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SERMON 9-16-12 Pentecost 16B

The setting for today’s gospel is Caesarea Philippi. The little field trip the disciples took with Our Lord to this Roman city, and the dialogue that followed, is an important episode in Jesus ministry. This conversation serves as a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry because through it, Jesus’ disciples are confronted with who Jesus really is, and who Jesus is in the life of his followers. Caesarea Philippi was an ancient Roman city located at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon, adjacent to a spring, grotto, and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan. In Greek mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature, of mountain wilds. It was in the midst of this area dedicated to a pagan deity that Jesus questions his followers, “Who do people say that I am?” Imagine being in a world in which there is a plethora of spiritual practices, a collection of various deities, and a culture of pluralistic religious dogmas. Jesus’ question “Who do people say that I am,” is appropriate in such a social setting, and it is an appropriate question for Christians who must grapple with it today.

Dan Kimball, a pastor of a non-denominational church in Santa Cruz, CA recently published a book, “I like Jesus, but I Don’t like Christians.” It was based on a survey he conducted a few years ago on the campus of the University of California and in it, he asked random students these two questions: 1) “What comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Jesus’?” and (2) “What comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Christian’?” Kimball asserts in his book, “The answers to these questions brought me both joy and optimism, but also extreme sadness. Why? Because at the first question we saw students’ faces light up in smiles. “Jesus was beautiful.” “I want to be like Jesus”. “Jesus was a liberator of women.” “I’m all about Jesus.” “I want to be a follower of Jesus.” “Jesus was enlightened and had higher truth.” What encouraging answers! Here we were on a very post-Christian campus and we were finding students eager to talk about Jesus. I realized they probably weren’t familiar with the whole of Jesus’ teachings, but they held an incredibly high perception of Christ as a positive figure in history.” 1

Kimball goes on to say, “When the very same students were asked the second question their expressions changed dramatically. Eyes looked downward, smiles turned to frowns and even painful expressions. “Christians have taken the teachings of Jesus and really messed them up.” “I would want to be a Christian, but I have never met one.” “Christians are dogmatic and close-minded.” “Christians are supposed to be loving, but I never met any that are.”1

This sounds like a harsh report on Christians doesn’t it? It is painful to hear this emerging perception among people who despite their perception of his followers, find Jesus alluring. As a leader in the church, it is certainly difficult for me to hear this report. In fact, I am a little offended when I hear the answers to the second question, but at the same time, it makes me wonder, in a society of multiple spiritualities and pluralistic faiths, not unlike that of first century Caesarea Philippi, what does my witness as a Jesus follower really convey? Am I witnessing to the one I proclaim as Lord? “Who do people say I am” was the question Jesus asked of his followers. The other related and equally important question, with which we as Christians must grapple, is “who do people say Jesus followers are?”

Jesus, is he merely our spiritual hero, a good teacher of moral values, a single face among many prophets, sages, or spiritual types whom we just so happen to choose to call our own? In this time of political battling, people are choosing sides and are choosing the candidates they follow. Look around and you will see T-shirts, bumper stickers, signs in yards, and billboards along the roads that proclaim a clear message, “I really like this candidate.” “I like what he or she says, I like their economic policy, I like their social policy, and their plans seem to align with my plans.” We all choose whom we will follow for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we follow folks for all types of reasons, such as particular writers, teachers, actors, philosophers, and even name brand products.

When Jesus asks us, “Who do YOU say that I am,” we must struggle with the fact that following Jesus, is not the same thing as following a political candidate, a writer, actor, philosopher, or a product brand. When Peter was confronted with the questions of “Who do you say I am,” he responded, “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.” For we post resurrection Christians, this bold statement may seem like a casual assertion, but we have to remember that Peter’s response was the first human statement about Jesus’ identity. Prior to this day, only the demons whom Jesus confronted, would proclaim who he truly was. With Peter’s statement, the shouted confessions of demons is replaced by human witness.

