But Who Do You Say That I Am?

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Sunday 23rd August 2020

Matthew 16: 13-20

“But who do you say that I am?”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let me give you some of the answers I’ve heard or read:

  • I say you are my personal Lord and Saviour
  • I say you are Son of God
  • I say you are God Incarnate
  • I say you are my life, the song I sing, my everything
  • I say you are my best friend, my brother, my mate
  • I say you are my Rock, my comforter, my coach
  • I say you are my Teacher, my Example, the copilot next to me

The list could go on….you will have your own answers too.

At some point or another you and I will have been told who Jesus is. Maybe you’ve heard it from me or other priests. From other church members, teachers, parents, friends, members of study groups. Perhaps you’ve read about it in books, or studied it in an Alpha Course, or read it in the papers. Maybe you’ve heard it in a song.

Some of the answers you have heard to the question “Who do you say that I am” may have been helpful. Some were not. A few were probably plain silly. Some will perhaps have been hurtful or destructive.

But the question remains, “Who do you say that I am?”

Brothers and sisters, I can’t answer that question for you. Each one of us has to answer it for ourselves. Don’t worry, though: it’s not an examination question or a pass/fail test.

I want to suggest to you today that it’s mainly an examination of our lives. I don’t think that what Jesus is doing when he asks the disciples this question is asking them to parrot back answers that they have heard. I don’t think Jesus is asking us to do that either. That’s part of why he moves them on from what they are hearing from others: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” No, Jesus implies, don’t listen to what you’re hearing from others, what do you say? What do you hear in yourselves. “Who do you say that I am?”

Answering the question isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be easy. I wonder if we sometimes too readily accept and settle for ‘Sunday Jesus’ answers. You know, the easy, feel good, sentimental ones. The problem is life isn’t always easy, feel good, or sentimental. It’s one thing to say who Jesus is at 11.15am in St Mary’s Battersea, when all appears calm and settled, where the words of faith are spoken in familiar phrases and cadences, where we can feel reassured because even if we can’t answer the question ourselves, we know that those around us can. It’s a very different thing to say who Jesus is outside of this moment. It always has context. Here are some examples:

  • Who do we say Jesus is following the dreadful murders committed by the Manchester Arena bombers? Who do we say Jesus is to the victims?
  • Who do we say in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the cry of righteous anger that followed it and remains unanswered?
  • Who do we say Jesus is amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, who fight over the ground he himself walked on?
  • Who do we say Jesus is as Coronavirus spreads across the world, as the people of Belarus cry out for greater freedoms, as many face unemployment, or domestic violence, or work for a wage that cannot support a family?
  • Who do we say Jesus is when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, or receives news from a doctor they do not want to hear, or when our own lives are falling apart?
  • Who do we say Jesus is when faced with decisions that have no easy answers, when the night is dark and life threatens to overwhelm us, or we feel we are at the end of our tether?

What does it mean in any of these contexts or situations to say that Jesus is my personal Lord and Saviour, my example, my brother and friend? What does it mean to say Jesus is my life, the song I sing, or my teacher?

Where am I going with this? Who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who and how we are and will be. In some ways our answer says much or more about us than Jesus. It reveals how we live and what we stand up for. It guides our decisions, and determines the actions we take and the words we speak. It describes the expectations and demands we place upon Jesus. It discloses the depth of our motivation for and our commitments to following him, a motivation and commitment that will be challenged by the Gospel we hear next week, in which Jesus invites us to take up our cross and die with him.

Jesus’s question isn’t so much about getting the right answer as it is about witnessing and testifying to God’s life, love and presence in our lives and in our world. It’s less about intellect and more about our hearts. It’s more about love than understanding. It moves us from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus. I’m reminded about the way in which the Jesuits – the Catholic religious order of priests of which Pope Francis is a member – form their clergy. Their training takes the form of a rigorous approach called the spiritual exercises which focus not on what they do, but who they are. The answer to any challenge or situation they face starts with who they are. In other words, the answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” Is a question about their direction and identity.

At one level, if I’m honest, there is no once and for all, final and forever, answer  to the question Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” We are always living into the question – that’s the Jesuit point I think. Who Jesus was when I was a young 19-year old Christian is different from who he was when I was a newly-ordained minister at 27. And it is different from the answer I would give today and, I trust, it will be different again in the future. It’s not that Jesus has changed – it’s that I have. Living a Christian life is a constant engagement with this question and as we do, we not only discover Jesus anew, we discover ourselves anew as well.

Sometimes we discover a disconnect between the “Sunday Jesus” about whom we sing and talk for an hour a week, and the life we live the other 167 hours of our week. Our words and actions don’t match up. There’s no integrity. That’s not a judgment about anyone – it’s an acknowledgement of just how difficult it can be to recognise and live the truth that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” More than once I have called into the gap between my “Sunday Jesus” kind of answers and the circumstances of my life and world. Sometimes my answers were too simple, to small, too easy. They were no match for the complexities of life and the pain of the world I see around me. At other times my life has not reflected what I have said about who Jesus is. Sometimes I kept quiet when I should have spoken up. At other times I was passive when I should have done something. Whenever I have fallen into that gap it has usually been because I have been trying to play it safe. That almost never works.

There is nothing safe about the question Jesus poses. How could there be? There is nothing safe about Jesus or the life to which he calls us. Jesus’ life and presence among us call into question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual. That’s why we ought not to answer his question too quickly, to glibly or with too much certainty. It’s not a question to be worked our as much as it is a question to be lived.