"And then the most difficult question of all, the one that Jesus did not ask of the disciples, at least not out loud, at least not that day in Caesarea: Who do you say that you are? As you walk through life, writing your own obituary every day, what are you saying about yourself? Who are you claiming to be? Who are you confessing to be?
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 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. 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. 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. -- Matthew 16:13-20
But Who Do You Say…?
What a week it’s been! The message I’m sharing with you today is not the message I intended, not from the Scripture I had planned, not sharing the theme I had planned a few months ago. I was going to talk with you about Jesus’ words that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, about Isaiah’s call for us to remove the yoke from among us, to cease the pointing of fingers and the speaking of evil and how we talk with one another and how we affect the world around us to make it be a kinder, gentler and more peaceful place—like the Kingdom of God.
But the Kingdom of God has seemed far away this week, and I found myself growing angrier and angrier, and that’s no way to prepare a sermon, and would probably have resulted in an angry sermon, which is not good. So I decided to share a different message with you today.
First, a couple of things I have to get off my chest. The first is a letter I got from an old friend this week. He just retired and he and his wife were on a cruise, and he knows how much I like pie, so he wrote this letter telling me that pineapple pie costs $4.75 a slice in St. Kitts, and that coconut crème pie is $5.35 for a good size piece in Cozumel, and finally that he had spent $6.80 for a small piece of Key Lime pie in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It took me a while to realize that my friend had just written the pie-rates of the Caribbean.
So then the same friend traveled to the Mediterranean and visited Athens, where he saw the Parthenon and the Acropolis, and he wrote me a letter saying that he was surprised that the Greeks seemed to sleep in late. I wrote back saying that was just the opposite of what I’d always heard—that I thought Greeks were always up at sunrise. He wrote back and said that it’s untrue, because Dawn is just too tough on grease.
I look at the obituaries every day. It isn’t that I am morbid. It’s just that I promised myself, a long time ago, that if I ever see my name in the obituaries, I will take the day off. No matter what I had planned for the day. It hasn’t happened for me—yet. Still, it is a reason to review the obituaries each day and, once in awhile, to read what people are saying about themselves or their loved ones these days. Maybe you look at the obituaries, too. You can read them online now, even without a subscription. Apparently, online, they are updated throughout the day. That’s too much worry for me, too much work.
But, recently, I read an obituary in the Indianapolis Star; it was over twenty paragraphs long. I don’t remember who it was that had died, and probably wouldn’t use his name, anyway, but I was really taken by the length of the obituary and the tremendous amount of detail that was recorded about this man’s life. In the first paragraph, I was told that he had had a very successful career. He had been in the military service and achieved rank during World War II. He had come home and attended the right schools and received advanced degrees. He had started businesses and been recognized as one of the kings of industry. He belonged to the right clubs—the Columbia Clubs, the Skyline Club, and Woodstock Country Club. Between the paragraphs telling me of the man’s accomplishments, there were a couple of pictures, one showing him with a senator and another with his hunting rifle, standing over a fallen rhinoceros.
Reading on, I saw that he was on Boards of Directors of nine or ten other corporations, and a couple of big not-for-profits and he belonged to the Chamber of Commerce—he had been the president--and had advised governors, over the years, on what was best for business in Indiana. As I recall, he was a Shriner and he belonged to the Scottish Rite, and he had served on the Board of Trustees of a local university. Finally, I made it to the next-to-last paragraph and found that, in the midst of all of the very full, very busy, very important life this man had led, he had managed to be married and to have a couple of children, who had also married and produced children of their own, though the grandchildren were left unnamed due to a lack of space. Services, for reasons not shared, were to be held at one of the large Methodist Churches, followed by burial at Crown Hill Cemetery. And then the last paragraph explained just how much his wit and charm would be missed the next time the family gathers for its annual three-day weekend at its cottage in Maine.
The man’s obituary covered almost two full columns of the page, but there was just enough space at the bottom of the page, at the end of the second column of the man’s obituary, for another obituary, two paragraphs long. It began with the words that another man had died, surrounded, it said, by his loving wife of forty years and their three children and seven grandchildren, identified by name. They had stayed with him in the hospital for two days and, finally, yielded him up to the waiting arms of God, and then, even in their sadness, they had rejoiced both at the love they had shared and at their certainty in his new eternal life. The second paragraph told of many accomplishments, including his membership at a nearby United Methodist Church and the years he had spent teaching junior high Sunday School there.
And I thought to myself, what a shame that one man had died so poor while the other had died so rich.
