That’s really the question we Christians are all trying to answer—to the world, to each other, to ourselves—isn’t it?
I used to know the answer . . . when I was 5.
For a large part of that year of my life, my Dad and I worked on memorizing Luke chapter 19. We’d practice every night before bed until I could recite from memory the entire story of Zaccheaus. And because I knew the story of Zaccheaus I could tell you without any hesitation whatsoever this truth about Jesus:
Jesus is tall.
From my 5 year old perspective, this was the defining feature of the character of Jesus, who, according to my Dad and my Sunday School teacher, walked along the roads that ran through Jericho; who navigated his way through the crowds pressing in on him; who could see over everyone’s head to notice the short little tax collector up in the Sycamore tree trying to see him; who was big enough to shout out and catch Zaccheaus attention; who could head over to the tree to help Zaccheaus down.
I knew, you see, after memorizing that entire story, that Jesus was tall. And, for my little five year old view of the world, being tall was enough to be the hero of the story. There was no doubt about it in my mind; I believed it.
The question of who Jesus is, though, has gotten a little more complicated over the years. While I wish I could stick with the confident assurance that Jesus is tall and leave it at that, the world wants to know . . .I want to know: who is Jesus?
Our Gospel passage this morning finds the disciples grappling with the same question, and in this case the question is posed by Jesus himself, totally raising the stakes for the poor disciples who were put on the spot trying to answer.
The writer of Matthew tells us that Jesus took his disciples into the region of Caesarea-Philippi to one of the most beautiful areas of Galilee. Up high on a hill overlooking the Jordan River Jesus asked them to tell him: “Who are people saying that I am?,” meaning, most commentators would tell you, that Jesus was not so much interested in his own poll numbers as he was in what his disciples were thinking. After all, they would be the ones left behind to carry on his message, and it sure would ease the process if they could sum up who Jesus was for promotional purposes, if you know what I mean.
Talk about putting them on the spot!
By the time I got to high school I’d left all that stuff about Jesus being tall in the dust (though I still suspect he was tall, just because of the whole Zaccheaus story). Being very mature by then, I of course knew that there was much more to the answer of who was Jesus than just physical appearance.
No, when I was in high school, a leader in the youth group, I knew that Jesus was all the things the contemporary Christian singer Michael W. Smith sang that he was: Emmanuel; Wonderful Counselor; Mighty God; Holy One; Prince of Peace and on and on and on.
I didn’t think too much about what all that meant, of course, other than to try to make sure I was doing everything right, filling in all the boxes and telling others how to do that, too, knowing without a doubt that knowing the Four Spiritual Laws and praying the sinner’s prayer were just what was required to know Jesus. That, and a detailed prayer journal where I kept very careful track of what prayers were voices and when and how they were answered.
From my ardent 16-year-old perspective all these things were the essence of who Jesus was: all these words and concepts beyond my understanding, all summed up in a nice little salvation formula I could hang my hat on and sell to others.
And I still believe that about Jesus—that through Jesus Christ I can have relationship with God.
But the question keeps getting more and more complicated as the years go by. While I wish I could stick with the confident assurance that Jesus is God and just leave it at that, the world wants to know . . . I want to know: who is Jesus?
In Matthew’s account, the disciples had a little bit of trouble answering Jesus’ question, too. They stumbled around a bit, reporting the word they’d heard on the streets. People were saying that Jesus was a bit of a celebrity, like John the Baptist—the hottest new thing to come around the bend, a popular and charismatic figure (don’t forget tall!) whom folks were clamoring to follow.
A few of the other disciples answered Jesus saying that the word was he was more of a mythical figure, like Elijah or Jeremiah—someone with a special connection to God who clearly had supernatural powers. This was a little trickier than comparing Jesus to John the Baptist, see, because it implied a little more divinity. “People are not sure, but they think something unusual is going on here, and though we can’t explain it exactly, we hear that people are wanting to fit you, Jesus, into Jewish law. If they begin to see you like one of the big dogs, the prophets of old, then there’s an inexplicable, though nice and neat, category in which you fit.”
The disciples, who had followed Jesus all over the countryside, who sat with him now in the beautiful, towering slopes of Caeserea-Philippi and tried to put what they thought into words, just couldn’t seem to do it adequately. “Here’s what the word on the street is, Jesus . . .” but Jesus knew he hadn’t yet heard the real answer to those disciples’ question: “who is Jesus?”
If you’ll notice the Apostles’ Creed printed in your bulletin again today, you can see that the section of the creed addressing Jesus is the largest section of the creed. “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
When the Apostles’ Creed was written, the Christian church was a baby church, trying to articulate in some kind of doctrinal form, what it is we say we believe about Jesus. They included details of the story that reflect their own situation in the world at that time.
For example, functioning as it did within Greek culture, it would have been critically important to include in the creed the detail of Jesus being born to a virgin—since everyone in that culture knew that important figures were born miraculously. In such a short statement of faith it was critical to communicate that they believed Jesus was special. But it was also critical to include his suffering and death, without which he could never have been totally human. But, they also wanted to be sure to include his resurrection to make sure no one forgot he was God.
If you think about it, the creed’s answer to the question: “who is Jesus?” is not unlike the disciples’ answer to Jesus’ question: who do people say that I am?” A little confusing . . . a little all over the map . . . saying a lot without really saying anything.
It’s a good thing, then, that Jesus rephrased the question to the disciples. Remember? He said, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Because, word on the street and official creeds of the church aside, that’s what really matters, isn’t it?
