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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 27, 2017

 Who Do You Say That I Am?

Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

            I don’t know about you, but I am saving my eclipse glasses for 2024, when it comes around again. You guys look awesome through these glasses!  (I should have tried them much earlier in my time here at First Presbyterian Church.)  How many of you saw the total eclipse this week?  It was an incredible experience, wasn’t it?  It was a moment like no other moment.  Connie and I were actually at the airport, preparing to fly out of town for five days, and so we went a little early, worried about traffic.  (Why do we worry about these things?  You know, it’s kind of like the way people are before snowstorms when they whip everybody up into fear.  We never learn do we?)  We got to the airport early, we checked our bags, and as the eclipse approached, no one was inside the airport!  Everybody was out front of the airport, standing across the front, where normally cars and buses drop people off, and everyone had their glasses on, and was looking up at the sun. 

            It reminded me of my all-time favorite episode of Star Trek.  It aired for the first time on March 15, the Ides of March, 1968.  The episode is called, “Bread and Circuses.”  In the episode they come upon a planet that is uncharted and unnamed.  Spock and Kirk and McCoy beam down onto the planet, and they discover that it is a twentieth-century planet, just like planet Earth, only it is named Magna Roma.  It is a planet where the Roman Empire never fell, and where the Roman Emperor rules the world.  Only instead of having gladiatorial contests in a place like the Colosseum, they now have them on prime time television.  There is a group of people who resist this violent notion of empire-building and they must live in secret, in the shadows, because this Roman Empire does not want peace.  They call themselves Children of the Sun, and the whole time throughout the episode, Spock is perplexed, because while sun-worshipers often existed in the ancient world, none of them were ever committed to peace.  When they return to the ship after establishing peace on Magna Roma (something that sadly has yet to happen like God wants it to here on Planet Earth), Spock still is perplexed over these sun-worshipers that long for peace.  Lt. Uhura says, “Spock, you’re wrong.  You all have it wrong.  They aren’t speaking of the sun in the sky.  They are worshipers of the Son of God.” 

            In that sense they are just like Peter!  And in that sense they just like us, who are part of the Church of Jesus Christ, “the Messiah, the Son of God.”  This passage is a kind of pivot point for Matthew.  It is a key passage in the telling of Matthew’s Gospel.  It takes place, not insignificantly, in Caesarea Philippi, a town that was north of Galilee, right on the border, not totally a part of Palestine, and rubbing against other cultures, other faiths, other religions.  In that setting Jesus asks a question of His disciples for the first time, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

            Jesus is not taking an opinion poll.  I think this is an occasion for Jesus to distinguish Himself from others, and to reveal something of His identity.  They come up with lots of answers.  In the words of F. Dale Bruner, “All of them are spectacular answers of Jesus as the reincarnation of someone else,” some hero who has lived among them.  “Some say, John the Baptist,” recently beheaded.  “Some say Elijah,” whom  the Jewish people expected would return.  “Some say Jeremiah,” one of the greatest and most tortured prophets of them all.  And others say a prophet.  None of the answers were completely disconnected from who Jesus was.  But then Jesus says it.  I think it is the most important question that people must confront, “But you, who do you say that I am?”  And it is Peter, Peter who preaches the first sermon that is ever preached in the history of the church; Peter, who is the first disciple whom Jesus calls; Peter, whom even Paul lists as the primary follower of Jesus....  It is Peter who blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  It is a confession of faith on the lips of Peter that becomes a model for all disciples who will ever follow Peter’s example in the life of the church.  This is what it means to belong to Jesus, to know who He is. 

            Notice how Jesus responds.  He says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.”  Karl Barth loved this statement by Jesus to Peter, because he says, “We have no capability within ourselves innately to know God.”  The knowledge of God, faith, always comes as gift, as God’s revelation of who God is to us.  Faith is a gift that is freely given in love by God, the Holy Spirit.  Barth added that “Jesus Christ is the one sufficient revelation of God.”

            Then, very curiously, Jesus changes Simon’s name.  He says, “You are Peter (“Petros,” “Rock”), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Luther says, “This is always the mark of the church.”  By the way, this is only one of two places in the Gospels where the word “church” (“ekklesía” in Greek) ever is mentioned.  Luther noted how significant it was, that the revelation of who Jesus was caused Jesus to speak about the church.  The two are always linked: Jesus Christ and His Church.  Luther says, “The true church preaches this: Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  The false church tries to preach all kinds of other things beyond and besides Jesus.”  But this is our message, this is what makes us Jesus’ church, and the promise is that if we stick to the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus and His love, the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  This is God’s promise to us through Jesus the Christ, that the last word is a word of love and a word of peace, a word of hope and a word of life, because it is not our word, it is Jesus’ promise, His word to us.

            Then, after this stunning promise, Jesus says something so very interesting.  He tells Peter and the disciples, “Don’t tell a soul about what you have just heard.”  Isn’t it curious?  Theologians have pondered why Jesus said this.  I like Tom Long’s observation in his magnificent commentary on Matthew.  He says, “Peter gets it right, who Jesus really is – the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but he doesn’t get yet how Jesus will fulfill that identity.  Peter still cannot accept the necessity of suffering and of the cross.  In the light of that, what Peter offers is true, but it is but a half-truth.”  A half-truth is no truth at all, so Jesus wants the disciples to say nothing until they see the truth about Jesus revealed on the cross.

            I like the way that Joseph Sittler put it, who taught many years at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.  He says, “The cross is the symbol of our faith, because the whacks of life take that shape.  And if you don’t have a crucified God, you don’t have a big enough God.”

            “Who do you say that I am?”  It is the most important question that Jesus ever asked.



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