; after all, the writer of Matthew answers Jesus’ question in the very first verse of his gospel, chapter one, verse one: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah.”
At any rate, Peter answers Jesus boldly and simply: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirms Peter’s confession: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah.” Then he “sternly [orders] the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah”. “From that time on”, the writer of Matthew tells us, “Jesus [begins] to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Hearing this bad news, Peter rebukes Jesus. This is not the path he envisions for his Messiah.
For Peter, the way of Messiah is one of power. In the words of New Testament scholar Ched Meyers, when Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, he points to the Hebrew Bible’s vision of “a royal figure who will restore the fortunes of Israel; [his confession is tantamount to saying:] the revolution is about to begin”. When Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, he identifies him as a political liberator and an earthly ruler and assigns him accolades of power, authority, respect, and prestige.
We can’t really fault Peter, you know. So far, he has not encountered any other models of messianic leadership. His Jewish upbringing has not prepared him to see the Messiah as anything other than a royal leader. Nor has his own journey with Jesus. So far, up to this sixteenth chapter of Matthew, Peter has come to know Jesus as one who is in charge, who is blessed by God, who endures temptation, proclaims the good news of God, calls people to follow him, exorcises demons, heals illness and infirmity, feeds hungry people, controls the weather, amazes his listeners with the wisdom in his parables, walks on water, and even raises the dead.
This is the kind of Messiah Peter can get behind, the kind he can follow, the kind he can confess. This is the sort of Messiah to whom the people of Israel have looked for deliverance for centuries, one who will usher in the new reign of God in which all will be made well. Indeed, Peter has seen signs of this new reign in the teaching and preaching and healing of Jesus. He really has no reason to suspect that the reign of Jesus will be about anything other than power and authority, respect and prestige, for he has seen Jesus’ power in teaching and preaching, feeding and healing.
Imagine Peter’s shock when Jesus begins to reveal his true messianic identity, an identity not of power and authority, respect and prestige, but rather one of suffering and rejection and death. Take a moment to ponder that. This is the first time that Jesus reveals his true identity to the disciples. So far on their journey together they have come to know him as a powerful, take-charge, “got it all together” kind of guy, but as soon as Peter calls Jesus “Messiah”, as soon as he confesses his faith in Jesus as “the Son of the living God”, a royal figure who will restore the fortunes of Israel, Jesus tells the disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised.” No wonder Peter is offended. No wonder he takes Jesus aside to rebuke him. This is incomprehensible, that the one who is “Messiah”, the one who has been ushering in the reign of God by mighty words and mighty deeds, will not only NOT get the respect due him but will, instead, undergo suffering and rejection and death. It turns out that the disciples are on the way, not to see Jesus assume the throne, as they expect, but rather to see him die. Jesus is not who Peter thinks he is; nor is he who Peter wishes he would be. Here is the offense and the irony for Peter; not only is Jesus NOT the Messiah Peter wants him to be, but he will suffer and be rejected and be killed.
There is a greater irony in this text, however, an irony that is contained in Jesus’ very question itself. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “Messiah”, and you and I might answer “Redeemer” or “Savior” or “Friend” or whatever titles we have collected on coffee cups or afghans or in liturgies or hymns, but in the end there is an answer to Jesus’ question embedded right in the question itself. Let me explain. In today’s Exodus story of Moses and the burning bush, we hear Moses asking for God’s name, and then we hear God’s answer: “I AM who I AM.” In Hebrew, it’s Yahweh, spelled: Y-A-H-W-E-H. Sometimes God’s name is translated, “I will be who I will be.”
The name God announces to Moses actually offers us very little understanding of God’s identity. “I AM who I AM.” “I will be who I will be.” Rather slippery, isn’t it? God will not be pinned down. The name God gives Moses is not “Mighty One” or “Most High” or “Warrior” or “Peacemaker”, but “Yahweh”—“I am who I am”. The only clue we get to God’s identity or God’s character in the name God gives to Moses is that God is ineffable: indescribable, inexpressible, unutterable, unspeakable, beyond words. God cannot be contained in our questions or our answers; God cannot be confined by human language. In fact, in Jewish tradition, this name, Yahweh, is considered so holy that it cannot be spoken by human tongues. Whenever a Jew reads the word “Yahweh” out loud from the Torah, he substitutes the word “Adonai”. God, AKA the Lord, the Most High, Rock, Fortress, Liberator, Sovereign, is, in the end, simply “Yahweh”—“I am who I am”.
Jesus’ question to the disciples—“Who do you say that I am?”—recalls God’s enigmatic answer to Moses’ question. Whatever we call Jesus, no matter how many names we find for him, there remains in Jesus’ question the echo of the eternal mystery which cannot be explained away. In the end, Jesus’ question contains as much answer as you and I get on this side of the resurrection.
There is one more irony in this text. After Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, after Jesus explains his messianic leadership as one of suffering, rejection, and death, after Peter rebukes him, Jesus rebukes Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. But Jesus doesn’t send Peter away. Even when Peter misses the point, even when he doesn’t get it, even when he sets his mind on human things rather than divine things, even when he rebukes Jesus, Jesus doesn’t abandon him. Jesus’ rebuke itself is an invitation for Peter to follow: “Get behind me. Not in front of me. Behind me. That’s where you need to be to follow me.” Even though Peter misunderstands his own confession of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, even though he misinterprets Jesus’ mission and ministry, Jesus doesn’t send him away. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to get behind him, to walk in his footsteps, to follow him.
That was good news for Peter, and it’s good news for me—and for you. You may not be able to answer the question about Jesus’ identity. You may not know who Jesus is, but he knows who you are. You may not know his name, but he knows yours. You may seek to turn him aside, but he will not be dissuaded from the way of suffering and rejection and death. This is good news, because when you are suffering, when you are rejected, when you are dying, he will not turn away from you. Jesus continues with you on the way to New Windsor or Newburgh—or wherever you are headed today. He walks with you on the way you’re going, even when it is the way of suffering and rejection and death, and he says: “Let’s walk this way together. Get behind me, dear brother. Follow me, dear sister. I know the way. I’ve been there before. You won’t get lost, because I’ve already traveled this way. I won’t leave you on your journey, no matter how dangerous it gets. I’ll go with you. I am with you. I AM.” AMEN