One problem with a text like this one is that there’s so much going on in it. In just a few verses there’s all the speculation about who Jesus is, Simon Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter’s name change to Rock, the gates of Hades not prevailing, the binding and the loosing, the “don’t tell anyone I’m the Messiah.” Too much to cover in a 90-minute sermon . . . (just seeing if you’re paying attention).
The part that is intriguing to me right now is the second question Jesus asks his disciples, the one Peter answers correctly, “Who do you say that I am?”
Here’s why. It’s an identity question, right? In Jesus’ culture, people found their identity in the people they hung out with. They didn’t get psychological about individual development and self-actualization. They were part of a community, and the identity of the community was the identity of the people in it.
When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s asking a community question. He’s asking, “Why are you following me? Why are you hanging out with me? Why are you part of this community?” By answering the question of who they think Jesus is, they are answering the question of the purpose of the community of disciples. He’s asking the identity of the church–that community that gets its identity from him.
That’s a great question. Why are we part of the community of disciples? Why do we identify ourselves with the church? Or do we? What is it about bearing the name of Jesus that attracts us? Or does it? Why are we here?
Sometimes our answers to these questions are less than compelling. Sometimes they are deep and rich. But it’s worth struggling with, I think. Why are we here? What is it about a Jesus community that makes us want to be part of it?
The rap sheet on the church is far from spotless. As the church we often say one thing and do the opposite. Sometimes we expect the church to meet our own needs at the expense of everyone else’s. We make time to fight over whether or not we should stand during the Apostles’ Creed but don’t have time to feed the hungry. We buy a new car every year but can’t afford to increase our giving for Christ’s work through the church.
This is not new. Throughout history the church has cared for the institution of the church more than for the Lord whose name she bears. The church has been mean, manipulative, hypocritical, and not always very reflective of Jesus. And we still are. Some of the deepest evil and hatred has had its heart in the church. It would be easy to write off and disassociate from an organization that is so flawed.
But here we are. Why?
If I’m saying this is an important question, I suppose that obliges me to offer an answer. At least my answer. Why am I here? Why a I part of Christ’s Church? My answer is not simple. But it’s honest and it’s mine.
I am part of the church because there isn’t anything better. Nowhere else can people gather and talk openly about the deepest and most significant parts of our lives. No other community will walk with us from birth through death, celebrating and grieving together along the way.
I am part of the church because we offer hope where no one else can. We encourage love for those no one else loves. We consider mercy to be success rather than weakness.
I am part of the church, a community that bears the name of Jesus, because I love the things Jesus stands for. The fact that we don’t do it well all the time is frustrating, but we claim forgiveness not just for the world but for ourselves too. Again, something Jesus stands for.
I’m not part of the church because of the doctrine or the music or the tradition. I’m not part of the church because I think hanging out with you people gets me closer to heaven when I die. I am part of the church because it’s the one community where the values of Jesus are the bottom line. It’s the one community where we can talk freely about forgiveness, peace, making the world a better place, love, mercy, and compassion; in fact, the church is the one community where those things are expected.
I’m part of the church because I believe with all my heart that the ways, the values, the example of Jesus are worth showing to the world. I believe that as long as we’re holding Jesus as our standard, trusting in the forgiveness, mercy, love, compassion and peace that he brings, then the church offers hope to the world.
I’m part of the church because as long as we bear the name of Jesus together, we can hold each other accountable to his values.
I’m part of the church because I can live those values better with you than I can alone.
“Who do you say that I am?” is an important question that Jesus asks us. The answer reveals why we follow Jesus. It reveals why we’re here in this place. It reveals who we are and what we stand for. And when we know that, we can move forward together–in Jesus’ name.