“7 Questions God Has For You: Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Rev. Louis Timberlake
July 17, 2016
Matthew 16:13-20 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,[a] 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,[b] and on this rock[c] 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[d] the Messiah.[e]
Who do you say that I am? It’s an interesting question. How do you capture a person in a string of words, let alone when that person is God incarnate? Consider yourself. Who do you say that you are? What makes you, you? What constitutes your identity? Is it your physical form? Your soul, whatever your understanding of the soul might be? Is it your mind? Is it your unique experiences or abilities?
Fritz Kreisler was one of the most renowned violinists of all time. One day, he was traveling from Hamburg, Germany, to London to give a concert and found that he had an extra hour before his boat sailed. He wandered into a music shop where the proprietor asked if he could look at the violin Kreisler was carrying. He then vanished and returned with two policemen, one of whom told the violinist, "You are under arrest."
"What for?" asked Kreisler.
"You have Fritz Kreisler's violin."
"But, I am Fritz Kreisler."
"You can't pull that on us. We’re taking you down to the station."
Well, Kreisler's boat was sailing soon, he didn’t have time for a trip to the police station. So, he asked for his violin and began to play as few people could play. Immediately, they realized that he was who he said he was, so they apologized, and he left to catch his boat.
What is it that makes you, you?
The philosopher John Locke thought of personal identity as continuity of consciousness--the continued recognition that you exist, that you are...you--unique, distinct from those around you.
You know, acting fascinates me. There’s just this tremendous sense of awe and appreciation you get when you witness a strong performance from a truly great actor. I have absolutely no gifts in that arena. In college, my friends filmed a reenactment of scene from the TV show The Office as a birthday present for someone. They cast me as Jim, if you’re familiar with The Office. I didn’t really want to do it, but they twisted my arm. And, I was just awful. They still make jokes about it. I didn’t want to do it in the first place, but they still make fun of my horrendous attempt at acting. I just do not have the ability to take on another persona, another identity. I am who I am. It makes me feel a bit better that, even among actors, there are those that essentially play the same character in every film. John Wayne was John Wayne. There was no need for anything else. Woody Allen is Woody Allen. Speaking to those of us who prefer lower forms of comedy--Will Ferrell is always Will Ferrell.
Then there are those actors that work so hard to get into character that they change everything about themselves. They don’t just play a character; they become a character. I think about Daniel Day-Lewis, who is legendary for his role preparation. He’ll completely change his lifestyle and mental state, depending upon the role. In preparing for The Last of the Mohicans, he spent chunks of time alone in the Alabama wilderness, learning how to track, hunt, and prepare his own food. Apparently, by the end of the film, he could throw a tomahawk with tremendous accuracy, build a canoe, and hit anything with his flintlock rifle. For The Crucible, he didn’t apparently bathe for the entire shoot, trying to emulate 17th century hygiene standards.
It makes me wonder; is our identity so malleable? Can we literally become someone else? Or, is there some aspect of each of us that is unchanging?
Psalm 139 speaks to each of us being “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. Each unique. Each contributing to the diverse beauty of Creation. God has a role in the formation of our individual identities. Yet, not all Christians agree on the extent of that role. Some view our lives and identities as fairly predetermined by God--we are essentially following a prewritten script. But, that’s not been the view within our segment of the Body of Christ. Within the Methodist family, we see our stories as shaped by our choices and by experiences that are not necessarily the work of God. God is not the great puppetmaster in the sky. We even have a choice whether to embrace or reject God’s activity within our lives. This, of course, is a choice that has major ramifications for the shape of our lives and identity. And, it’s the choice at the heart of the passage we read this morning.
“Who do you say that I am?” With this question, Jesus isn’t seeking an intellectual response. He’s seeking a confessional response. There’s a difference, right? So often, religious belief becomes a thought exercise for us, doesn’t it? A set of interesting ideas to discuss at a dinner party. Or, something reserved for academics stuck in cramped offices, filled floor to ceiling with books. But, the existence and nature of God is not a topic for abstract, detached conversation. It should shape everything about our lives.
As Jesus asks this question, he’s not interested in the depth of the disciples’ thinking, he’s interested in the disposition of their hearts. This question isn’t an invitation into lively, academic dialogue, it’s an invitation into discipleship. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas said it well. “I do not put much stock in ‘believing in God.’ The grammar of "belief" invites a far too rationalistic account of what it means to be a Christian. "Belief" implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do. Does that mean that I do not believe in God? Of course not, but I am far more interested in what a declaration of belief entails for how I live my life.”
