“Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus of his followers. They proceed to give him the lowdown on the gossip in the bars and markets of Galilee. There’s obviously a whole lot of speculation going on. He is John the Baptist, people are saying, or Elijah, or one of the other Old Testament Prophets. It’s likely that there were other opinions too. From hints in the New Testament we think that some saw him as a new Joshua, the great leader who brought the Israelites into the Promised Land – Jesus and Joshua are the same name in Hebrew. The name means “God saves”. Some saw him as a new Moses, especially when he fed people miraculously on loaves and fishes in the middle of nowhere, just as Moses had fed them on Manna in the wilderness. For others, Jesus may have been seen as a new King David; born in David’s hometown of Bethlehem, descended from his family. He talked a lot about the kingdom too, so maybe there was going to be a return to the glory days when Israel had been at its most powerful. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus knew that everyone had their own pet theories.
But this question, with all its potential for theological argument and learned discussion is really just a conversation starter.
“Ok, so that is the gossip that’s going around about me, but what about you? Who do you say that I am?” he asks his disciples. That’s what really matters. When the rubber hits the road and they have to stand up for their faith, it will be no good if all they have are second-hand opinions. Their understanding of Jesus will have to be their own.
It’s Peter who jumps in first with an answer – he’s often the one who is first to open his mouth, even if it is only to put his foot in it. But this time, for once, he is spot on. “You are the Messiah” he blurts out. What does he mean? And how does he know?
Let’s start with the first question. What does he mean? We can’t be completely sure. Ideas about the Messiah varied. But the essence of it was that the Messiah was God’s representative, chosen to do God’s work. Messiah means “anointed one”. You were anointed for a task – as a king or a priest, for example, set aside for something distinctive. In Matthew’s version of this story, Peter doesn’t just acclaim Jesus as Messiah. He says “ You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”. Again we can’t be sure what he understood by this. When the early Christians called Jesus God’s son they weren’t talking about biology or genetics, because they didn’t have any knowledge of them. They knew at some deep level, though, that when they looked at Jesus, they saw a family likeness to God, someone who was at home with God, at one with God, someone who knew the family business and did it. That is probably what Peter meant by his answer.
Peter had travelled with Jesus, eaten with him, seen his exhaustion at the end of the day. Above all he had seen the constant stream of people who had come to meet Jesus, people who had gone away changed. With very few exceptions when people came to Jesus they went away different. People met him and were healed. People met him and were welcomed and accepted. People met him and were called into new ways of life. He didn’t just change their ideas, what happened in their heads. He changed their hearts, souls and lives. They left their fishing nets and their tax collecting booths. They gave away their money and their security. They turned their backs on destructive ways of life in which they had felt trapped. They learned to see themselves and others in a whole new light. They didn’t just end up with a new theory about who Jesus was, or with new ideas about God, but with lives that had been transformed because of his love.
Peter hadn’t only seen this happening to others. It had happened to him too. He had been changed. Jesus had called him, an ordinary, impulsive fisherman who didn’t seem to have given a moment’s thought to anything religious in his life. As far as we can tell all he had cared about before was making a go of his fishing business and looking after his family. But Jesus had given him a new sense of purpose, a sense that his life mattered.
Changing people, creating and recreating. This was the kind of thing God did, and Peter knew that. As our psalm this morning put it “you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” (Psalm 116) Jesus was doing what God did, and Peter had seen it and known it for himself . It was real, it was authentic, and that was what mattered.
And I think it still matters to people today. My impression is that despite the difficulty people may have in engaging with organised religion, or at least, turning up in church on Sundays, they are still as spiritually hungry as they ever were. They want something real to happen in their lives. The conversations I have with people who may never darken the doors of this place, or who perhaps just wander in when they think no one will be here are often very deep and full of desire for the work of God; for healing and guidance, for inspiration and forgiveness, for engagement with the real, pressing problems of life and the world.
That is what Peter saw and acclaimed in Jesus. Here was someone who was the real deal, doing God’s work, transforming lives. He had seen it in action, in his own life; that’s why he knew Jesus was the Messiah.
But Peter’s acclamation wasn’t the end of the story today, and we soon realise that he still had a lot to learn. He had seen the truth, but not yet the whole truth. He had just got it spectacularly right, but in the next breath he got it just as spectacularly wrong.
Jesus started to talk about how he would have to suffer and die. Peter couldn’t get his head around that at all. Why would God let such a thing happen? Surely if God was at work in Jesus – if he was the Messiah - it should all be plain sailing for him now. Miracles all the way to the throne of God’s kingdom.
Peter acclaimed Jesus as Messiah , because he saw him doing great things and meeting with obvious success. But Jesus warned him that soon he would have to see the man he had acclaimed pinned to a cross, and lying dead in a tomb. There would be no success to see then, no last minute rescue. If success was the mark of the Messiah in Peter’s mind, what would happen then? Predictably, when the time came, for a while Peter thought the whole thing had been a lie and tried to distance himself from it. It wasn’t until he saw Jesus raised from the helplessness of death that he really understood what Jesus had been saying, and why it mattered so much. God could be with someone, working in them and through them not just in strength but also in vulnerability, not just when they were doing deeds of great power but also when they were completely powerless.
And that brings us to ourselves, because Jesus’ question is just as much for us as it was for those first disciples. “Who do you think I am?” says Jesus to us. “Do you think I am a miracle worker who will wave a magic wand over your problems and make them all go away if only you pray the right prayers and believe fervently enough? Do you think I am a teacher who will give you some inspirational pointers about how to live your life better? Do you think I am an interesting conundrum, a historical puzzle, a philosopher whose ideas you can argue about? Do you think I am your ticket to heaven, to be safely stored in a pocket somewhere and produced at the vital moment?”
Jesus has been seen in many ways – these are just a few of them. Maybe they are all useful, all true at some level. But when push comes to shove, they aren’t enough. Deep down we know that. They aren’t enough when the going gets tough. They aren’t enough when we start to wonder whether life is worth living. They aren’t enough when we are swamped with regrets about the past or hopelessness about the future. They aren’t enough when we are confronted with the complexities of problems that are beyond our power to solve, and perhaps beyond anyone’s power, like the tide of refugees sweeping across Europe or the bitter wars that have driven them from their homes. At those points we need a faith that isn’t just there when the going is good, but is just as real when everything is falling apart around us. We don’t need a faith that depends on simple answers or a quick fix, but a faith in the God who will sit in the darkness and confusion with us until the morning comes and brings with it resurrection.
“Who do you say that I am?” That’s a question we all have to answer for ourselves in the end. As Philip will tell you, I spent a long time chewing over this sermon – some sermons are stubborn like that. In particular, I struggled with how to end it. Eventually, though, I concluded that that was the point. It isn’t mine to end. I can’t make sense of someone else’s faith for them. We each have to do that for ourselves, finding out what our real questions and real hungers are, being honest about ourselves with God and open to his Spirit. That’s not always easy – as Jesus said, there can be crosses and sacrifice involved – but it is worth it. So all I can do at this point is sit down and shut up, and pray that each of us has the courage to let the God who “rescues our lives from death, our eyes from tears and our feet from stumbling” get to work in the reality of our lives.