A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ near and far, from God our Father and friend.
I come from a long line of pastors, deacons, and missionaries in the Lutheran church. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather Peder Pedersen Mørch, was a Deacon in Jegindø, Thyholm Danmark until his death in 1752. His son Christian Pedersen Mørch, of Jegindø, Thisted, Danmark was also a Deacon in the church until his death in 1777; with even more ancestors listed as deacons going back to 1670. That is just on my father’s side of the family. You all know Pastor Pete, well we share quite a bit of Norwegian pastoral blood from my mother’s side of my family. The pastoral and missionary trait obviously runs strong through our veins.
I was a late in life surprise for my parents so I only knew my Grandma Dyrud, my mom’s Mom. I remember succinctly her devout faith. She made a strong impression on my own faith beginnings before she passed away when I was eight years old. Her favorite hymn was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and whenever she came for a visit she always packed candied orange slices and her Bible in her suitcase. She always wore a large cross necklace – visible in virtually every picture I can recall. She is the one who first proclaimed that I was going to be a pastor someday as she watched me play church after church on Sundays. It was through her that I saw that Jesus could be my friend. She lived her life with Him by her side – a life that was far from easy or comfortable – but she was always comforted.
It was through my parents that I came to know the working side of faith. They were church planters, served as confirmation teachers, my mom served as the church organist, and my Dad was the perennial council president in every church we belonged to even with our nomadic lifestyle.
And now here I am, carrying on the tradition, albeit with a few bumps in the road along the way. So, of course, I know who Jesus is. Not only was I raised with Jesus pretty much everywhere, but I can recite by memory the very definition of the man.
More than likely, you can too. He’s one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. The one Lord, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. He’s God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He’s begotten, not made. He is of one Being with the Father and through him, all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and he became truly human. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried – for our sake! And then, get this – on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Any day now He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
He’s also a Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, the Word made flesh, the good shepherd, Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, The Way the Truth and the Life, Lord of Life, Healer of our every ill and Forgiver for all, and of course, the Messiah.
You did get all that, didn’t you? It’s pretty lofty verbiage if you ask me – but it is easier to memorize those memorable words and phrases, don’t you think? So when we are put on the spot and asked like Jesus asks Peter in today’s gospel lesson – “But Who do YOU say that I am?” we are ready with a pithy response. I have to admit, I cheered for Peter when he got the answer “right.” exclaiming “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
But what does that mean? Again, lofty language describing the very reason we are here together today – Jesus. When we confess the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed together- what are we really saying? When I sit down and think about it, those beautiful liturgical words are safe – they keep me and my life at an arm’s distance from the wild and unpredictable nature of God and Jesus remains a rather tame and eminently safe figure in my life. And that seems just about right, right? We like to remain in control of our lives and keep things going just so.I may ask for Jesus to take my hand – but boy take my life? That seems like a lot when all I am asking of him is to get me through whatever it is I am facing. But Jesus doesn’t come in doses that I take as needed. His love and ways are all encompassing with no limits.
When it comes to answering the question of who Jesus is aside from what we are told in Sunday school or what we continue to confess together in the relative comfort and safety of church, on the other 167 days of the year who do we say Jesus is? And how big of a role does Jesus play in our everyday life? I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this is one of the most important questions you will ever answer (aside from are you ok if you are choking or maybe, will you marry me) in terms of the direction of your life. Who you say Jesus is has everything to do with who you are and how you go about the life you lead. In some ways, your answer says as much or more about you and us together as a community of faith, than Jesus. Because in Jesus’ eyes, you are His beloved, and the life he wants for you is provided to you freely with no strings attached or tests to pass.
And while we share the same words for confessing our faith in Jesus, who you say Jesus is will be different from my response. Just as the disciples came to know Jesus as the Messiah through their walk with him – observing his healings of mercy, hearing his sermons on justice, twice being awed by and tasting bread multiplied and shared with thousands, being saved by an ethereal Jesus on the water when stormy waters threatened to sink their boat, even extending mercy to those beyond the boundaries of prejudice and culture and showing unexpected more human side of himself – we too, come to our understanding of Jesus through our own walk with him.
Who Jesus is matters every single day and in every single place of our lives and who Jesus is to us is influenced by our experience of him in every single circumstance of our lives. Peter’s confession didn’t occur just anywhere. Jesus could have asked the question while in a familiar, friendly place like Galilee where most of his ministry has taken place or even while walking to this destination (because aren’t difficult conversations always easier on a walk?) but no, Jesus chose a very specific location – Caesarea Philippi.
