"Who do you say that I am?"
September 12, 2021
If you’ve ever been on a company retreat, or started a new school, or been to camp, or most anything else where a bunch of people who don’t know each other get together, you’ve probably participated in one of those icebreakers. One that’s used often but can easily be really hard is the one where you’re supposed to come up with one word or phrase that would best describe you. Have you ever had to do that? What was the word or phrase that you came up with?
But then, there’s sometimes another angle to the question. What word or phrase would other people use to describe you? Sometimes that can be easier, because we have an idea of how people see us. We can get a feel for what they think of who we are by the way we act around them, what our conversations are like, and how they react to who we are. Generally, I think we like to know what other people think of us.
So Jesus’ question to his disciples was really reasonable. “Who do people say that I am?” He’s been preaching and teaching, casting out demons and healing people, when he wants to get a feel for what the people’s impression of him is. How do the crowds understand what he’s doing, and what it says about who he is? And his disciples come back with all kinds of responses they’ve heard. He’s John the Baptist, back from the dead, performing miracles! He’s Elijah, the herald of the end of days! He’s a great prophet, sent by God to bring back God’s wayward people!
Then Jesus makes a turn, and asks his disciples who they think he is. It’s subtle, but the disciples were the ones who had been with Jesus from the beginning. They knew him better than anyone; they’d seen “behind the curtain” and had heard his explanations of the parables and the miracles. They’d been there when he prayed, and when he healed, and when he needed rest. It was like an evaluation of his closest students, to make sure his teaching was sinking in.
So Peter spoke up for all of them—“you are the Messiah.” Not just a former prophet who’s come back from the dead. Not just a latter prophet showing the way. Jesus, Peter said, is the very one who will establish God’s kingdom on earth and bring God’s reign of righteousness and goodness into reality. It’s the right answer, and Jesus responds by telling his disciples not to tell anyone about it.
But then he also knows he needs to clarify some things. “The Messiah” can mean a lot of things, and Jesus wants them to understand what the Messiah is meant to do. He would be betrayed, undergoing great suffering, rejected by the authorities and killed—and then be raised. Now, we’ve talked a lot about how this was not the kind of Messiah that Peter or the other disciples were expecting. They expected a conquering hero, one who would overthrow the hated Romans and establish the just kingdom of God forever in Jerusalem. Betrayal, suffering, death—that wasn’t part of the plan.
Misunderstanding what it means that Jesus is the Messiah didn’t stop happening with Peter, though. That role of a conquering hero, leading victorious armies to a kingdom of justice shows up again and again—from when Emperor Constantine claimed to see a cross in the sun that told him to conquer by this sign; to the justification of Western imperialism that all the theft, murder, and displacement was so the Word of God could be preached to the savages and uncivilized peoples of the world; to the present day when Jesus is used to prop up violence in the name of some ideology or other against others. It’s why days like today are so important to re-root ourselves in what it actually means to be followers of the Crucified Messiah.
We do this thing twice a year where we get out and work with our hands to do God’s work in the community. We sew quilts and pillowcase dresses; we clean up the sacred resting places of the saints and pack lunches for the needy; we do yardwork for those who can’t and write letters to legislators and shut-ins; we take up donations for Haiti and locally homeless families and engage in random acts of kindness for our neighbors. But these actions aren’t just nice things we do for our neighbors. They’re not just stuff we do to feel good about ourselves. When we go out and do our projects for God’s Work Our Hands, we are showing others by our actions who Jesus is.
Because people will see Jesus through you. When you act in the name of Jesus, what you do tells others who Jesus is. When you do your projects this morning, you are answering the question that Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” Jesus is a servant. Jesus is sent into the community. Jesus is oriented to greater love for the neighbor. And Jesus shows that through you.
So be faithful in what you do, knowing that you are showing others Jesus. Remember that your actions speak louder than words, and that when you confess Jesus as the Messiah, you can show others what that actually means when you serve them as Jesus would serve them. And remember that today is when we re-root ourselves in confessing Jesus as the Messiah who calls on us to be God’s hands, to do God’s work in the world, and to name who we say Jesus is by our actions.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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