“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Twenty years ago, the world stood and watched as terrorists plowed into the twin towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. We watched as brave men and women intentionally crashed the plane into the grassy field below in order to divert it from causing even greater causality. We watched as firefighters ran toward the blaze, walked up the stairs, and gave their lives so that others might live. We watched as volunteers, including this church’s very own Rev. Judy Greene, flocked to Ground Zero to offer food and water for days, weeks, and months following.
The last woman who was saved from the rubble said she prayed and prayed to Jesus the whole time. She could not see or yell out because her eyes and mouth were full of soot. So she laid waiting, listening to the people and dogs walk above her, praying for 27 hours pinned under heavy concrete. Then finally said to God, I cannot take the pain anymore. It was at that moment that a man, reached down and said, “My name is Paul. You are going to be alright.” He pulled her from the rubble. After a month in the hospital, she recovered with just a limp. Twenty years later after writing a book and searching fervently, she has still not found Paul and believes he was an angel who healed her and saved her on that day. Many found faith in the midst of the tragedy and the horror.
Many, however, shook their heads and walked away from faith and from God. Faith as they understood it could not hold up in the face of such evil, trauma, and loss.
Pastor Andy Stanley is one of my favorite preachers. Several years ago he preached a six part series in which he described the Christianity that people walked away from after 9/11. He argues that it was not actually Christianity that people left, it was what people said about Christianity. They did not leave Jesus, he argues, they left what people say about Jesus.
Jesus asks his disciples two critical questions today: “Who do people say that I am?” And “Who do you say that I am?”
“Who do people say that I am?” The disciples tell Jesus that many people confuse Jesus with John the Baptist, the one who lived a solitary life and ate locusts and honey. The one who was a little weird, but baptized people in the Jordan River. Some people say that he is Elijah, the great prophet of old who did not die in the usual way, but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and has come back as Jesus. Finally there are people who think that Jesus is a prophet. He is a leader who clearly hears the word of God and can speak truth to the current authorities, but he is not the son of God.
Of course none of what the disciples report is true, so Jesus then turns to them and asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Now I know what other people falsely think about me, but what do YOU think about me. And Peter, the impulsive one, immediately responds, “you are the messiah!”
Jesus then goes on to explain that he will undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
At the time the Jews thought that the Messiah would be King David’s successor. The Messiah would be a man as any other, who would gain power and use military force to kill Roman soldiers and drive out the Roman Empire, re-establish Israel’s glory, and usher in a golden age.
So, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Jesus. What was Jesus saying about himself? He had it all wrong was not going to be “handed over to the authorities and killed,” the Messiah was going to be the one in authority doing the killing and the taking over.
As Peter rebukes Jesus, Jesus turns to his disciples and rebukes Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter’s understanding of God was in fact evil.
Neither the people, nor the disciples accurately portrayed who Jesus is and what he came to do. What they said about Jesus was decidedly false.
Who do people say Jesus is today? Who do we say Jesus is? Are we accurately portraying Jesus today?
In his sermon series “Who needs God?” Pastor Andy outlines many things that people say about God that are not actually Christian and that do not hold water in the face of tragedy. I’m just going to focus on a few for us today.
He explains that many people talk about Jesus as if he is a bodyguard. Jesus will protect us from all bad things. Our God is a good God and so he does not allow bad things to happen to good people. But Christianity never claimed that God would protect us from all bad things; in fact the worst thing happened to the best human. At the end of his ministry Jesus is killed on a cross. Christianity, Jesus never claims that God will always protect us from all bad things.
Many Christians talk about Jesus as a harsh critic. These folks say that Jesus loves me, but he doesn’t really like me. Jesus is a harsh critic who induces guilt and shame in all who follow him. Even after people have left the faith, this is one of the hardest misconceptions of God to shake. But this is not one of Jesus’ teachings. This is such a false teaching that in fact, it is the opposite that is true. Jesus did not come into he world to induce guilt, Jesus came into the world to free us from guilt.
Finally, some Christians talk about always feeling the presence of the Lord. We don’t talk about this much in the Episcopal Church, but we do talk about feeling the peace of the Lord. There is a sense in some churches that if you don’t feel God’s peace all the time then you are not really in touch with Jesus. This is not a Christian teaching. Jesus promised to be with us, he promised to give us peace, but he never said you will feel my presence with you all the time. And especially in the face of tragedy and extreme loss this teaching is so harmful. Even Jesus wept over the loss of his friend, even Jesus wondered where God was as he hung on the cross.
These concepts about Jesus, these things that we say about God today are often uninformed, uneducated misinterpretations of what Christianity actually is. At times they are even manipulative. They are a more accurate reflection of unmet needs than they are a reflection of Jesus’ teachings.
Who do people say that Jesus is? Who do we say Jesus is?
If you or someone you know has stopped believing in a God who protects people from all bad things, a God who came to induce guilt, or a God who makes you always feel his peaceful presence, then you or your family member is actually one step closer to honest faith in who Jesus actually is.
So what does Jesus say about who he is today in our Gospel. He tells us that he is the one who will allow us to see what truly matters in life and fight for that no matter what the cost. God will help us see what matters in life and he will help us fight for that.
Jesus tells us that fame and fortune and dominance are things that the world loves. If we run after those things, we will lose everything. If he had been the King Messiah they thought he would be, Jesus would have gathered an army of followers to kill and destroy the Roman oppressors and he would have been no better than the terrorists who gathered an army to kill and destroy the American oppressors.
Jesus did not want fame and fortune and dominance. Jesus did not use power and control to overthrow the oppressors, instead Jesus ran to the cross, to give us all new life.
“Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” The fire fighters walking up the stairwell knew who Jesus actually was.
Following Jesus is not about having a predictable God who will save us from all harm, inflict us with guilt and shame, and give us that warm peaceful presence all the time.
Following Jesus is not about protection from harm, guilt, peacefulness, or gaining power over others. Following Jesus is about handing over all our preconceived notions and misconceptions and desire for control and instead discovering our meaning and purpose in life. Following Jesus is about finding the unique way in which we can give of ourselves, our talents, and our treasure so that others might live.
Jesus is in no way telling us that we too must all be literal martyrs in order to be his followers, but he is saying here that we must lose our false ideas about God, we must let go of the life we think we need in order to gain the life we are meant to live, a life of giving, a life of service for others, a life that crashes into the field, a life that rushes into the fire, a life that scours over the rubble.