“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 18, 2018: Lent 1
For the next five Sundays I want to think with you on how we might answer the question Jesus puts to the disciples in our gospel reading today: Who do you say that I am? Why for the next five Sundays, you ask? Well, because we are now in the liturgical season of Lent. Lent was a time in the early church when men and women prepared themselves to be baptized on Easter Sunday. Lent was a time for these folks to become fully aware of the demands of Christian faith, and to understand what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord and Savior. Over the centuries, Lent has become a time for all church people to deepen their faith. Some people give something up for Lent; some people take on something extra for Lent. Some people commit to more robust prayer practices, some spend more time serving the church or the community. There is no right or wrong way to do Lent, just as long as you are doing something to increase your awareness of God. These next five weeks will lead us to the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, so it is a wonderful time for us to contemplate together who Jesus is. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”—our answer, we will find, is just as important as theirs.
Joan Osborne sang a song back in the 90s that very quickly got the attention of the Christian community. In the song the rocker asks, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” It goes on: “If God had a face, what would it look like? And would you want to see it if seeing meant that you would have to believe in things like heaven and Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?” Unfortunately, the attention Joan got from the Christian community for her song was not the good kind. Many sincere believers were offended by the song, taking it as a putdown to faith. Others thought that meeting God as a stranger on the bus, as a slob like one of us, was on or just across the borderline of blasphemy.
However, if we take seriously the central affirmations of the Christian gospel, the song is actually right on point. The central message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has met us in a human being—in Jesus of Nazareth. In the Nicene Creed we affirm, “For us an for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” In the Apostles’ Creed we affirm, “I believe in Jesus Christ God’s only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” Two of the four accounts of Jesus’ life begin with the story of his human birth, and all four are built on the presumption that God took on human flesh and lived among us. So why did folks have an issue with Joan Osbornes’ song?
Well, because we do not initially meet Jesus as a human being, and that makes it hard for us to imagine what he was truly like. We encounter Jesus in the lofty doctrines of the church, in the grandeur of stained glass windows, and in pieces of classical art where a halo hovers over his head. You probably have never seen a stranger on the bus with a halo over his head—at least, I haven’t. This makes it hard for us to humanize Jesus. The first followers of J
Jesus had a leg up on us in this. These men and women met Jesus. And it was all awe and wonder. Where did he get the extraordinary authority to speak and send demons running? Where did the power come from that he used to heal the paralyzed and blind? How is it that his touch, his prayers, could bring healing to people who had no hope? This wonder, this awe, has slowly leaked out of us over the years with commentary and interpretation and just by hearing the stories over and over again. Time has also instilled in us a fear of making Jesus too human, too much like one of us, too tangible. Christians across the broad spectrum of theological convictions have placed Jesus in a glass case, sealed away airtight from any danger of being corrupted or damaged.
The problem with that is that Jesus had no interest in being locked away and simply admired. Jesus spent each day of his ministry getting his hands dirty in the complexities of human life, so much so that some thought his power was from the devil. Others saw him and thought he was just another in the line of Israel’s prophets. Some of the disciples thought that he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist who had been recently beheaded by Herod. There was speculation everywhere. Finally, according to Matthew, there came a time in the experience of his closest followers when Jesus point blank asked them, “How about you, who do you say that I am?” We might not initially think this question is dangerous, but it really is. This question is an invitation to break the glass case and reach out and touch Jesus and become even more engrafted into his body and mission.
