Sermon: “Who Do You Say that I Am?” (August 24, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Who Do You Say that I Am?” (Matthew 16:13-17)
August 24, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few months ago a friend sent me the following account about a hilarious email miscommunication:

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon twenty years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules—so, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the next day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to email his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her address, and without realizing his error, sent the email to someone else… Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. Expecting comforting messages from relatives and friends, she checked her email but after reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. Her son rushed into the room and saw this on the computer screen … To: My Loving Wife Subject: I’ve arrived I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was. P.S.—Sure is hot down here!☺

In today’s gospel passage Jesus wants to makes sure there is no miscommunication when it comes to who he is: the Son of God.

While travelling in the region of Caesarea Philippi Jesus, referring to himself, asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

And as was the case in Jesus’ day, today there are also many ideas about who Jesus is. We are often tempted to create our own version of Jesus who will comfortably fit into our worldview—Liberal Jesus, Conservative Jesus, Hippie Jesus, Reduce-your-carbon-footprint Jesus, Old School Jesus, Hipster Jesus, Jesus as CEO, Jesus the Great Moral Teacher, Militant Jesus, Jesus the Misunderstood Prophet, Jesus the Philosopher, Jesus the Life Coach, Rock Star Jesus—it goes on and on.

Some view Jesus as their personal buddy—“just me and Jesus”—like “Buddy Christ,” an action figure of Jesus smiling and winking at you, pointing to you with one hand and giving you the thumbs up with the other.

I moved here from Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, who considered Jesus simply a wise moral teacher and famously created his own “Jefferson Bible” which excluded anything from Scripture that pertained to Jesus being the Son of God. More recently the divinity of Jesus has been utterly rejected by atheists like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens.

And there are some people in the pews of churches who are there for social or “spiritual” reasons but who do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. At a parish I served in some years ago an elderly lady, a very wealthy Episcopalian from birth, was nearly visceral in my office as she explained to me that Jesus was not the Son of God, not by a long shot, and she later patronizingly assured me, “But I understand if that’s what you think, because it is your job.”

But in today’s passage, Jesus, after listening to the disciples’ response about the various opinions of whom people said he was, gets to the heart of the matter as he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”—and Jesus assured him that he was correct.

But Jesus also asks you and me that same question, “Who do you say that I am?”

And that is a question that each of us has to answer at some point, in our heart, because as singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee puts it, “In your heart, that’s the place where you must answer the phone” (from the song “It’s Not Bothering Me” from the 2002 Vigilantes of Love album Summershine).

A few months ago I was in England with my daughter Cate and we took a bus from London to Oxford, and in Oxford we walked through the famous pub, The Eagle and the Child, where J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other members of the literary group known as “The Inklings” regularly met to talk over a pint (or several pints). In his classic book, Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis addresses the idea of Jesus being who he said he was, the Son of God:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about (Jesus): I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic —on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to…Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God” (Mere Christianity, p. 54-56).

Liar, lunatic, or Lord— according to Lewis, those are the three choices we have as far as identifying Jesus goes.

Now there are some, like Bart Ehrman, religious professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who dismiss Lewis’ thinking as naïve and who cite a potential fourth “L” to classify Jesus: legend—but I think Lewis is right. Jesus is not a legend; he is a historical figure, who entered human history.

For the record, I want to be clear today that I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe exactly what we proclaim each week in the Nicene Creed—“in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”

But the Bible does not give us a nice neat bullet-pointed list of logical reasons why we should believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Instead, the Bible connects who Jesus is, the Son of God, with what he did on the cross, save us.

The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves” and Jesus’ being the Son of God is directly connected to his saving work on the cross.

In fact, after Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God, what does Jesus immediately begin emphasizing? His saving work on the cross, as Matthew puts it: “From that time on, Jesus began 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” (16:21).

In addition to Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God there are only two other passages in Matthew’s account of the gospel during which people proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God—first, when Jesus walked on the water and saved the disciples from the life-threatening storm and the disciples worshipped in response, “Truly you are the Son of God” (14:33); and second, at the cross, where Jesus died to save all of us from our sins, as the centurion and others at the moment of Jesus’ death proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).

And even after his resurrection, when Thomas doubted that Jesus was who he said he was, how did Jesus respond? With a logically convincing argument or a resume proving his divinity? No, Jesus responded to Thomas by pointing to his saving work on the cross, by pointing to the scars of his unconditional love.

And yes, this is true universally, but it is also true personally and individually, as we see in the Apostle Paul’s words in his Letter to the Galatians: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20).

And I can only speak for myself, but like many others, I too, a sinner saved by grace and grace alone, have personally experienced the unconditional love of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that’s why I believe it, not because “it’s my job.”

If you could travel back in time to a specific moment in your life, what moment would you choose? What moment would you chose to relive or experience again? What moment would you choose to do something differently or perhaps say something differently?

In the 2013 film About Time a young man named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and his father (Bill Nighy) have this ability to travel back in time, but only to specific moments in their life. And although they can travel back to specific moments in their lives, this ability to time travel does not make them exempt to dying because they still age and will die when it is “their time.”

Toward the end of the film the father, who is suffering from a terminal illness, and his son are playing ping pong for the last time—and they both know it—and the father wins—“I won! I haven’t won in years!” he exclaims.

Tim replies, “You finally got good!”

“What’s my prize,” his father asks, “apart from an Olympic gold medal of course?”

Tim responds, “A kiss will have to do.”

“A kiss?” his father pauses, “Ah, this is it, then?”

“This is it,” Tim softly says, “It’s my last bit of extra time.”

Tim puts the paddle down, walks around the table and gently kisses his father on the cheek. His father pauses and beams, “My son.” Tim, eyes watering, returns the smile, “My dad.”

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is indeed the Son of God—and although he transcends time, he chose to enter a specific point in time and kiss a guilty world in love—and in dying on the cross he loved you and gave himself for you.

At the end of the day, yes, it matters how you answer the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” but what matters even more is the question “Who does Jesus say you are?” Based on his death on the cross, a death that is anything but legendary, Jesus beams and says, “My brother… My sister…you are loved.”

Amen