Who Do You Say That I Am?; August 21, 2011; Proper 16, Year A; Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20; Samantha Crossley
May what I say, and what you hear be in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to me. Isaiah’s entreaty betrays an urgency to capture the attention of a people lost and broken.
Listen to me. Isaiah’s people have lost their moorings. They have lived more than a generation in exile as Isaiah demands their attention. They knew the destruction of their nation, Judah, and the burning of their capital as they were overrun by the Babylonians. They witnessed the capture, torture and death of their king, Zedekiah. They suffered the long, ignominious march from their homeland into exile, each step dogged by shame and pain. To survive, they became an invisible people, living at the edge of ruin.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness.
Listen to me, you that seek the Lord.
Isaiah drags his people from their quiet nameless misery, urging them again to action by re-asserting who they are.
He gives them a rock to cling to, the very rock “from which you are hewn”
He re-grounds their identity on the one thing that will endure when the heavens vanish and the earth wears out; their relation with God. God’s salvation and God’s deliverance.
Identity is a tricky thing. Merriam-Webster calls it, “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual (or group).” In real life, it boils down to, “Who am I?” “Who are we?” Without some sort of answer to those questions, we don’t know how we relate to anything else. Like Isaiah’s people, we become lost in our own invisibility and insignificance.
We base our own identities on a fluctuating profusion of factors ranging from nationality to personality; from occupation to vocation; from accidents of birth to choices of associations. We base virtually all our interactions with and reactions to others on our own identities, and our perceptions of theirs.
By virtue of my birth I am the Crossley’s daughter, Calvin’s sister, US citizen, white anglo-saxon female. By virtue of my choices and opportunities, I am mother, wife, physician. By virtue of my baptism and ordination I am a member of the Body of Christ and a servant of Christ. By virtue of having been created, I am a child of God. None of that matters a whit if I don’t act on it.
Jesus and his followers have travelled a long road. They are approaching the end of the line. Jesus knows this, although the disciples haven’t quite picked up on it yet. The disciples regularly prove themselves an utterly human, utterly fallible lot. They have nonetheless given up much to follow this holy man they call Rabbi. They are good Jewish men. Family men. Working men. They are far from home, have forsaken family and livelihood, have been associated with what the authorities of the day call blasphemy. They have given up much of what they would have based their own self image upon in order to follow the man called Jesus of Nazareth, whom they have experienced as holy.
As we follow their journey, we travel with them to the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi. In Old Testament times this area was called Baal Hermon and dedicated to the worship of Baal. When the Greeks moved in, it was re-dedicated to worship of the pagan god Pan, earning the name Panius. Eventually, Philip the Tetrarch took over and named the city after his benefactor, Caesar Augustus and himself, but the primary religious practice remained the worship of the greek fertility gods. Near Caesarea Philippi lay the actual “Gates of Hades”. A spring which exited from a cave nearby was believed to be the gate through which the fertility gods travelled to their winter homes in Hades, and through which they were enticed by all manner of x-rated activities to return to earth in the spring. Not a good place for a nice Jewish boy to be.
Here in this politically and religiously hostile environment, Jesus chose to explore his identity with the disciples. Do not think for a moment that Jesus did not know what labels had been attached to him when he asked “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Do not think that he did not know what the disciples thought of him. According to Mathean accounts, the disciples themselves had already identified him as the Messiah. His question was not, “Who do you think I am?”, but “Who do you SAY that I am?” What is your testimony of me? Having sacrificed so much simply to follow Him, the disciples’ identities had become inexorably entwined in the identity of Jesus. He challenged them with his question. “Who do you say that I am?” “How will the world see me through you?”
There in the heart of the red-light district of Pagan-ville, far from home, family, and protection, Simon, son of Jonah bursts out with the deeply dangerous truth, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
As Jesus points out, Simon Peter is not repeating what he has heard from other people. He acts on the truth that was given to him by God. Simon Peter is not more righteous or stronger than the other disciples. Jesus confers on him the charge of grounding the church, but for Peter this does not denote a magical shift to personal flawless dedication. This is the same Peter who will deny Jesus three times not many days hence. But Peter gives to Jesus of the gifts that he has (in Simon Peter the most notable of which may be hot-headed impetuosity). And the world is transformed.
It is so easy to sit back safely in our own established selves. We are children of God. Salvation will be forever. Yet, through his question to the disciples, Jesus challenges each individual follower, “Who do YOU say that I am? What is your testimony of me? As “Feasting On The Word” states it, “What is your experience of the living God through my witness and presence?”
Testimony is not just words. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that we must live that testimony. It doesn’t mean you have to preach on street corners, if that is not your gift. To give of yourself to God is your spiritual worship, as Paul says. That may mean ministering, teaching, leading, offering time, resources or simple cheerful compassion. In the actions of the followers of the Messiah, a teaching will go out from God, and God’s justice for a light to the peoples.
What is your experience of the living God through Christ? How will the world see the living God through you? Will you act on the gift of our Father in Heaven and become the rock on which his church is built?
To paraphrase Marcus Borg, Let us go forth into the world, and change it.