Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
There are two questions that Jesus asks in this text. “Who do others say I am?” and, “Who do you say I am?”
I think we’re good at answering the first one, and not as good at answering the second.
The first question, “Who do other people say I am?” includes what we’ve been taught about Jesus, what people we respect say about Jesus, and what is generally accepted about Jesus. This question is often about doctrine, where there are right and wrong answers. We’ve become so reliant on what others say about Jesus that we have a hard time answering for ourselves. In the old days, if someone answered this question incorrectly, we would burn them at the stake.
We don’t do that anymore. Instead, if someone disagrees with the correct doctrinal position they simply burn in hell. Because we’re no longer uncivilized barbarians.
We’ve been trained over the centuries to have the “correct” answers to all things Jesus. We’ve had the ability to answer the second question, “Who do you say that I am?” frightened out of us. We’re so afraid of being wrong that we simply go along with everyone’s answer, assuming they are right. We’re no longer willing to go out on a limb, do a gut-check, to discover something new about Jesus. It’s as if all there was to know about him was discussed in the first few years, the question was called, the debate was closed, and a vote was held. No more discussion. No more discovery. No more sharing of eye-opening personal experiences with one we claim has risen from the dead. It’s all about what other people have said about him.
It’s important to note Jesus’ questions weren’t “Who do others say that I am?” and then, “OK, now what’s the correct answer?” No, he asks the disciples who Jesus is for them. He asks for their honest speculation. He asks them to take a risk, venture out, be vulnerable, and answer for themselves.
All the disciples are silent. You can hear crickets chirping, feet shuffling. Then Peter, who can’t stand awkward silences, opens his mouth and says something. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus praises him for answering. And we’ve assumed all these centuries that Peter is praised for having the “right” answer, even though Peter proves in the verses immediately following today’s text that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (come back next week!). It’s true that his answer has become the doctrinally correct one—the answer we are now supposed to use when asked who Jesus is. But in reality, it’s still probably what other people say Jesus is.
The church, at our heart, is a community where we ought to listen to what others have said about Jesus. We should hear what wise and deeply spiritual people have experienced him to be. But that cannot prevent us from discovering how he encounters us now, how he opens our hearts to God today, how he moves us in our own growth as disciples. What others say about him matters because it can open us up to possibilities, but it can’t be the final word for us.
We know all the “correct” answers. We know what is proper doctrine. We know what the first Christians voted on and approved as the right answers. But unless we are encountering the living Christ, we are only able to quote what other people say about him. Until we’ve answered for ourselves, based on our experience with the resurrected Christ, the best we can do is be silent like the rest of the disciples.
So here’s my question today. Why not answer Jesus’ second question, “Who do you say that I am?” What’s wrong with being honest about who Jesus is for us? What’s stopping us from sharing our own experiences, our own heart-events with him? Others might say our experiences are wrong. Some might even want to burn us at the stake because we may not be doctrinally correct.
But Jesus still asks, “Who do you say that I am?” In your spiritual journey, in your life-experience, who is he to you?
Because he has encountered you. If you haven’t recognized him, it might be because you’re only looking for the Jesus that other people have described. That may not be the way he comes to you. If you’ve been moved to acts of compassion, might that be the risen Christ? If you find yourself desiring mercy—given or received, couldn’t that be Christ moving in your life? When you are generous, kind, gracious, when you serve others, can’t we consider the possibility that it is Christ who has met us and moved us there?
Who is Jesus for you?
For me, at least today, Jesus is the one who reveals what God is like. He is the one who inspires me to live differently, generously, boldly. He is the one who makes me realize that those I tend to ignore are just as worthwhile as those I pay attention to. He is the one who moves me from judgment to listening. He is the one who brings out the “image of God” in me. It is in these ways that he is the Son of the Living God for me.
Feel free to disagree. You can call me a heretic or believe I’m on my way “somewhere” in a handbasket. But when Jesus asks who I say he is, I need to answer him.
Who do you say he is? I’d love to hear how you answer that!