When Jesus and his disciples were near the town of Caesarea Philippi, he asked them, “What do people say about the Son of Man?”
The disciples answered, “Some people say you are John the Baptist or maybe Elijah or Jeremiah or some other prophet.”
Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter spoke up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus told him:
Simon, son of Jonah, you are blessed! You didn’t discover this on your own. It was shown to you by my Father in heaven. So I will call you Peter, which means “a rock.” On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have any power over it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth. But he will not allow anything that you don’t allow.
Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Your grandchild asks you: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say?
Your neighbor asks you: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say?
The clerk at the gas station asks you: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say?
Your pastor asks you:” Who is Jesus?” What would you say?
In case you think that will never happen, here’s a fifth opportunity: Ask yourself: “Who is Jesus?” What can you say?
It is common now for pastors to ask confirmands to write their own statements of faith or creed or beliefs in some format. All I ever had to do was recite the apostles’ creed. No thinking, no struggling, no analysis involved. But the few statements I’ve heard by young people are impressive.
To be forced to state your own beliefs clearly is putting you in the position of theologian and scholar. It is asking you to do the same thing that everyone from Paul to to Billy Graham to Robert Bell has done.
The Statement of Faith of our denomination puts it this way:
[We believe that God, ] In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.
The Apostles Creed, recited and professed by many congregations every Sunday, says:
[I believe] in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
The Nicene Creed is another of the many creeds that have been written over the centuries to clarify and proclaim who Jesus is:
[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Being asked to clearly define your exact beliefs about Jesus can put you in an awkward position. I feel a little attacked, a little unsure of myself, a little less confident in my ability to witness to my faith. But we’re in good company. Those creeds and statements of faith were written to help us understand who Jesus is by people who had the time and energy and knowledge to sort out all the information, some of it conflicting. Even the gospel writers had different points of view on the identity of Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew presents the Messiah, the promised Savior, the King of the Jews. The Gospel of Matthew is clear in purpose, and is unique in it’s role in the Scriptures. Matthew shows ages of prophecy to be fulfilled in Christ. He shows the fulfillment of the law in Christ, and God’s redemptive sacrifice fulfilled in Christ. Matthew goes on to show Israel’s rejection of their king, and more, a new people gathered to Christ.
For Mark, Jesus is a somewhat enigmatic figure and that’s very important to his way of telling the story. Jesus is mysterious. Jesus intentionally keeps people from understanding who he really is, at times. At times, Jesus actually silences the demons who would announce his true identity. When he performs a miracle, he tells people, don’t say anything to anyone about what I have done. He even takes the disciples away, off into a corner, and teaches them privately so that others won’t hear and understand the message. He seems to be a very secretive kind of figure in Mark’s gospel.
Now, why does Mark tell the story this way? It seems to be the case that he uses this motif of secrecy and misunderstanding as a way of reconceptualizing the image of Jesus. There’s something about the the previous understandings of Jesus, even within the Christian community, that Mark feels compelled now to correct and to give a new meaning for, and it probably has something to do with the post-war experience. Why had it all happened? What had gone wrong? Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Mark tells the story in such a way to make sense out of that, in the light of the death of Jesus.
In Luke, Jesus emerges primarily as a teacher, a teacher of ethical wisdom, someone who’s confident and serene in that ethical teaching. Someone who is very much interested in inculcating the virtues of compassion and forgiveness among his followers.
John sees Jesus as God in the flesh, as more than man or angel, as equal to God.
If the Gospel writers, who, with Paul are our only source of information about Jesus, see him in different ways, is it any wonder that there are such a variety of followers of Jesus?
We Christians see Jesus as divine, as being God, as part of the Holy Trinity. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet. For Jews, Jesus is a wise teacher.
Albert Schweitzer suggested that we end up seeing a reflection of ourselves in Jesus. We want Jesus on our side, and so he ends up looking like us. For Christians of European descent, we have become accustomed to seeing a blue-eyed blond Jesus, a Jesus who looks very European and not very Jewish. We have remade Jesus in our own physical image, but we also tend to remake Jesus ideologically. Therefore, there is a liberal Jesus and a conservative Jesus. There is a radical Jesus and a reactionary Jesus. Yes, who is Jesus?
Jesus does not make it easy for us to figure out who he is.
In Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus says
“Don’t think that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came to bring trouble, not peace. I came to turn sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. Your worst enemies will be in your own family.”
In John 14:27 we read: I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid.
Eric Barreto, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota suggests that… “In the end, a life of faithful service may be the best answer to that awe-inspiring question: Who do you say that I am?”
I like that because somehow it’s easier to act like Jesus than to try to explain who or what he is. Jesus made it clear in his sermons, in his own actions, that we are not called to be theologians or scholars, but to be disciples. He told us that we can do great works in his Name. If I believe that, if I do great or little works in his name, I am certainly his follower. Come to think of it, Jesus did not write any books about what to believe. Not a single scroll, as far as anybody knows. Jesus practiced what he preached. So, people can ask us what we believe, but if, instead, they see us in action, they’ll know what we believe. No matter what our political beliefs, our social beliefs, whether we are fiscally conservative or flaming liberal, it is our actions that speak for us. Ultimately, our statement of faith is not on paper but is there for all to see in the lives that we have lived. Amen.
EVEN THE HOLIEST OF LABELS
(Matthew 16: 13-20)
We would have held you in the past, Jesus.
We would have kept you in the jars,
however large, from which we’d already drawn,
the ones with the title of prophet, names
synonymous with speech from the voice of God:
names like Elijah, Jeremiah, John,
and others whose words had rung
through streets and hills,
had challenged our minds and hearts
a while ago.
A little bothersome, those prophets,
thorns to the strong while
comforting the weak,
disruptive to the status quo,but familiar, understood;
holding few surprises
and therefore somewhat safer
for the following.
We are not easy with the new, Jesus,
we do not readily welcome change.
We prefer our futures to arrive in dress
of the dreams we dreamed in the past,
tomorrow to be today with
Even the title Messiah,
apparently so daring,
was a word we thought we understood
to mean another David:
the reign of God to mean the reign
of another worldly kingdom.
We were not prepared for the cross.
We were not prepared for the wine
to be new, and to require
such newer skins.
We would have held you in the past, Jesus,
But you are not confined by
the fence of our understanding.
You move beyond the boundaries
Show us afresh the limits of even
the holiest of labels.
Open us to a God who is
full of surprises.
Show us that there are possibilities
we have not imagined.
Show us anew that there is more,
much more, than we may ever know
about what it can mean,
for ourselves and the world,
that God is really with us:
1 Statement of Faith, United Church of Christ, 1959