Peter answers with the biggest thing he can think of, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That makes sense. Peter lived in a society that eagerly waited for the coming of God’s messiah. Peter lived in a society where there were many gods to worship, each with their own promise of wealth or health or influence. Peter also lived in a society heavily dominated by Rome, with its love of burning people of faith at the stake. His confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, put Jesus above it all. This elevated Jesus to more than just a good man and put him on the same plain as the God who made the heavens and the earth. This put Jesus above all of the gods whose temples littered the countryside. This especially elevated Jesus above the Roman empire. Lifting Jesus to this place of prominence, to this place of power and might, Peter could have hope, and a lot of it. Peter’s confession was more than just nice words about Jesus—it was freedom, it was peace, it was hope that nothing, no one, other than Jesus could claim power over his life. That’s the power of confessing Jesus; that is the power of answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, has lost a lot of its bite in our day and age, though. It is not wrong; in fact, it is a biblically accurate way to talk about Jesus. It is just not the most powerful thing we can say about our Lord in 2018. We are not a people looking for the Messiah, because he has already come. We do not walk by temples to other gods on a daily basis. We might not always like the government, but the government is not at this point pulling us from the pews and burning us on Maine street. This means that we have to dig deeper and further and resist the urge of taking Peter’s answer as our own—we have to find a meaningful way to describe who Jesus is to us. The same freedom, the same peace, the same hope that Peter received is available to each one of us…so where do we start? Maybe a story will help.
There is a story told of the Polish pianist, Ignacy Paderewski. A mother wanted to encourage her young son to continue his piano studies, so she bought two tickets to a Paderewski performance. When the night arrived she found their seats near the front of the concert hall and both mother and son marveled at the size of the piano on the stage. Soon the mother found a friend, and while the two visited, she did not notice the boy slip away. When the clock struck 8:00pm, the house lights dimmed, the spotlights came on, and the piano was bathed in light. The audience gasped…sitting there at the piano was not the iconic Paderewski, but the woman’s son. As he began to pluck the keys in a rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, the crowd roared…the mother hid her face in shame. But before she could rush to the stage to retrieve her son, Paderewski himself appeared and moved quickly towards the piano. “No, don’t quit, keep on playing,” he whispered to the boy. Reaching past him with his left hand the Master began improvising the bass part, and then with his right hand, he reached around on the other side of the boy and began playing runs on the high end of the keyboard. The crowd was spellbound and the piece concluded in thunderous applause as the boy announced, “I didn’t know I could do that.”
That is incarnation. This may be the most powerful thing we can say about Jesus in our time and place: he is incarnate, he is present. We are human beings: we never feel worthy enough, we never feel good enough, we never imagine that we can do great things, we never think there is enough forgiveness to go around. The good news of our faith in Jesus Christ is that by the miracle of grace, it is these very human bodies and minds that God choses to love, and use for building the kingdom here and now. God inspires us to and pushes us towards that work not by dictating to us from on high, but by taking on our human flesh in Jesus to show us the way. In Jesus, God whispers in our ears, “No, don’t quit, keep on playing,” and by the power of the Holy Spirit we can and we do. Jesus means that God lovingly embraces us, graciously inspires us, and wonderfully takes our feeble efforts and turns them into something great.
When we don’t think there will be enough to feed every hungry mouth, Jesus is present to multiply the little that we have. When we wonder how the church will stay afloat, Jesus is present to remind us that its his church, not ours. When we think there is no hope, no goodness, no light left in the world, Jesus is present and pounding through the darkness in first responders, in generous givers, and in faithful pray-ers. Just when we think that we are about to tip too far and go careening over the edge, Jesus grabs us by the hand, draws us back, and plants our feet on solid ground. When we are lonely, when the naysayers are loud in our ears, when it seems that life will be nothing more than an uphill, upstream battle, Jesus is there. Jesus is incarnate—Jesus is God with us, and in Jesus, God is present, active, speaking, listening, giving, healing, and guiding everything to its good and divine purpose. Our faith does not rest on the hope that Jesus is like God; our faith rests on the hope that God is who and what we see in Jesus: compassionate, forgiving, accepting, welcoming.
At this very moment Jesus is asking each one of us, “Who do you say that I am?” He’s not asking because he wants to check our biblical knowledge. He’s not asking to make sure we possess orthodox doctrine and theology. He’s not asking to puff himself up. No, Jesus asks us to confess who we believe he is so that we can be caught up in the power of his love and life, so that we can experience the truly abundant life he came into the world to give. And it won’t stop there. No, it won’t just result in changes in our hearts in minds—it will radiate out from within each us, out into a world so desperately in need of a good word, a good touch, words of good news. The German medieval mystic Meister Eckert once said, “We are all mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.” As we confess Christ, may it be so in here (heart), in here (church), and out there (world). Amen.