Situated about 25 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi originally known as Panais, was near a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the Northeast. A nearby cave and spring served as a sanctuary dedicated to the part man, part goat Greek god, Pan. Greek inscriptions and niches carved into the rock suggest this area was dedicated to other pagan gods as well. It was also a place where the power and the authority of the Roman Empire were on full display. Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi was governed by Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government. And at the time of Matthew’s Gospel, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory. So Jesus pops the question—“Who do you say that I am?” at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. The very things that ruled heavily over the people’s lives. This was not a particularly safe place for the disciples to be spouting off about a Messiah – the Messiah they envisioned would release them from the bondage and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Aligning oneself with someone other than the emperor could get you thrown in prison if not to the pit.
The disciples had witnessed Jesus’s works and ways and though not yet aware that this Messiah’s deliverance would be far different from their expectations, they chose to follow him.
Who do you say Jesus is in your life, today? Who is Jesus when alternate kingdoms of power and authority vie for your allegiance? Who is Jesus in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic? Who is Jesus as you deliberate sending your children back to school or if it is safe to travel or too risky to visit with loved ones? Who is Jesus in the midst of a tenuous election year as you encounter those who may have a different view of things – mask-wearing, the state of our nation? Who is Jesus in the midst of racial unrest – in the aftermath of the Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland protests and riots, and the seemingly impenetrable wall of class and color? Who do you say Jesus is as your loved one dies or as you sit with the news of an unfavorable diagnosis? Who is Jesus when you consider the plight of refugees and immigrants seeking a new place to call home and that new home is your home? Who is Jesus when domestic violence invades your life or you can’t find a job to support your family? Who is Jesus when your family or a relationship falls apart?
Who is Jesus to you when you face the difficult decisions of life, the ones with no easy answers or when you feel overwhelmed by isolation or depression? Who is Jesus when your latest screw up weighs heavily on your chest, when your sin has clouded out your hope? When judgment is the only response you perceive from others? Who do you say Jesus is then?
Who is Jesus when your life is going well? When you don’t think about needing Jesus or think about Jesus, period?
How has your experience of Jesus shaped who you know Jesus to be?
Those lofty words we sing, confess and praise God with in worship an a way feel a little too distant, a little too beautiful when what we need is the wild, unflinching love and grace from our friend, our Lord and Savior, our sweet Jesus to enter into the darkest, ugliest places in our soul.
Who you say Jesus is will determine how you live into that truth for your life. Who Jesus is to you reveals what you stand for and guides your decisions, determines your actions, and forms the words you speak and how you will say them. If you align yourself with and define your heart with Jesus – you can expect the words that come from your mouth as Jesus taught in last week’s gospel – to come from your heart not defiled but filled with grace.
Today and every day, Jesus asks the evergreen question – Who do you say that I am? The Jesus I confessed before the church when I was 13 was certainly not the same Jesus I found when I searched for him 13 years later when I had nothing left BUT Jesus or the Jesus who walked beside me to my parents burials, or who walks with me today as I try to navigate through this new way of living and being in a pandemic. Hopefully, who Jesus is for you and me next year will be different from who he is for us today. It’s not that Jesus has changed. We have. As we go through life our experience and knowledge of Jesus grows. When we live this question we not only discover Jesus anew we discover ourselves anew. It’s not just about asking what would Jesus do – as those once trendy bracelets reminded us to ask when faced with a difficult decision. When you live every day with Jesus as a part of you and live your life with the heart and mind of Jesus those questions answer themselves. On our way, we have more and more experiences that show us something about the God whom we seek. For Jesus is always new, always different and our God is a deeply moved God with a heart and being far greater than our understanding.
Don’t feel as though your answer to Jesus’ question is too simple – too incongruous to the realities, complexities, and pain of “real” life. Don’t feel ashamed that your life does not always align with the words you profess on Sunday. After all – Jesus is calling into question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual. Jesus has a question for you. How will you answer Him? Who do you say that I am?
There is no correct answer – only your heart and your life can determine that. But the Good News is that God has done most of the work for you. We don’t have to take final responsibility for procuring the faith, hope, and courage that we may feel are in short supply in order to answer this question. Because the faith we seek, the confidence we long for, the courage we hope to find and to share – these are gifts from God. The kind of gifts God loves to bestow.
My favorite poet Ranier Maria Rilke provides insight on this life framing question: “(T)he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” With that in mind, let your answer to Jesus guide your life.
May our friend, our comforter, our shoulder to lean on, our sounding board and confidant, our just and loving Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God – our way, our truth, and our life – guide you, free you, and renew you today and every day.
Let your light so shine!!!