Let’s pray together.
Gracious and generous God, who names us all and loves us all and calls each and every one of us to life with You, call on us today as we seek Your Will and as we study Your Word. Nudge us onto the path that leads to life. Strengthen our faith, that we might reach out and pull others onto that same path. And in all that we see and hear, in all that we say and do, in all that we feel and all that we think, in all that comes clear and all that remains obscure, remind us that the glory of this time and of these words is Yours, alone. Amen.
From the Gospels of Mark and of Luke, it appears that Jesus begins to call His new disciple, Simon, by the name Peter right away. But in the Gospel of Matthew, we see that Jesus has called the disciple Simon until this point, deep into His ministry, after even the death of John the Baptist, and that it is only after the disciple has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, that Jesus renames him, no longer using the given name, “Simon.” And it is because of the Greek word—petra—that is translated to mean “rock” that Jesus has named him Peter:
“…, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.”
It appears, from reading the Gospels, and from reading the Book of Acts, and from reading the Epistles, that Simon became Peter in that moment, for that is the name used throughout the rest of the Bible. Peter—the rock upon whom the church is to be built.
These two questions…. Do you find it odd that Jesus asked, first, what the people were saying about Him? Why did He ask, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Do you suppose that Jesus was just a little bit curious about what the people were saying about Him when He wasn’t around? When He wasn’t there when they weren’t begging Him to heal them or their loved ones when He wasn’t changing water into wine or restoring sight to the blind, when He was not preaching and teaching, but was off by Himself, what were the people saying? Or was this question intended to make a point, to help the disciples learn, to guide them to understand? One question intended to set up the second. “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” And then, “But who do You say that I am?”
He wanted the disciples to understand that they had a unique point of view. They had the insider’s view, a front-row seat. They, alone, were family to the Messiah, at least for the time being. It was important for them to understand that the world saw Jesus differently than they saw Him. It was important for them to understand that they would have to choose. Conform to the world, and to the world’s view of Jesus, or stand with Him and stand for all that He stood for.
What do the people say that the Son of Man is? The answers that the disciples gave were not unpleasant. The names they offered up, the names that they had heard others use in referring to Jesus--“Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets”—these were not derogatory, not insulting, not demeaning. In fact, the names that the people had chosen for Jesus reflected that they admired Him, wondered at His abilities, saw in Him someone doing the work of God on earth. John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah—all faithful servants of God, heroes of the Bible, beloved. But not the Messiah. Not the Son of God. Not the Christ, the Anointed One, the One promised through the ages.
But who do you say that the Son of Man is?
We remember, still, the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, April 20, 1999. And whether it is folklore or truth, whether it has been embellished or is just the fact, we know the story of Cassie Bernall, who was asked by one of the killers, as she stood before him and he held an assault rifle, pointed at her as he asked, “do you believe in God?” And she answered “Yes” without hesitation. And then she was shot to death. And we believe, don’t we, that she knew that her answer would result in her death and yet we know that she said “Yes” because to deny her belief would be to deny Her God. And so she bravely said “Yes” and she died for the truth when she might have conformed to the world and then have been spared. And so if we would dare to ask Cassie, “But who do you say that the Son of Man is?” we know, don’t we, that her answer would be, “He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In the moment—Matthew tells us that Jesus had just healed the Canaanite woman, then cured a great crowd of people beside the Sea of Galilee and, finally, fed four thousand people with seven loaves and one fish, all in the presence of the Twelve disciples and the others who were following –in that moment, Simon declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had just come and demanded of Jesus a sign to demonstrate His holiness, and He had refused them and sent them away, and then He had turned to His disciples with these questions—“Who do the people say the Son of Man is?” “But who do you say that I am?” In the moment, filled with excitement at what he had just witnessed, surrounded by the other disciples, facing Jesus, Himself, without any threat of embarrassment or humiliation or shame, Simon confessed Jesus as the Christ. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus renamed him “Peter.” Peter, the rock upon whom the church would be built. Finally, proof that the disciples were listening and learning. Finally, proof that someone could see Jesus as who He was. But still, just a beginning. For, Jesus knew, didn’t He, that even Peter, His rock, would one evening sleep while He prayed, would fight when He told Him to stand down and, worst of all, would deny Him, not once but three times, all in a single night. Still, this was progress and, in the moment, Simon the man became Peter the rock for the ages as he confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Chosen One, sent from God. Peter surely has a complicated obituary.
