A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
16th September 2018
Jesus asked his disciples, “who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.”
Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
There’s always a lot of chatter on the streets about who Jesus is.
Everyone has an opinion: the bishop in the cathedral, the religious speaker on Thought for the Day, the twenty-something blogger, the woman who does your hair.
“who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked. Thumb through the Gospels and you can’t help noticing that people say a lot of things about Jesus. He is the King of the Jews. He is Mary’s Son. He is the Light of the World. He is a prophet without honour in his own country. Jesus is the one who can heal your child, cast out your demon, forgive your sins, lead your revolution. Jesus is the one you invite to dinner and then invite to leave town. He is a Messiah, a prophet, a rabbi, a pain in the neck. He is alive, he is dead, he is risen, he will come again.
Ask around today and you can’t help noticing that people say a lot of things about Jesus now too: theologically, historically, sociologically, pastorally, colloquially, politically, biblically, you name it. They say it out loud, and on street corners. They say it across the kitchen table and on the internet. They say it in classrooms and in pulpits. And in just about any context you can imagine, people say all kinds of things about Jesus because nearly everybody has an opinion. You don’t have to be a follower of Jesus to understand that the man is big. He is about as influential a figure as the planet is likely to see.
So people say a lot of things about Jesus. They describe him, decry him, defend him, deconstruct him. They explain him, complain about him, and simply just mention his name whenever a moment of frustration comes. Jesus is easy to talk about in this world. Pick your context, pick your method, and go.
“Who do people say that I am?”
In the church this can get tricky. We have boundaries. We have orthodoxies. We have some limits to interpretation. We even have exams so we can monitor the way we educate our clergy and lay ministers. People say a lot of things about Jesus, but you can’t if you want to be a priest, not during an exam anyway. People training for ordination discover this in their first theology class. They discover it when they are being assessed for ordination. You have to learn the doctrine of a particular church and honour it as faithfully and with as much integrity as you can, so that what your people say about Jesus and what you say intersect. That’s how we become part of a tradition, how we live in it, how we pass it on to children like Ralph. What people say, shapes us, and through the Spirit’s power, what people say becomes so much more than the words ever could. We hear what God is saying too, through us and sometimes in spite of us.
So how do you make the move from what people say to what you say about Jesus?
Maybe it’s a matter of growing up. That’s what confirmation is partly about. Teenagers and others get a chance to stand up and confirm for themselves the baptismal vows that were made for them on their behalf when they were Ralph’s age. They get a chance to say, “I choose this for myself. I choose to say what my people say about Jesus.”
Maybe it’s a matter of faith formation. That’s what Christian practices are addressing. Believers like us get a chance to grow into new places in our by participating in traditional practices of the church. Singing and praying, serving and feeding, testifying and protesting, going on retreat and foot-washing. These practices deepen our relationship with Christ and one another. They deepen what we say by plunging us into what people say about Jesus.
And maybe it’s a matter of knowledge. That’s what educational courses and the like are addressing. You can join a study group, start a theology degree, in order to learn more about church history, doctrine, bible, theology. You can finally learn what eschatology is and how to spell it. You can study New Testament Greek and read Mark’s Gospel in the original. You can memorise the names of saints and heretics, popes and emperors. You can become an expert on Jeremiah or a scholar of the Reformation. You can teach what people say about Jesus to others simply because you have access to so much knowledge.
How do you make the move from what people say to what you say about Jesus? There must be many factors involved. I’m sure growing up has something to do with it. I’m sure faith formation is key. Knowledge helps.
But listen to Peter for a minute. He gives us another view. This is from the reading. Peter answered Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” Isn’t it great to hear Peter get it right for once, although right is not really the word for it. He isn’t right in the doctrinal sense. He isn’t right because he answered Jesus correctly, understands the terms and wins all the points for disciple maturity. I think Peter is right because he sets aside what people say and listens to what God is unfolding in his soul. He allows God to tell him who Jesus is and then he confesses it. In Matthew’s version of the same story Jesus is thrilled about this, “Blessed are you, Simon,” he cries, “no human being could have told you that, you must really be listening!”
For each of us, I think the moment comes when what people say about Jesus is no longer enough. We can’t hide behind it, we can’t pretend it’s ours. We can’t substitute what people say for what we say. We have to listen closely to God and speak up for ourselves.
But confessing that Jesus is the Messiah like Peter does is only the first step. Then we have to let Jesus teach us what kind of Messiah he is. Not one who will fight and win for us, one who will suffer and die for us, one who will teach us what it is to serve rather than to conquer, give rather than take, love rather than hold anything back. Jesus is a different kind of Messiah than we were expecting and he always will be. Peter didn’t like that, especially the “undergo great suffering” part. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. And Jesus had to set him straight, “Get behind me, Satan,” he said. “You’re not setting your mind on divine things, but on human things. Do you want to know what kind of Messiah I am? The kind that asks you to follow, take up your cross and follow. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it. For what does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? “Oh, don’t be ashamed of me, Peter,” Jesus said, “don’t be ashamed of the kind of disciple I’m asking you to be, the kind of church I’m asking you to build.” It’s not a victory story, it’s a servant story. Take up your cross and follow, and don’t be afraid.
This passage is often referred to as “Peter’s Confession” but I think a better title might be “How Peter Worked Up To A Confession and Once He’d Made It Realized the Whole Point Was to Revise It Immediately.” That probably takes too long to say. But there’s an order here that’s important. Maybe we have to say who Jesus is before we’re ready to hear the rest. Maybe we have to confess that he saves us before we’re ready to hear why and for what purpose.
Who do people say that Jesus is?
Who do you say that he is?