August 27, 2017 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Well, who do we say that Jesus is? For two thousand years, we’ve known Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question. But how we answer it today—to ourselves and to the world—becomes the difference between proclaiming a message of real, transformative hope and peddling a salve that does little more than make us feel better.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. By this point in his ministry, the crowds had seen and heard a lot from Jesus. Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist, he had proclaimed a message of repentance. He had preached challenging messages about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek and had encouraged his followers to practice their piety in secret and live a simple but holy life. He had healed the sick, cleansed the leprous, and raised the dead. He had announced God’s impending judgment on the wicked and faithless and predicted struggle and hardship for his followers. As we heard last week, his teachings on ritual purity and sabbath observance had run him afoul of the religious authorities, who didn’t like how popular this rugged, charismatic rabbi was becoming. They demanded that he give them a sign of authority by which he was making all of these radical claims, but Jesus wasn’t interested in proving himself to them.
It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the people had lots of different ideas for who Jesus might be. Some said that he was another John the Baptist, and in some ways that was right. Jesus did begin his ministry by taking up as his own the Baptizer’s call to repentance and the proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom. Others said that he was another Elijah, which tells us what sort of hope that they had in mind for Jesus. Elijah was a great prophet and miracle worker who had fed the hungry and brought back a lifeless boy from the dead. But he had also fought against God’s enemies, killing the wicked prophets and priests who had gone after false gods. I can see some resemblances there. Others claimed that Jesus was another Jeremiah, which is an interesting thought. Mark and Luke also tell this story of Peter’s confession, but they never mention Jeremiah as a possible mold for Jesus and his ministry. Jeremiah was the “weeping prophet,” the one who decried the wickedness of the world and predicted God’s coming judgment. That sounds a little like Jesus, who said that unrepentant cities like Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum faced a future worse than Sodom. And still other people didn’t have a good answer. They could tell that Jesus was like one of the great prophets of old, but they didn’t want to pin him down and give him a label, which is to say that they couldn’t make up their minds.
Then, Jesus cut through all of the speculation and stripped away the comfort that comes from being asked what other people think and said, “But who do you say that I am?” The “you” in that question is emphatic. Linguistically, it’s an unnecessary addition that feels a little like a finger-point: “Who do you say that I am?” Actually, the word is plural—it’s “y’all”—which means that Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “But who do y’all say that I am?” And Peter, never one to hold his tongue, said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Not a prophet. Not a teacher. Not a healer. Not another signpost pointing us toward God’s kingdom. But the one whom God has sent into the world to bring that kingdom to its fulfillment.
When Jesus asks us, “Who do y’all say that I am?” are we bold enough to say, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God?” When the world looks at us and asks, “Who is Jesus?” are we bold enough to say, “He is the one whom God has anointed to bring the fullness of God’s reign here on earth,” or do we give the kind of answer that the world has come to expect from people who claim to be Christians?
There are too many people in the world who talk about Jesus as if he were just another John the Baptist. They tell the world to repent because the kingdom of God is coming but don’t have much else to say. Repentance is part of Jesus’ message, but there is more to it than that. There are too many people in the world who talk about Jesus as if he were just another Elijah. They celebrate his mighty acts of deliverance for God’s chosen ones and hold him up as the champion who will defeat the enemies of God. And he is a miracle worker, and he is the champion of God’s people, but the salvation he brings doesn’t belong exclusively to the people who look like us and think like us and worship like us. The salvation he brings is manifest to those who know what it means to say that God loves all people without exception.
There are too many people in the world who speak of Jesus as if he were another Jeremiah. They make Jesus the one who cries out in judgment against the wickedness of this world and who brings destruction to so-called “evil” people and places like the gay community in San Francisco or New York during the 1980s and the “ungodly ones” who lived in the Indian Ocean basin when it was hit by the tsunami and the sinners who loved to revel on Bourbon Street who died at the hands of Hurricane Katrina. Jesus does talk about judgment and the coming of God’s kingdom, but to align terrible tragedies like those with the one who came to bring light and life to the world might be a comfort to the ones who hold such repugnant views, but it is in no way the good news of Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that so many people in the world cannot tell who it is that Christians are really following? Is it any surprise that so many don’t know who Jesus really is?
The world needs hope. The world needs a bedrock of unassailable hope that not even the gates of hell can prevail against. The world needs the good news of God’s transformational love in Jesus Christ, and the world isn’t going to get it until we are clear about who Jesus really is. We must proclaim that that he is more than a prophet, more than a teacher, more than healer. We must declare that he is God’s Messiah, the Son of God, the one who brings God’s reign to the earth. Then and only then does our confession become a foundation upon which true hope and love can be built. Jesus didn’t come and live and die and be raised again to be another signpost that points the world toward the truth of God’s reign. He came to bring that reign—that kingdom—to the earth. He came so that God’s will might be done on earth just as it is in heaven. If we tell ourselves and the world that Jesus is another prophet who came to show us what the world could be like, then we will have missed the point completely. Jesus is the one who makes that “could be” a reality, and, when those who follow him confess him to be the Christ, they become the rock on which that kingdom comes—not someday but now.
The future is too far away and the hope that we have is too precious for us to wait any longer. Tomorrow isn’t soon enough for God’s kingdom to come. Our confession that Jesus Christ is the Messiah means that God’s kingdom has already come. Today is the day for healing and forgiveness. Today is the day for freedom and release. Today is the day for return and renewal. Today is the day when the poor are made rich, when the weak are made strong, when the dead receive new life. God’s kingdom is coming today. Jesus isn’t pointing us to it; he’s bringing it to us right now. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks us. Is he another prophet telling us to wait a little bit longer for justice and peace? Or is he the one who brings that justice and peace to us today? Who do you say that I am? Who do we say that Jesus is?
If we join with Peter and say that Jesus is the Messiah, then we have decided that we aren’t waiting for anyone else. If we say that he is the Christ, then we are declaring that his ways are God’s ways and that we won’t live any longer in a world where those ways do not reign. It’s a risky thing to look at the one who champions the cause of the poor, who welcomes the stranger, who lifts up the downtrodden, and who always makes room for the dregs of society and say that this is God’s Messiah, this is the one who is bringing God’s kingdom to earth, this is the one whom we will follow as our Lord. But that’s exactly who Jesus is. Is he the Messiah whom we are willing to follow?