The crunch question: who is Jesus?

Stephen Adam, 27 August 2017

Romans 12: 1–8; Matthew 16: 13–20

On recent Sundays, as we’ve followed Matthew’s gospel we’ve heard Jesus’ parables in which he explains the nature of the kingdom of God. We’ve encountered some of his miracles – Jesus walking on the water, and Peter finding his faith lacking as he begins to sink. And then last Sunday we heard that astonishing encounter with the Canaanite woman as she begs Jesus to heal her daughter – an encounter that would challenge Jesus, with the woman’s ‘impertinent questioning’ causing him to re-evaluate the nature and scope of his mission and enlarge his own understanding: that it is to encompass not just the lost sheep of Israel, but the Gentile world as well.

All this is building up to the crunch question in this morning’s gospel reading: the question of Jesus’ identity. Who is this man; what are we to make of him; what claims does he make on us?

Jesus’ starter for ten is simple. He asks the disciples what other people are saying about him. Well, that’s easy – the disciples can all chip in with their opinions and theories. Note that the general reaction the disciples report is far removed from ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ or the cosy friend of children. No, people identify him with the prophets – a mouthpiece against injustice and wickedness.

But then the questioning gets a bit closer to home, a bit more unsettling: ‘And who do you say I am?’ It’s Simon Peter who plunges in with the affirmation, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. This is the real deal, the one Israel has been yearning for, the fulfilment of Nathan’s prophecy to David (2 Samuel 7: 1–17), that on David’s house God would one day establish an everlasting kingdom.

This affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah is central to the gospel narratives, but we must be careful not read it with hindsight or through the prism of our creeds or our sense of being part of an institutional church. We must remember that none of this existed – these are first-century Jews, not Christians.

This context is really important. In being the instrument of this divine revelation, Peter had no idea where his affirmation would lead. He’s certainly not saying that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity; there’s no well-developed Christology behind Peter’s blurting out. This would only develop over the following centuries, culminating in the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

Nor indeed, let’s remember, could Matthew himself know where this affirmation would lead – he was, after all, writing a few years after the failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem in around AD 70, which would raise profound anxieties about the future of God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

Details in the gospels are usually there for a reason, and it’s particularly significant that this declaration of the identity of Jesus takes place at Caesarea Philippi. A temple dedicated to Caesar dominated the landscape; the whole town reflected the might of Rome and the divinity of the emperor. It is here, in this setting, that Peter declares Jesus as Messiah – a direct challenge to all that the Empire represented.

But in a sense our lectionary reading this morning sells us short if we leave it there. We have this picture of the disciples warmly affirming Jesus as Messiah, and yet in the immediately preceding verses we find Jesus berating them as having little faith; and in the following verses as Jesus begins to explain the true nature of his calling – a path that will lead to Jerusalem and the cross – Peter tries to rebuke him: ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you’, prompting Jesus’ devastating put-down, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me’.

So Peter goes from rock to stumbling-block: hero to zero in a moment. Peter doesn’t have all the right answers. He still has much to learn, and his journey will take him through the darkest hours as, after Jesus’ arrest, around that charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard, before the cock crows three times he will deny ever knowing Jesus. And yet, through those dark nights of the soul, he will discover what it is like to be restored, through forgiveness, to a relationship of love and trust.

For there is to be another encounter by a charcoal fire, this time with Jesus after his resurrection. At breakfast by the lakeside, the risen Jesus reveals himself to his disciples and asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ In that encounter Peter experiences forgiveness of the highest order and is caught up in a love that is generous, self-giving, sacrificial and life-enhancing.

Peter experiences forgiveness of the highest order and is caught up in a love that is generous, self-giving, sacrificial and life-enhancing.

As Peter reveals his thoroughly human failings, so this is strangely comforting – there is hope for us too! Just like Peter, we have to learn that if we proclaim Jesus as Messiah we can’t avoid also bonding with him as the crucified and risen one. Our faith has to be shaped by both cross and resurrection.

Jesus’ question to Peter is a question addressed equally to us today.

What does it mean for us to affirm Jesus as Messiah, to make the same declaration as Peter? Why are we here? Why have we chosen to follow this Galilean peasant? Why are we on this path? And what are the modern-day empires that surround us and make it difficult to confess Christ as Lord?

Each of us can think of pressures upon us, or places in our lives – perhaps our workplace or our communities – where it is not easy to swim against the prevailing secular tide, make this sort of confession and live out our faith authentically.

Our epistle this morning points us to the practical outworking of our faith. Paul has just completed his magisterial exposition of the gospel – the gospel of justification by faith through grace – and his setting out of God’s cosmic plan of salvation, embracing both Jew and Gentile, in chapters 1–11 of Romans. Now, with that key word ‘therefore’, he pivots to begin a new section of his epistle exploring the ethical basis for Christian living, in response to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth called Christian ethics ‘the great disturbance’, and here Paul is trying to flesh out in practice what ‘living in the Spirit’ might look like in all the day-to-day messiness of our lives. It’s deeply challenging stuff.

Let me just focus on two points briefly. Firstly Paul’s exhortation, his heartfelt plea, that we should ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice’. We might struggle with this language of sacrifice. Geoffrey Burnaby made a helpful comment when we were discussing this in a homegroup a couple of weeks ago. He reminded us of the Latin derivation, the root, of the word ‘sacrifice’, which literally means ‘holy doing’ or ‘holy action’. So when Paul talks about presenting our bodies sacrificially, he’s not meaning that just physically, but our whole being and outlook, our daily discipleship and Christian living – the whole focus of our lives.

When Paul talks about presenting our bodies sacrificially, he’s not meaning that just physically, but our whole being and outlook – the whole focus of our lives.

And then, secondly, there’s Paul’s language about not being conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In other words, he’s saying, ‘Don’t let yourselves be squeezed or moulded by the standards of the world around you or by what passes as worldly wisdom – dare, if you like, to be fools for the gospel’.

This is far from a call that we should be smug, or adopt a holier-than-thou attitude, or turn our backs and become inward-looking, rejecting the world. Our Christian faith is nothing if it is not lived in relationship with others, and Paul is passionate that – because of all that God in Christ has done and is doing, because of this revelation of God’s mercy – we should respond in loving care and service to others.

In the Eucharist, which lies at the heart of our worship, we experience the self-giving love of Jesus at the deepest level. In the broken bread and wine outpoured we see reflected all the brokenness and hurt of our lives and our world; we see ourselves caught up and enfolded in his love, and we are affirmed as precious.

Jesus is always in the business of taking and making and transforming – not just bread and wine, but our hearts and our human condition.

‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4: 19). But our response to that love – lived out in our actions and in our care for others – can only be meagre and limited in comparison. In the words of William Cowper’s hymn:

Lord, it is my chief complaint
that my love is weak and faint;
yet I love thee, and adore;
O for grace to love thee more!

Through the Eucharist we are nourished and fed, and commissioned to a ministry of love and service. One of the great gifts of liturgy is that through familiarity the words and phrases get into our bloodstream and into our very DNA.

Paul’s heartfelt plea that we should offer our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice is taken up in the prayer we regularly say after each Eucharist, and we conclude: ‘Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory’.

May we be freshly encouraged to make the same affirmation as Peter, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, and to know that in Christ, risen, ascended and glorified, we are held in a love that has no limits. Amen.