Sermon - 16 Pentecost
In the Name...
The story is told of a group of students taking an exam and, when the proctor called out “Pens down”, everybody stopped working and came forward to pile their blue books on the desk and leave the room - except for one fellow who just sat and kept writing. The proctor said nothing but watched until the student had finished and approached the desk. “I’m not going to accept that,” the proctor said. The student replied, “Excuse me, but do you know who I am?” The surprised proctor stammered, “Um, no.” “Good” said the student and thrust his book into the middle of the pile.
In our Gospel today Jesus asks his disciples to report who people think he is and there are great differences in what they have to say. To set the scene, Jesus and the Twelve had just completed a highly successful preaching and miracle tour in Galilee. Great crowds had gathered; great healings had been performed. And having experienced the adoration and adulation, Jesus took a little vacation.
That's true. Caesarea Philippi was a resort town in the lush mountains north of Galilee in the Province of Ituraea. The population was Gentile, not Jewish. It was the site of a big temple to the Greek god, Pan - an identification recalled in its modern name of Banyas. And it was in this rather unlikely setting he asked his closest followers the question which goes to the heart of the Christian faith. Who am I?
Well, the disciples said, people think you could be John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet. John the Baptist. In his time, he was better known than Jesus and had a following the like of which Billy Graham enjoyed in ours. His preaching had shaken the government and even the Sanhedrin had sent a fact-finding mission to determine if John was the Messiah. So, if people thought that Jesus was John that was quite a compliment.
To call him Elijah was also high praise. Elijah, who had spent his life fighting idolatry and false religion, was regarded on a par with Moses the Law-Giver, and the fact that he didn't die, but, was bodily assumed into Heaven, had made him a mystical figure in Jewish theology. It was taught that he would someday return to earth and, in the Jewish Passover ceremony, a place is set at the table for Elijah should he drop in.
But, at the least, at the very least, people considered Jesus a prophet and, since there hadn't been one of those in Israel for the past 400 years, that was still very special. Clearly, Jesus had made quite an impact even if people thought he was someone other than who he was.
So he asked the disciples, "And who do you say that I am?” One can just imagine the awkward pause at this point. The disciples shifting glances at each other. What should they say? James and John were his cousins. They'd known him from childhood. Most of the others had only known him a few months. All of them had seen the amazing works, heard the gracious words, and been privy to the most profound thoughts. Dare any of them articulate what this all meant? The hesitant indecision was probably too much for Peter and so he blurted out, with his customary candour, "The Messiah of God.” The Messiah of God.
In a few months, we will celebrate Christmas and when we do we will hear read St. John's declaration, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." By ancient tradition, Christians genuflect when they hear those words because that single phrase sets Jesus apart from every other living being on this earth. They tell us that He, and He alone, was in this world, but, not of this world. He was no mere mortal man. He shared, from the beginning of the beginning, the nature of God.
It's amazing, though, how so many people who call themselves Christians have struggled with this and yet not only is it essential to identifying Jesus, the consequences of mistaking his identity are far reaching.
For example, in the year 650, all of what we today call Iraq was covered with churches and had been Christian for centuries. But, by 700, only fifty years later, it was almost all Moslem. What happened? Well, the main type of Christianity in that region was a denomination we call Nestorian. It taught that Jesus was virgin-born and performed many miracles, but, that he was not God. In other words, Nestorians failed to identify Jesus correctly. The Moslems also teach that Jesus was virgin-born and performed many miracles, but, is not God. So, what was the difference? Therefore, when confronted by the challenge of Islam, most Nestorians converted. All because they didn't get one little question right. Who do you say that I am?
It's noteworthy that after Peter declared his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus immediately goes on to talk about taking up the cross - words which at the time must have mystified the disciples. The Messiah was supposed to be a victorious conqueror. But, Jesus told them that there would be betrayal and death. He laid it out as plainly as he could, and what did the disciples do? They tuned out.
You see, the disciples couldn't accept what Jesus was saying about the need to become, as Isaiah prophesized, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, oppressed, afflicted. A man rejected and despised in a world which esteems success and stardom. Yet, history shows that often the greatest victory comes only after the greatest hardship and that only a cause worth dying for is a cause worth living for.
It is significant, then, that the last words spoken about Jesus in his life were not spoken by a friend or a disciple, or by a Pharisee or a scribe, they were spoken by a Roman centurion. Peter only said, “You are the Messiah.” The centurion said, "Truly, this man was the Son of God.” Perhaps it takes a soldier to know a fellow soldier and to identify his rank.
So, who do we say, who do we believe, that he is? A great deal hangs on the answer.
In the Name...