24th August 2020
Jesus and his disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee- as today there were religious tensions, between those who worshipped Syrian gods, the Greek Gods and Roman Gods like Caesar. You might say the world religions were on display in this town. It was here, Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.
He looked at his disciples and in a moment of reflection said: “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples answered with what they had heard Jesus’ followers say- Elijah; John the Baptist, Jeremiah or another prophet. Jesus has been seen in many different ways. We can say Jesus was a prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader, and few will object. But when we say Son of God, divine, of the same nature as the Father, folks will line up to disapprove. Muslims will say: “Prophet, yes. God, no!” Jews- “Teacher, yes. Messiah, no!” Liberal believers may say: “Exemplary man, yes. Divine, no!” Who do people say he is, who do you say he is? And what are we called to do?
When Jesus asked the first of these three questions he did so in his first and only trip outside Palestine. It was a critical moment- He was at the end of his ministry and he needed some time away with his disciples far from the beedy eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others to assess the last three years of ministry. Did they now understand who he was? Were all his efforts fruitful or had it all been in vain?
The disciples responded, with people saying he was Elijah. Why would they think he was a dead prophet? Elijah was highly revered within the Jewish community- he had defeated 450 prophets of Baal on the top of Mt. Carmel and remember when our Lord was transfigured, two men from the past came back from the grave to speak to him- Moses and Elijah. But there was yet another reason. It was believed, one day Elijah would return and that would mark the end of the world. In the very last passage in the Old Testament,in Malachi, it says: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” That would have been important. Jesus understood this. I believe that’s why in Matthew 11 Jesus said to the crowds “If you are willing to accept it, John the Baptist is Elijah who is to come.” Jesus proclaimed he was the messiah and the end had now come but he knew not many would be able to accept it.
If you ever read the comic strip Peanuts? One day the television is on, but there is no one in the room listening to it. The announcer is talking about a golf tournament, and says: Smith is about to make this putt to win the championship. There will be no tomorrow.” Just then, Lucy walks in, and immediately panics and starts running around, yelling to the other children: “The world is coming to an end. They just announced it on television. The world is coming to an end.” Her panic quickly spreads. Finally in the last square all the children are huddled on the top of Snoopy’s doghouse waiting for the end of the world. And Charlie finally speaks with a puzzled voice: I thought Elijah was supposed to come back first. Charlie Brown knew his Bible. Elijah was supposed to come back before the end time.
But, others said Jesus was John the Baptist who has come back to life- John the Baptist’s confronted Herod Antipas, for sleeping with his brother’s wife. John was beheaded ,his death turned into a martyrdom and his popularity grew. John the Baptist was the first prophet to appear in over 400 years. His austere lifestyle was like that of Elijah. The rich and religious rejected his message, but the masses accepted him and many were baptized. It is interesting Herod believed that Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated. He thought John had come back to get him. Matthew 14:1 reads: When Herod heard of Jesus, he said to his servants: This is John the Baptist who has been raised from the dead, and that is why these great powers are at work in him. Maybe that was his guilty conscience speaking. But by saying, Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated, the people were saying Jesus was a great and powerful prophet in the line of Elijah.
The disciples added one more: Some are saying you’re Jeremiah. Why Jeremiah? Well, many Jews believed that before their ancestors were hauled off into captivity into Babylonia and the Ark of the Covenant destroyed, Jeremiah had secretly gone into the ark and removed the altar of incense and hidden it in a remote cave on Mount Nebo. Just before the Messiah was supposed to return, Jeremiah would return and produce this altar to the glory of God. Was the story true? Probably not, but the important thing was that the people believed it to be true.
All of these tell us one thing. The people thought Jesus was a great prophet, here to herald the coming of the Messiah- compliments of the highest order. Jesus had asked an important but not critical question, who do people say that I am?
The critical question to his disciples, his friends, inner circle, trusted students: Who do you say that I am? By answering Elijah, John the Baptist and Jeremiah, the people paid Jesus great compliments. But it was wrong. Jesus wants to know what they think, not the people. Who do you say that I am? This is so important for us today. Wherever we turn in life we are faced with the implications of this question.
Throughout the ages folks have said, he was a great salesman, a sentimental idealist,was paranoid, a Superstar or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said, the “man for others.” The Gospel writers also tried in their own way to answer this most fundamental question- Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Divine Physician, king, prophet, bridegroom, Light of the world, the door, the vine, high priest, the firstborn of creation, the bright and morning star, and Alpha and the Omega. But these are others’ attempts. Jesus is more concerned what your answer is than what their answer is. Martin Luther, wrote: “I care not whether he be Christ, but that he be Christ for you.” Peter responded: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus, at that point, gave him a new name. You are no longer Cephas, you are Petros, the rock. In truth, nothing was ever to be the same for Peter again.
And so the third question isn’t a direct question questioning the text. But is what is the church to do with this information? Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom. He hands him the authority to conduct the business of God. Peter go out into this world and make things happen in my church and point to sin and wrongdoing and call it to account.
What will you do with your confession of Christ? Perhaps you’ve heard about 3 doctors on their way to the golf course who get into a car accident and they all die. They are standing before Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter says to the first: “Why should I let you in?”- “Look at my file! I am a research physician. I developed all kinds of procedures to prolong people’s lives.” St. Peter checks out the folder and says: “OK, you can come in.” Then the second: “Why should I let you in?” The fellow replies: Look at my file; I developed drugs, which cured arthritis, and took away much pain and suffering in people’s lives.” St. Peter thumbs through the folder and tells him: “OK, you’re in” Then he asks the third doctor: “Why should I let you in? “I helped develop the national health service. Because of me thousands of folks have free medical care.” St. Peter thinks about it and then says: “Ok, you can come in too… but only for three days!”
Friends, there are great things to do for the kingdom of God once you have come to the point that you too can echo the words of Peter: You are the Christ the son of the living God, your life will never be the same. Ask the woman at the well, ask Mary Magdalene, ask Paul, ask Martin Luther, ask John Wesley, ask Mother Teresa, ask some people in church. Ask the ministers? Who do we say Jesus is? I say he is my Lord, my Saviour, my friend, my redeemer, my guide, my shepherd.
Jesus asked- Who do you say that I am? Discover the answer to that and you will discover the answer to life.