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August 24, 2014 - Matthew 16.13-20

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Matthew 16.13-20

August 24, 2014

13 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.[1]

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Now Jesus will find out how much the disciples have understood about him. Their answers show that the public has been trying to place Jesus in the context of their messianic expectations, their conventional expectations for how God might move among them to deliver them from their oppression.

 

Then Jesus asks them a much more important question:  “Who do you say that I am?”  It is as if Jesus asked the first question just to get to the second.

 

It is Simon Peter who answers, "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God" (16:16).

He knew that his disciples had heard all the rumors and the far-fetched ideas.  But those things were not the important things to him.  Jesus looked at Peter and got to the heart of the matter.  “Who do you say that I am?”  His question may have been the most important question ever asked in history.  Peter got the answer right - “The Messiah of God.” 

 

For Peter, what other people were saying about Jesus was irrelevant.  His relationship to Jesus was based on what he declared Jesus to be.  His confession is the beginning, the starting point of his faith.  It is the heart of the matter.  The same is true for everyone.  Yours and my relationship to God will hinge on one and only one factor: who we declare Jesus to be.  His question to Peter was not “Do you go to church?” or “Are you a good guy?” or “Did your parents go to church?”  Jesus requires of Peter, and you, and me, that each of us make our own choice in regard to who Jesus is.

 

Recently, I was reading about a minister that I know of.  Some of the things I read surprised me.  I do not know the man personally.  But some of the things that I read show that he is far from a perfect man.  He has had a tenuous relationship with his family.  His son was all but estranged from him, involved in all sorts of sinful behavior.  His daughter, by her professional conduct has brought down the scorn of many of her respected colleagues, and this father minister has encouraged her in her controversial pursuits.  It seems that his ministry has amassed a great deal of wealth.  He has his own private jet; he has more than one home.  You can call him a TV preacher, since this guy is always on television.  Ministers are supposed to be frugal are they not?  So many of them are just out to get rich; they sully the name of our vocation. It seems that when the chips were down in many important matters of faith, historically, this minister pulls a Houdini and doesn’t show up.  He has voiced no opinion on any important topic.  He has been criticized as having no backbone.  Some say it is all about his political motivations.  Doesn’t want to discourage any potential contributors, you see.   Not only that, but even though many people call him “Doctor,” assuming that he has an impressive list of academic credentials, the truth is that this minister has never even been to seminary.  It seems he’s always preaching the same sermon.  He’s never pastored a church.  This information is accurate, so what other conclusion can I come to?  That’s what I read, anyway.

 

With all the people out there trying to represent Jesus and doing a poor job of it, it’s a wonder that anyone gets anything right about Jesus.  In our scripture, Jesus asks his disciples who the people are saying he is.  Nobody is getting it right.  Lots of different ideas are out there about who Jesus is.  Frankly, it is no different today.  Lots of different people will offer you their opinions as to who Jesus is, or was.  Some claim Jesus was nothing more than a man.  They say he died just like everyone else.  Some claim that he was a great man and a prophet of God, but will say nothing more than that.  They say his claims of messiahship are just too far fetched to be believed.  Some even say he never existed.  He was a cumulative gestalt of various would be messiahs, kind of like King Arthur.  Myth.  If we were forced to rely on just what other people say about Jesus, well then, we would never get the story straight.

 

It is insufficient for any of us to rely on someone else’s opinion of Jesus, on what others have said.  Anyone can know a great deal about Jesus, be thoroughly educated in all the scriptures and tenets of the faith, perhaps even be have read every book on Christ in every language written, and still get the answer to this question wrong.  “Jesus must be our own personal discovery.”[2]

 

This reality of our faith is expressed through a doctrine that we Baptists call the “Priesthood of the Believer.”  It means that every believer is responsible to God for himself or herself, that there is no one standing between you and Jesus.  It is a hallmark, perhaps the hallmark of Baptist faith and heritage.  It is not only our right to choose; it is also our responsibility to choose.[3]  No one can make this decision for you, and no one else’s opinion about Jesus matters where you are concerned.  The question is “Who do YOU say that I am?”  None can answer the question for you, regardless of your background, gender, race or age.  It is a question asked directly to an individual, no one else.

 

Teenagers are often victims of a frustrating phenomenon regarding the asking of a question.  I’ve seen it a lot.  I will be talking to a teen and his or her parents.  I will ask a question of the youth, and a parent will answer for them.  Then, without fail, the youth will ROLL her eyes and give a frustrated “Unnh!”  The teen is frustrated because she is perfectly capable of answering a question for herself, and yet her parents have not become accustomed to that fact.  They are still in the mindset of someone that has to do everything for their child.  The parent does not realize that in order for their teenager to develop genuine relationships with others, she must be able to speak for herself, to make her own social faux pas, to misspeak, to learn from her mistakes and to appreciate the intimacy that arises from genuine relationships.

 

The same is true for our relationship with God.  Because we are priests, there is no “hovering parental unit” to speak for us, or to misspeak for us.  We do that for ourselves.  There is no interpreter needed.  There is no chance of something being lost in the translation.  When we cry out to God in pain, it is God that sees our tears.  When we thank God from the bottom of our hearts, it is God that sees the joy on our faces.  You do not have to rely on someone’s description of God; you experience God for yourself.  You don’t have to just “take someone’s word for it.”  A relationship with God is a first person experience, and can only be just that, like a parent to a child.  God has no grandchildren, nor does God have any distant relatives.

