The question Jesus asks his disciples in our passage today kind of comes out of nowhere, to be honest. There’s nothing preceding it that would give us any heads-up that Jesus is thinking about what the people are saying. It’s the normal Jesus stuff – parables are told, sermons are preached. Thousands are fed – not once, but twice. A Canaanite woman shows her deep faith. Water is walked on. The scribes and Pharisees get agitated. Jesus is doing things. He is making changes. Doesn’t seem like the time to get all philosophical.
And yet, maybe this is exactly the time to ask the question. Because if Jesus wasn’t thinking about it, you can bet everyone else was, wondering who this guy was, this guy who performs miracles and teaches with the wisdom of a high priest.
And so Jesus is the one to finally break the ice. When Jesus arrived in the villages of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people think I am? What are people saying?
And they answer him – although they are surface answers. They’re not really getting at all that much. It’s doubtful that people thought Jesus was actually John the Baptist or actually Elijah or actually Jeremiah. More than likely what they meant was something along the lines of He reminds me of John the Baptist or He sure seems a lot like Elijah or That guy is a regular Jeremiah!
Whatever it was, it’s clear they are reaching for answers here. Because Jesus does not fit into any preconceived notion, any category. If their answers reveal anything at all, it is that they’re not sure they have a clue who he is.
That is, until Jesus makes it personal. And all he had to do was change one word in the question:
Who do you think I am? What do you say?
I mean, that cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? No more sidestepping with metaphors and platitudes. Scripture doesn’t say, but I wonder if there was a pause; everyone sitting in awkward silence, that question just dangling in the air. This kind of question – this deeply personal question – will do that to you. It’s one thing to go on about what other people are saying or thinking; it’s entirely different to get put on the spot and have to own up to it yourself. I have to think there was some silence, everyone looking at each other, waiting for someone to take the plunge….
And it is no surprise who does! Peter – that lovable disciple who signed on for the gig before he read the job description, who jumped out of the boat without thinking things through, the one who denied Jesus in the heat of the moment. It is no surprise at all that Peter is the first to speak. Because for Peter, everything comes from the heart. And with his question, Jesus has cut right to that heart, piercingly so; and has compelled Peter to do what he does best: speak from it.
So he speaks from that heart of his and says, You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.
And there it is!
Which I guess is why Jesus asked the question in the first place, do you think? I mean, he could’ve just answered it himself – he actually does later. But it means something when it comes from those around you, right? Lord knows we’ve got plenty of self-appointed messiahs and self-proclaimed saviors walking our streets and sitting in seats of power. The only voice they hear is their own. But it is the proclamation and testimony of the community that makes the difference.
That is why, thousands of years later, we proclaim and testify to that faith with words that are nearly as old as the church itself:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.
That is why, in just a little bit, our three confirmands will answer the question asked of all people when they seek to join God’s church: Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, trusting in His grace and love?
It’s not that Jesus needs us to say these things in order for them to be true. It’s that we need to say them to realize they already are.
Which is why when Jesus asked his disciples – What are people saying? What do you say? – I don’t think he was asking for himself. I think he was asking the question for everyone else. So they can answer it themselves, hear themselves speak it out loud; verbalize the truth they had known all along at some level, the truth they had yet to give voice to in anything other than a barely audible whisper.
And so now it’s out there. And for the rest of the gospel it serves as a fulcrum point; everything that follows seen in light of Peter’s proclamation, his testimony. It’s like a new pair of glasses when the old ones are just slightly off, not quite the right prescription. There’s a little clarity now. A little more location of one’s self in the level narrative. It is revelation, yes, but in a way it is what everyone had known all along.
And it’s not that this suddenly makes everything perfect. There are still questions, still doubts, still uncertainties. There always will be. But now, the unspoken has been given voice; that which was hidden in the darkness has been brought into light. So later, even in the worst of moments, even as Jesus himself stands on trial with his destiny all but determined; even as Pilate asks Jesus if he really is who people say, the only ones who are shocked by his answer are the ones who never heard it spoken out loud in the first place.
