- Parish House
Sermon for Proper 12: Matthew 16:13-20
The Rev. Sandra Curtis
“Who do people say that I am?” It’s a warm up question Jesus asks his disciples, in the beginning of our gospel reading today, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s the kind of easy leading question teachers ask all the time to move their students along to the bigger questions.
I teach children over at Episcopal Collegiate School as a chaplain. Every week I visit all the lower school classrooms in PreK-3 through fifth grade and teach bible stories. We entertain the question, “Who is Jesus?” all the time. Jesus is drawn, colored, cut, pasted, described, and imagined. usually He comes across with the flavor of a superhero slash Jedi knight. It gets pretty colorful, real fast.
Homespun heroes also make their appearances in my children’s imagination of Jesus. I was teaching a lesson on Jesus blessing the children, remember that story when all the serious adults, like the disciples, are convinced that Jesus doesn’t have time for children. They believe he is too busy with more important things, and instead what Jesus want to do is to be with the children. At the end of me telling that story one little girl who was sitting right next to me on the floor leaned over and said softly, “Jesus is just like my Grandmother”. “Yeah”, I whispered, “Jesus is like my grandmother too.”
I thought that was pretty helpful for me but maybe not for you. Right here we have a beautiful image of Jesus as a King in our stained glass window, maybe that is helpful to you or maybe not.
More than I’d like to admit, the ways that I imagine Jesus are influenced by pop culture and my own personal experiences. Just like the children at my school, I use what is familiar to fuel my imagination about God. So sometimes Jesus turns up in my imagination as a crossover between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Really, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the voice of Jesus sounded like Morgan Freeman.
There are a lots of days when my answers about Jesus do sound like a reflection of what other people say, like the John the Baptist answer, one of the prophets, or maybe even a pop culture icon. I cringe to think I might be getting this question wrong. I think we all want to see clearly on this question. The real question that hangs heavy in the air is not Jesus’ first question in the Gospel, “Who do other people say that I am? ”, but rather the second question, ”Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus’s question can feel like a test and I want to be right, but really I don’t think it’s a pass or fail. This isn’t about having the simple correct answer. After all, Jesus praises Peter’s answer, but just a couple of verses after today’s passage, Peter shows himself to have such a terrible misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be God’s anointed – the messiah or the Christ – that Jesus calls him “Satan.” Yikes!
In first-century Judaism, there was no single understanding of “messiah.” A messiah could be a prophet or a king, perhaps a warrior, or perhaps not. So although Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, the meaning of that role isn’t yet clear – which is probably why Jesus tells the disciples to keep quiet about it. And not only is Peter’s understanding muddled, his faith is not perfect. His faith evolves. Jesus blesses Peter but not because he answers perfectly, or is even close to right all the time.
So although I don’t think it’s about having the right words when we answer this question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” I do think the answer matters. It matters because it’s not Jesus who needs this confession. It’s Peter. It’s us. Jesus doesn’t ask us to confess who we believe he is for his sake, but rather for ours, that we might be caught up in the power of his love and life.
For many the question of belief in Jesus raises the question, “What difference does it make what we believe, as long as we’re doing good, as long as we’re helping people in need and doing justice?” Well, “What difference does it make to whom?” Does it make any difference, what I believe, to the people I’m helping? Probably not, unless something of the spark or passion of my faith happens to light a flame in them, as well.
Does it make any difference to God? I’m not sure; this may surprise you, but, I suspect it doesn’t particularly impress God if I recite the creeds or have a handy answer about who Jesus is, because it does not change God’s love toward me at all.
Does it make any difference to me? It makes all the difference in the world. When I struggle to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” My answer gets right to heart of all I imagine Jesus to represent and as a follower of Christ what I believe God is like.
My messy confession of who Jesus is has something to do with God showing us how much God loves us and loves all people. God is so immense that we can have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. For me, it’s Jesus who reveals God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer, a heart that is upset and angry when violence breaks out in our streets and hatred is given a place to fester in our conversations and institutions, a heart that is torn up in grief as we continue to allow hatred to infect our world and build walls to divide us, a heart that loves us like an adoring parent or grandmother and is always eager to embrace us in grace, forgiveness, and love.
Jesus also came to show us what’s possible for human beings. And so rather than give in to the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Rather than judge, Jesus showed mercy and compassion. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, invites us to act, to live the love he showed, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.
And that answer – that belief – makes all the difference t o me , because it is the source of my courage. It is my inspiration, my motivation, and my hope in the darkest of nights. It is not logical or rational and it feels like a gift from God – a mysterious gift that I could not study for or earn or achieve. And that answer shapes my answer to all the other questions I face in life.
(For Evening Baptisms)
Our confession of Christ has a power that helps to root us in the love and possibility in all that Jesus offers, that shapes us over a lifetime of answering, “Who do you say that I am?” So in few minutes we celebrate the joy of baptism for Isabella and Georgia. We will confess our own faith in Christ and embrace these young Christians as they get going in their own amazing journey of faith. Like them we benefit from those who have walked this path before us and those traveling with us. May heaven’s gift of Peter’s quick confession be yours, Godspeed Isabella and Georgia.