 

We tend to take for granted the gift of salvation. Salvation is so simple! We have stressed the simplicity of it to the point that we forget the awesomeness of it.  Yes it is simple in its mechanics: God doesn't require that we pass any theology tests or perform any great tasks. All God asks of us is that confess and believe in Jesus.  But let’s be clear: none of us save ourselves.  Jesus saves us. 

 

Please understand this.  God made it simple in order to make it available to all.  God’s love – God’s obsession – is showing us how much God loves us.  You and I really have no idea how much God loves us:  “Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity, that he loves you in the morning sun and the evening rain, he loves you when your intellect denies it, when your emotions refuse and when your whole being rejects it?  Do you believe that God loves you without condition or reservation, and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?[4]  I hope you do, but if that is a new concept for you, please believe me.  Let that soak in.

 

Neither you nor I can afford to let other people’s opinion be our sole source of information when it comes to matters as important as our relationship to Jesus.  If we do not have a direct connection to God, then the information we get is not verifiable; we can’t trust it.  I’ll give you an example.  Do you recall that minister that I talked about at the beginning of this sermon, that minister that just has too many questionable areas of conduct to be respected?  You may have heard of him.  His name is Billy Graham.

 

Every single fact I gave you about him is true.  He has a jet.  It is necessary in his ministry.  He needs one more than you need a car.  His son was very rebellious and Franklin Graham will tell you so.  But it was Franklin’s rebellion, not Billy’s.  His daughter, Anne Graham Lotz is indeed controversial.  She is a female Baptist preacher, and she’s good enough to make her critics jealous in addition to just being bad interpreters of scripture.  Billy Graham has remained silent on many of the important issues of his day.  It has been intentional.  He has done so to retain the integrity of his message, so he can retain his audience, because his issue is more important than any contemporary issue of his day.  He has never pastored a church.  He was not called to pastor.  He is an evangelist.  He has never been to seminary. 

Middlemen get in the way, folks.  If I can misrepresent Billy Graham like this to you, imagine what damaged information about God you could be given if it were not for your priesthood as a believer.  The difference in having a priest and being a priest is like the difference (but much greater) between listening to me talk about Billy Graham, and the experience of shaking his hand, praying with him, and sitting down for a Sunday lunch with him.

 

Because of the priesthood of all believers, this church has a free pulpit.  That means that I, as your guest preacher, am free to preach to you the message I believe God has given for today.  But because you are also priests, as believers, this church not only has a free pulpit it also has a free pew.[5]  That means you are to verify whatever I tell you in light of your relationship to Jesus.  Do not blindly accept anything that any preacher, or any person, tells you. 

 

Jesus asks Peter his question and Peter responds with his confession.  Jesus then immediately follows Peter’s statement of confession with a radical call to discipleship.  Let us notice here that Jesus is connecting Peter’s confession with the demands of discipleship (v. 21-26).  If we are going to declare that Jesus is the Son of God, then we must follow him.  The path that Jesus walks is characterized by one lone image: the cross.  You must carry your cross daily.  Why the connection?  Why not just pat Peter on the head and say “Good answer.  Take the rest of the day off; you’ve earned it.”  Because Jesus knows something that we often forget and don’t like to think about.

 

Shakespeare wrote “’Tis a kind of good deed to say well, and yet words are no deeds.”[6]  Words are not deeds.  Actions speak louder than words.  They run faster.  They hug tighter.  They hit harder.  They laugh louder.  They taste sweeter. [7] Actions are what words would be if they would grow up and become a responsible adult. 

Our confession is either validated by our actions, or it is proved false.  We can say things we don’t mean.  We can even fool ourselves.  Our confession is directly tied to our discipleship.  Because every believer is a priest, we are directly responsible for our own spiritual journey.  It also means that we are priests to each other.  We not only have the freedom and responsibility to reach up to Jesus, but we also are charged with the responsibility to reach out to others.[8]    We are charged with what others will know, discover, and be told about Jesus.  Part of our discipleship is being caretakers of our priesthood as believers in Jesus.  We are responsible for what we leave behind when we are finished with our turn watching the store.

 

What will we pass on to those that follow us?  Sara Groves sings “Remind me of this with every decision, generations will reap what I sow.  I can pass on a curse or a blessing to those I will never know.”[9]  What will the Baptists that come after us say about us?  Will they echo what the bard wrote: “They…lived long on the alms-basket of words,”[10] meaning we were all talk?  Or will they reap the same rich inheritance that we have? 

 

There is a reason this is a Baptist church and not another “brand.”  The people that founded this church were convinced that no one could stand between them and Jesus.  When Jesus asked Peter “Who do you say that I am?” it was not a question for the group.  He did not ask someone else what Peter thought.  Today, Jesus asks each and every one of us the same question: “Who do you say that I am?”  Only Peter could answer the question Jesus asked Peter.  Only you can answer for you.

 

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2] Barclay, William; The Daily Study Bible – Luke

[3] Shurden, Walter B.; The Doctrine of the Priesthood of Believers (Nashville, Tennessee: Convention Press, 1987) p.11.

[4] Brennan Manning

[5] Shurden, Ibid, p. 11.

[6] Shakespeare, William; Henry VIII, III, ii, 152. Miner, Maragret and Rowan, Hugh; A Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare (New York: Meridian, 1992) p.274.

[7] Thomason, Mary Kathryn; from her high school graduation address.

[8] Shurden, Ibid, p. 12.

[9] Groves, Sara; Generations from the album Conversations (Nashville: INO music, PW music, 2000).

[10] Shakespeare, William; Love’s Labor Lost, V, I, 89, Miner, Maragret and Rowan, Hugh, ibid, p. 276.