I think any day is a good day to imagine Jesus among us, living his life with us, and asking us who we think he is. Especially on this Confirmation Sunday, as Luke, Ella, and Kate prepare to complete their confirmation journey and begin an entirely new journey of faith. Like so much over the past six months, this is not the Confirmation Sunday we envisioned. But let it forever be known that COVID-19 might delay a Confirmation Sunday but it will never keep it from happening! These three now-9th graders spent the better part of 2020 working with their mentors to discern, in a nutshell, who Jesus is for them.
So let me ask you, people of God – who is Jesus for you?
This is such an important question for us to be asking – and not just because it’s good to learn about Jesus, but because this question also pushes us to learn more about who we are as well. I think about the fact that Peter, after he lays out his proclamation and testimony, is given a new name by Jesus; a name that means “rock,” because upon this rock Jesus will build his church.
It’s this lovely quirky moment in scripture where past and present and future collide. Even though we’ve known Peter as Peter all along, this is the first time he actually gets that name. Even the mention of “church” is notable, since this word wouldn’t actually be a thing until decades later as Paul and others began their missionary work in the ancient world.
Timeline quirkiness aside, one thing is clear: when Peter declares who Jesus is, Jesus declares who Peter is as well. This is the essence of what it means to be followers of Christ and the church.
All these years later, and if we listen hard enough in our heart of hearts, we can still hear Jesus asking his question, his very deeply personal question; a question which is not only about who he is but who we are. Not only what people are saying about Jesus, but what people are saying about us.
So – what are people saying about us?
Jan Edmiston, Charlotte’s Presbytery Exec, keeps a daily blog. It’s called “A Church For Starving Artists,” and you should definitely check it out when you get home. Every day she offers up some thought that gets you thinking and looking at things in new ways, which is never a bad thing.
In a blog post last week, Jan talks about how the word “Christian” is often slapped onto things to give them a certain identity and appeal. Like a “Christian” bookstore or a “Christian” gym or – and she has a picture of this on her post – a “Christian” phone book. Remember phone books? The subtitle of this phone book reads, “#1 Directory to find local businesses you can trust.” Because apparently you cannot trust a business that does not identify as “Christian.”
Jan puts it best when she observes that “Christian” is a great noun but a troublesome adjective. “We need to acknowledge,” she goes on to say, “that for many people in the world (including some of us) the word ‘Christian’ has been hijacked to mean something that Jesus would find unrecognizable.”
I’ve talked before from this pulpit – well, that pulpit – I’ve talked about the fact that Christianity has had a bit of a PR problem in recent times; and that if we went around and actually asked folks what people are saying about us, and they were honest, it might be hard to hear their answers. I’ve quoted before the Barna study that found that the perception of Christians by 16-29 year olds, by overwhelming margins, is of a people that are anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, insensitive to others, and not tolerant of other faiths. Just to be clear, that’s not good. And to add insult to injury, the Barna study was conducted in 2006 – one can only imagine how greater those percentages are now.
You see the problem, right? If this is what people think of the followers of Jesus, what do you think they’re going to think of Jesus himself?
I imagine that is why Jan concludes her blog with this: It’s up to us, she says, to show the world what the love of God looks like in the name of Jesus.
More than the words that come out of our mouths: You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God. More than the amazing group confirmation statement of faith we’ll share in a minute. Our proclamation, our testimony is not just the words we use to answer a deeply personal question posed to us by Jesus. Our proclamation and testimony is the way we embody and enflesh those words with the way we live our lives. The “rock” each of us becomes, one more stone placed in the building up of God’s kingdom of heaven on earth; that is what we call church. Every day we are given the opportunity to proclaim God’s amazing grace and testify to eternal hope; so that, as the familiar song goes, they will know we are Christians by our love.
So first, a word to our three confirmands. Ella, Luke, Kate – my hope is that you will see that the confirmation journey you’re concluding today marks the beginning of another journey; one that will last you the rest of your life. A life of service and love; a life of humility and hope, a life of constantly searching for answers to the question Jesus keeps asking.
And to you, the people of God, this is our journey as well. What are people saying? May we never stop searching for the answer together.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 2007.
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