Messiah means “Anointed One” and represents God’s affirmation that the prophet, priest, or king is divinely chosen leader of the people. The title ‘Messiah’ in our culture can be devoid of meaning especially in a culture where kings, political leaders, and spiritual leaders are not publically anointed with oil, but are heralded by other means. The key to an understanding of our use of Messiah lies in the nature of Jesus’ ministry. God chooses the least likely types to be the means of salvation. God took on the nature of a suffering servant to bring salvation unto God’s creation. The crucified and risen Jesus is the only one who can be designated Lord and it is through his suffering , the heart of Jesus’ mission, that we come to know who He is.

Sometimes like Peter, our answer to “Who do we say Jesus is” can become distorted and confused. We need to be very clear about who Jesus is and more especially, who he is in our lives. Following Jesus involves more than liking his teachings, offering hero worship, cheering him on as he makes the journey to the cross. Jesus reveals the very nature of who he is through his ministry and through it, how salvation comes to the world.

“You are the Messiah,” proclaimed Peter. Later he would profess his misunderstanding of Messiahship , when “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter rejected God’s plan of salvation through the self-giving, obedient servant-hood of God. Peter had other plans for Jesus. Peter was looking for a mighty king, powerful ruler, a hero who would over-turn the oppressive Roman rule, not a self-giving, obedient, loving, come follow me kind of messiah.

Peter’s answer to “who do you say I am” included a plan that was human and not divine. God’s salvation came through the humble, servant who suffered like we suffer, and yet the overwhelming self-giving love, will overcame death and suffering. The one God revealed in the law and prophets, is finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ for humanity’s salvation. In Christ, we can see plainly who the God of love truly is. The God who suffers, suffers through the journey of life along side us, as we suffer through it and yet, remains true to who God is. Loving, giving, suffering, faithful, obedient, risk taking all with outstretched arms; this is who God is; perfect God and humanity joined; that is God in Christ.

God made real, a love that is not coercive but leaves the beloved free and thus, the historical knowledge of God’s work in salvation history culminates in Christ on the cross. The relationship is restored, the chasm is no more, and by his wounds we are healed. Christ’s ministry is one of reconciliation and that mission is ours.

A woman and her spouse had been having a little tiff for over two weeks over a minor disagreement. Neither were willing to put aside their own sense of “rightness” in the argument. Neither wanted to take a risk to say, “I made a mistake.” Neither wanted to deny their own sense of pride and thus, the chasm between them continued week, after week, after week. This is not reconciliation, this is saving your own life and in the process, losing it. Following Jesus requires something none of us really like to do and that is to deny ourselves. Denying ourselves means, being willing to lose the life we consider so important, for a life lived in Christ; living for the other. Jesus confronts us with that new way of life and offers us a choice, whether to enter the reconciliatory nature of suffering love or remain in the chasm of self-preservation, even at the expense of sister or brother.

Reconciliation is the ministry of God in Christ. Reconciliation is the healing of wounded relationships, which can happen only through suffering love, of dying to oneself for the sake of another. Humility, releasing our self-importance, our own sustenance for the sake of another, heals the wounds of brokenness. We cannot experience Resurrection Sunday without Good Friday. We cannot experience New Life without experiencing death of our old life. We cannot participate in reconciliation, unless we can let go of our self, and become willing to embrace the other. The cross teaches us that human relationships, which are broken by sin are reconciled by moving from self-preservation to self-giving. The cross not only teaches, the cross of Christ makes it a reality.

Imagine God on the cross with outstretched arms, revealing the very person of God, who not only creates, but breaks into the world and makes forgiveness of our brokenness a reality, and proclaims, “I love you this much.” The entire basis of this new life Jesus invites us to live is love, and it through us, the Body of Christ, that the world is able to witness the reality of God’s love. There is a beautiful hymn that seems to capture the very essence of our mission in the world; the mission of reconciliation:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

We will work with each other, we will work side by side

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus put forward the question to his first disciples, and today with this same question, he asks us to peer into our own hearts and ask, “Who is Jesus to me?” With the question, comes the invitation to follow him, to take up our cross and follow; loving each other as He loves us, loving him as he loves us. If our gatherings, interactions, fellowship, ministry, ventures, and all that we do remain grounded in the love of Christ, the world will know we are Christians. They will know it not merely by great programs, beautiful liturgy, beloved history, and our wonderful tradition. They will know it only by our love. They will know it only by our love.


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