It’s not about intellectual assent. It’s about the how that declaration shapes your life. Nothing about Matthew’s story, to this point, would suggest that Peter has it all figured out. His response doesn’t come from an intellectual assurance about Jesus and the nature of God, it is a visceral response to something that is beyond his understanding. He doesn’t understand how the water works; all he knows is that it quenches his thirst.
I’m struck by the way that Peter’s confession about Jesus seems to prompt Jesus’ confession about Peter. Peter’s response to that question, “Who do you say that I am?,” radically shapes his own identity. So much so that Jesus gives him a new name. He’s called “Peter” throughout Matthew’s gospel, but that’s simply because the gospel is written after the fact. The author trying to make it clear from the beginning that Simon and Peter are the same person. But this is the moment, in Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus names Simon as Peter, which translates “the rock.” And, Jesus links this name with Peter’s identity. “On this rock I will build my church.”
This act of renaming someone is present throughout scripture. Abram is renamed Abraham and Sarai as Sarah. Saul is renamed Paul. Jacob is called Israel. In each instance, the renaming is the result of their response to God. Our claims about God shape our identities, who we are. And those claims aren’t made in an ivory tower. They aren’t mere concepts; They have tangible meaning for our lives.
How do you respond to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
You know, I wonder if many of us choose the non-response response? It’s what Rev. Peter Marty called “the statue option.” That seems to be the approach of most of the disciples in the story. When Jesus asks what all of the other people say about him, they’re all pretty quick to respond. But, when he turns the question on them, “But who do YOU say I am?,” it seems like most of the disciples stand as still as possible, hoping to fade into the background, for Jesus to call on someone else. Peter’s is the only response.
You remember what it’s like to sit in a classroom and the teacher asks a question and you’re just praying that she doesn’t call on you? And, there’s a strategy to it. You don’t want to stand out, but you don’t want to be so obvious about not standing out that you end up standing out. Where you sit matters. If you sit up front, you’re in the immediate line of sight. But, you’re also hoping that the teacher assumes that, because you’re in that spot, you’re a pretty good student. If you sit in the back, that’s a dead giveaway that you’re trying to avoid attention.
I was a back row student during high school. In my defense, part of that is from reading too many Western novels and not liking the idea of having people behind me. But, it was also because I had a bad habit of not doing my homework during the first couple of years of high school. And so, when the teacher would ask a question, I would do my best to not attract attention. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always successful. It was particularly bad in Latin class, because it was a small class, making it difficult to hide, and because it’s hard to fake Latin. If you can’t translate the sentence, it’s pretty obvious you didn’t do your homework. Well, sure enough, one day Ms. Polk called on me to translate the sentence, and I hadn’t done my homework. So, I tried to fake it and stumble my way through the translation. But, again, you can’t fake Latin. And, I had a bit of a bad track record with my homework. So, Ms. Polk stopped me and asked, “did you do your homework?” I sheepishly responded, “no Ms. Polk…” She was obviously a little frustrated, but she looked at me and said, “Louis, it’s a good thing you’re cute.” It’s the only time I’ve been called cute by a teacher.
What is your response? When Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?,” how do you respond? Do you choose the statue option? Just try to fade into the background and hope that he calls on somebody else? Because even a non-response is a response, isn’t it?
The way we respond to this question, what we claim about Christ, has ramifications for our lives. I’m not talking eternal destination type stuff. This isn’t a fire and brimstone sermon. We don’t do a lot of those in the Methodist Church. Maybe it’s because we tend to avoid offending people. Maybe because we have enough humility to know that there is much we do not know. Or, maybe the Southern Baptists have it right and we should do a few more feet to the heat messages. Regardless, I’m talking about the ramifications for this life. The way we respond to this question shapes our lives, it shapes our identities, and it shapes our world.
Simon Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And it shaped the course of his life. It defined him. And, through him, the world was affected. Through him, the peace, the hope, and the love of the gospel spread--changing lives and communities. God knows that our world needs a little peace, hope, and love right now.
What is your response to the question?
Discussion Guide for July 17: Who Do You Say That I Am?
- Share what you have heard people say about the identity of Jesus.
- Share something you learned from the sermon about the identity of Jesus.
- Share who Jesus is to you. What titles resonate with you (Christ, Lord, Savior, King)?
- Share your story of claiming Jesus as the Messiah.