Let us pray. Holy God, open our eyes to your presence. Open our ears to your call. Open our hearts to your love. Amen.
As a young child, I was told and taught a lot about Jesus from scripture – stories of his birth and ministry, and born and raised in faith at St. George’s Episcopal Church here in Washington, the church of my parents, my grandparents and godparents. I heard a lot about Jesus from my family of faith. And I could tell you with relative certainty, with a child’s heart, what I thought I knew. I sang that Jesus loves me, yes, I know for the Bible tells me so – with a child’s understanding of this love, with enthusiasm, joy. This was the foundation that would prepare me for my own journey of understanding of Jesus’ identity and the development of my ever-deepening personal relationship. This Jesus, Son of Man, the Messiah. Our gospel reading triggered that memory, as I realized that Jesus was helping the disciples in their own process of formation as his followers. We, like them, are confronted this day with two very specific questions from Jesus. First, who do people say that the son of man is? And two, but who do you say I am?
Today’s gospel has fittingly been acknowledged as a pivotal point in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The events to this point have repeatedly pressed the topic of faith and discipleship in the many stories of Jesus’ preaching, teaching and healing. Even foreigners and women, as in last Sunday’s gospel, have expressed great faith in their acknowledgement of this Lord as the agent of God’s mercy. Now it is time for Jesus’s disciples who have followed him in this ministry to come clean and acknowledged the identity of this one who has called them and led them in this mission to the world. Jesus and his disciples have been out on the road making way to Caesarean Philippi, a bustling port city in Galilee. It was the center of worship of Syrian gods, Greek gods, Caesar himself, and home to the elaborate marble temple of Herod the great, father of the reigning ruling Herod.
We do not know why Jesus chose this place, but it is where he decides to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry. The disciples have heard people’s comments and opinions. So now Jesus asks them what they’ve been hearing. Jesus takes this time with his friends to do some public opinion research. What are the people saying about me? Who do people say that the Son of Man is? I have read this passage many times, but I was really struck this time around by the disciples’ response to Jesus’ first question. The disciples answered by naming people who are dead. The disciples have heard that some people suggest John the Baptist, a contemporary of Jesus recently beheaded by Herod. Others, the prophet Elijah, thought to return before the end times. Still others, Jeremiah, another one of Israel’s prophets who had his own tensions with the authorities and suffered greatly for it.
It is as though the people could not imagine the new things happening before their eyes – life-changing life giving, kingdom of God stuff. Jesus neither affirms nor denies any of what the disciples share. He simply listens, allowing his friends to offer up everything they think they know based on other people’s preferences and ideas and thoughts. As if to say, this is a good place to begin. This is where all exploration of faith begins. And in naming what we’ve heard, examining what we’ve inherited and residing back the certainties others have handed on to us, like my own childhood experiences. But at some point, the question of who Jesus is must become personal. So Jesus then asks the more challenging question, “but who do you say that I am?” Now Matthew does not give us any detail about this scene, but I imagine the disciples falling into an awkward silence, avoiding eye contact with their teacher. Thinking, “We weren’t expecting that question.” But there’s no escape. And this is the time where there’s no evasion. Then Simon, son of Jonah, answers with a declaration of faith. That Jesus is in fact much more than anything others have said. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the only begotten of the God, the father. Who would have expected this from Peter, the one who just two chapters earlier failed in his attempt to walk across water to Jesus because his faith faltered, would be the same man who allows his faith to give this answer. It all becomes clear to him. Jesus, you are not simply a prophet. You are not the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah. Like Peter, we come to that moment, that shift, when we move from simply knowing about Jesus, to knowing him. It is all about transformed hearts. Peter answers, and he forms the foundation for the powerful movement that we are inheritors and beneficiaries of. But the answer is just the beginning.
Jesus proceeds to bless him. Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter. And on this rock, I will build my church. Now, both Mark and Luke tell versions of this event. But Matthew is the only one with this blessing of Peter. The only one to even mention the church or to give instruction about how the disciples are to organize themselves once Jesus is gone. So for Matthew, this question of Jesus, isn’t just for Peter. This is a question for the church. A question for us – who do you say I am. Church, as the community of disciples and the kingdom of God are intimately bounded in Matthew’s conception of Jesus’ mission, which from this point on in the gospel is linked to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. The church is what continues Jesus’ mission in the world, centered on ministry with the poor and the hurting and the sick and the forgotten and the rejected.
And it is with this context, we hear Paul’s words to the Romans. They are instructive and take on a particular meaning and urgency for our own time. I appeal to you, therefore brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, Holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Martin Luther King’s sermon in strength to love, based on Romans 12, one through two, captures this text with two powerful words: transformed non-conformity. By conforming, not to the world, but to God, our actions speak much louder than any words could possibly. King notes how the pressure for cultural conformity to condition our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drum beat of the status quo are immense. But the church, that’s you and me folks, needs to discover ways to live much in the world, but not of the world. And King writes, “the hope of a secure and livable world lies with discipline non-conformance, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood, and any cause that concerns the progress of mankind put your faith in the non-conformist.”
We should never abandon the world, nor should we embrace it as it is, but work to bring the kingdom of God to it. Grounded in love, we witness and testify to God’s life, love and presence in our lives and the world. You see, who we say Jesus is matters. It matters for every moment of our individual and collective lives as the family of God. With so much going on in our world, we may find ourselves wondering, who do we say Jesus is, as we confront institutional structural racism and discrimination, who do we say Jesus is as COVID-19 continues to spread in our nation? Who do we say Jesus is as we face deep divisions in our country, who do we say Jesus is when we are faced with decisions that have no easy answers. Who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who we are, how we live and who we will be.
It reveals how we live and what we stand up for. It guides our decisions and determines the actions we take and the words we speak. My sisters, brothers, and siblings, God is still living and moving and working in our world. And as those who proclaim Jesus as Messiah, we have the power to be the voices of forgiveness and mercy and love of justice and compassion of healing and wholeness. The question that Jesus asked the disciples is a question to be asked to day of each one of us. Who do you say that I am? Jesus is looking us all in the eye, patiently waiting for our reply. But this day I can say that Jesus, who loves me, who teaches me to love my savior, my friend and the center of my joy, is waiting for your response. Amen.