At the end of the day, Jesus wants to know, who am I . . . to you?
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When I became an adult my ideas about Jesus changed again. They changed because I met a woman, a nun named Sister Clarita Bourque, who invited me to help her start a shelter for homeless women in the city of New Orleans.
Sr. Clarita and I saw all around us, day in and day out, women whose lives were torn to bits by the human experience. They were battered by abuse and drug addiction, poverty and lack of education. They lived lives that were void of hope. All of the sudden my Four Spiritual Laws and prayer journal, my explanations of Jesus as God’s representative on earth, fell on empty eyes and uncomprehending hearts.
“Who is Jesus?,” I started to wonder again. And Sr. Clarita told it this way: “Jesus is God in human form,” she would say to the women at Lindy’s Place. “Did you know,” she’d tell us, “Christianity is the only major world religion in which God comes to earth and feels what it’s like to be human?”
And when I worked alongside Sr. Clarita, who devoted her entire life to serving the poor because she believed so much in Jesus, that all made sense to me. When I looked at her sacrifice and the women who were desperately searching for hope, it all made sense. Right then I knew who Jesus was: Jesus was God in human form, one who had felt what it was like to be hungry and homeless, to face pain and uncertainty, to know sorrow and fear and grief . . . all of these things that, I was finding, were big parts of human living.
And I still believe that about Jesus—that Jesus Christ was fully human, that he lived the human experience and that he knows what it is like to be me and you.
But, still . . . the question keeps getting more and more complicated as the years go by. If Jesus was human, if Jesus knew suffering and pain, how could he also have been God? I’m not the only one wondering about all these things. You just have to read the DaVinci Code or follow the research of the Jesus Seminar to know that everybody else has a curiosity about Jesus’ humanity. Everybody is still asking the same question that I keep thinking I’ve found the answer to, starting in my life at age 5: who is Jesus?
Sometimes I cringe at my own inability to believe. Just look at my track record: I was sure he was tall; I knew just the formula for salvation; I was convinced he was all about healing the world—these conclusions about who Jesus is to me are surely not logically defensible. I wish I could come up with an answer like Peter’s and stop being so wishy washy.
But then I remember . . . right after Peter’s grand declaration of faith, Jesus went on to talk about his suffering and death.
Uh oh, what Jesus was saying did not fit with Peter’s understanding of who Jesus was, so he spoke up, protesting. And do you remember what Jesus said to Peter? He said, “Get behind me Satan.”
Even Peter couldn’t explain it. For him it took years of living in relationship, trying as best as he could (and failing often) to live the standard of life Jesus came to model. Peter had his high moments, where he stood at Jesus’ right hand and helped serve food to 5000 people. And Peter had his low moments, where he swore in the temple courtyard that he’d never met this man Jesus.
And in Peter’s very inability to articulate what he believed and in his stumbling attempts to live into what he hoped he believe, you and I can find the courage we need to join our voices with the voice of those disciples and of the first church and of this church by giving our hearts to this Jesus, the one whom, though we may not ever explain it concisely enough, somehow, some way, offers us life-transforming relationship with God.
My answer to the question keeps growing and changing, but that’s okay . . . that’s what believing is about. And the affirmations you and I make along the way are little pieces that, when knit together, create a picture of deep and abiding faith.
After all, it was when Jesus asked the question that Peter uttered the first affirmation of Jesus as Messiah in the Gospel of Matthew—significant for scholars. But probably more significant for us is hearing what came from Peter’s heart: “To me? Unbelievably, inexplicably and totally real . . . to me, Jesus, you are Messiah, Son of the Living God.”
This was Peter’s declaration of faith, the best he could come up with . . . not what everyone else was saying but what he believed with his heart to be true right then and there. And Jesus responded:“Blessed are you, Simon!” Blessed are you.
The thing about asking that question, “who is Jesus?” is that you’ll end up with a whole lot of hear-say, disputed historical data, volumes of systematic doctrine, even a creed that probably says some things we wonder about and leaves out a bunch of things we’d like to see included.
No, it seems like on this day when we remember what it is we believe about Jesus, we want to ask the same question Jesus did to Peter: Not “who is Jesus?” but “who is Jesus . . . to YOU?”
To answer this question, of course, is going to take courage. We don’t know nearly enough to fully answer that question theologically, historically, systematically.
We only know enough to answer that question experientially . . . and that’s going to have to cut it. Remember what we learned two weeks ago about what the word “believe” means—it means “to give your heart to”—to take a risk.
Who is Jesus?
Who is Jesus to you?
Living our lives working to answer this question is the very essence of why we gather every Sunday to worship God, expressed to us in the person of Jesus. We can’t explain who he is completely, and none of us would ever explain it the same way. The creed is a good place to start, but it’s never going to be enough until we move beyond an idea into a relationship . . . into relationship with the living God.
No, the creed doesn’t do him justice, and any one of our explanations can’t really either. But we do know this: there’s a mysterious power in Jesus the Christ, a power that calls us to live our lives in such a way that flies in the face of all the conventional wisdom we know.
Today we affirm that we believe in Jesus Christ, who calls us to give away what we have; to heal the world; to love our enemies; to make audacious promises like the ones Mary will make when she takes her ordination vows in a few minutes. And this evidence of transformational power is enough to assure us that we can give our hearts to this Jesus.
This is who Jesus is to me, the best I can do right here and right now. But who Jesus is to me is not really the question, is it? The real question is: who is Jesus . . . to you?
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.