I suspect that our obituaries reflect, in death, the priorities that we kept in life. When a story of a man’s life, told upon his death, focuses on awards and careers and degrees and public accomplishments, and not on family and acts of faith and the fulfillment that has been found in a life of service, then it seems a fair bet that it was the former that were his priorities, and that family, faith, and service took a back seat in his life. And if it is true that a person’s obituary is a reflection of the priorities in life, then doesn’t that mean that we—all of us—are writing our own obituaries today. And so our obituaries, as we write them day-to-day, beg of us three questions, don’t they?
The first question is the same first question that Jesus has asked. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” You see, we all live in the context of the world. We are called to be in the world—not of the world, but in the world. So who does the world around us say that Jesus is? Because it would be much easier, wouldn’t it, for us to live as Christians in a world where everyone believed as we do? Because it would be simpler to confess Jesus as Lord in a world where there was no risk in the confession. Because a life lived among our fellow Christians would be gentler and kinder than life among those who doubt, who disagree or who just do not know Him. So, who do the people say that the Son of Man is, today?
Who do the people—the people today--say that Jesus is? Well, by and large, they do not say that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. By and large, they do not even say that He is John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah, or, for that matter, even that He is a prophet. By and large, they doubt, they disagree, they do not know Him. And so we know that it is not a world where it is easy to be open and demonstrative about our Christianity.
The second question, then, is also the second question that Jesus asked of the disciples—“But who do you say that I am?” A fair question, but difficult and, possibly, painful. Who do we say that Jesus is? Not here. Not here—here we know who Jesus is and we say it, sing it, preach it, pray it, even tell one another that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But then the door opens. Then we walk outside, we smell the air, we see the sights, we hear the sounds that remind us that we are, once again, in the world. We are in the world and it is not an easy place to be a Christian. Who do we say, then and there, out in the world, in the midst of the crowd, in the workplace, at school, in the fishing boat or at the grocery store, turning up the volume of the car radio so that others can hear it, wearing shirts with sayings or gluing bumper stickers on our cars? Watching the news and arguing with the television. Voting or writing to our representatives and senators. Who do we say that Jesus is?
And then the most difficult question of all, the one that Jesus did not ask of the disciples, at least not out loud, at least not that day in Caesarea. Who do you say that you are? Who do you say that you are? As you walk through life, writing your own obituary every day, what are you saying about yourself? Who are you claiming to be? Who are you confessing to be? Who do you say that you are?
One man dies and either he has left behind a twenty paragraph obituary or his family, at his passing, writes the story of his life for the public to read. One last statement of who he is. What was most important to him. Who he says that he is. Who he has told his children that he is. And what he has said, at least what his loved ones have heard, is that he was in the world and of the world, that he valued acclaim and wealth and power and attention and acceptance more than he valued his wife, his children, his community and his relationship with God. Another man dies and he has left behind a two-paragraph obituary. He probably didn’t write it himself; that is, he didn’t put the words onto the paper. But he has said who he is. He has told his children who he is. Who—not what—was most important to him. Where his priorities lay. What his values have been.
Just in the past few days, we have witnessed moments of triumph and of tragedy, observed big wins and narrow losses. We have seen and heard as men and women have performed acts of great courage, and we have looked on as other men and women disregarded duty in timid cowardice. We have confronted kindnesses and vindictiveness and retribution. We have been blessed to hear words of reconciliation and outreach and peace and love, and we have heard, also, the belligerent braying of asses. In each event—every word and every act and every triumph and every failure, they have told us who they are; they have written an important paragraph of their obituaries. Who do they say that they are?
Who do you say that you are? What are you saying about yourself, by your words, by your actions, by what you choose not to do? Isn’t that what Jesus was asking the disciples, ultimately? Who are you; who do you say that you are? When I am under arrest, when I am hanging on a cross, when I am in the tomb, when I walk from the grave, when I meet you in Galilee, when I ascend and am no longer visible to you, who will you say that you are? Because He knew, didn’t He, that who the disciples would say that they were after He was gone, would tell the world who they really thought that He was? Because He knew that how they lived for the rest of their lives, what they did and said and what they chose not to do or to say, where they went and where they did not go, whom they touched and whom they refused to touch, would say more about who He was than anything else.
So today, let us ask of ourselves, “Who will we say that we are?” Because that is our testimony to the world of who Jesus is, now and forever. Amen and amen.
If you’re reading this, and if it is meaningful to you to consider the power of Jesus in this life and how God might see us, let me encourage you to spend about three-and-a-half minutes watching this amazing video on YouTube. I love it and hope you will, too.