Rev. Dr. Jeff Powell
August 21, 2001 Sermon: “Who Is Jesus Christ?”
Rev. Dr. Jeff Powell
Jesus had been on the road for some time; healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now, he desired to go apart from the crowds. Jesus and his disciples withdrew to a place called Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was located about 42 kilometers northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and his disciples may have stopped to rest there for a while, or may have camped there overnight. We don’t know. While they were resting there, Jesus asked his disciples two significant questions. The setting was charged with religion. Jesus and his disciples sat under the shadow of Mount Hermon, the place where many of the great religious leaders of Israel had experiences God’s presence. There were 14 temples of Baal there where Syrians worshipped their god. Outside Caesarea there was a deep cavern that was supposed to be the birthplace of Pan, the god of nature. Originally, Caesarea Philippi was named Panias because of the impact that this god had on the community. The source of the Jordan River was claimed to be located in a cave near Caesarea Philippi. This was the most significant river in the nation of Israel. Being near its origin would remind Jewish persons of their history. King Herod had also erected a temple for the worship of Caesar. Later Caesar’s son Philip decorated the temple more lavishly and then changed the name of the city from Panias to Caesarea—Caesar’s town. Then he added his name, Philip, to distinguish it from Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean. So in the day of Jesus it was called Caesarea Philippi.
In this religious setting the itinerate preacher Jesus turned to his disciples, a group some would characterize as a lower element of society. He asked them: “Who do people say that I am?” Can you imagine the disciples glancing at one another thinking he must have heard the rumors. “Some people are saying that he eats with sinners and has gone into the homes of sinners.” Some of the religious leaders are saying that Jesus is unclean. He touches the blind, deaf, lame, lepers and other outcasts of society. He eats without observing the proper ceremonial rites and doesn’t eat kosher food. “By what authority do you do these things?” the religious leaders asked. Show us your credentials. Do you heal by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons? What gives you the authority to forgive sins? Who do you think you are? Some people think you’re crazy. Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters came to take him home because the rumors were going around the countryside that Jesus was “beside himself.” He was crazy.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked. When Jesus asked this question his time was short. Was there anyone who recognized him for who he was? Would there be anyone to carry on his work after he was gone? This problem involved the survival of the Christian faith. Jesus wanted to know before he set out for Jerusalem and the Cross whether anybody understood. He started out with a general question: “Who do people say that I am?” Well, one of the disciples finally responds. “Some say you are John the Baptist but we know better than that. He was your cousin. Because he was beheaded, some now think you are John the Baptist that has risen from the dead. Others say you are Elijah or Jeremiah who were among the greatest of the prophets. They have seen in you the prophet’s tenderness, endurance and national concern. They thought they were putting Jesus in the highest categories they could find. The Jews believed that the voice of prophecy had been silent for 400 years. They were saying that in Jesus people heard again the direct, authentic voice of God. “Some say you are the forerunner of the Messiah.” Well, I suppose that it is always easier to look for the Messiah to come than to believe that he has already come. All these associations with the prophets were high tributes, but not high enough. Human categories, even the highest, are inadequate to describe Jesus. Jesus wasn’t content with people’s answers of John, Elijah, and Jeremiah. Those answers implied that there were precedents and parallels. Jesus claimed to be unique. A Roman emperor had a statue of Jesus and a statue of Plato side by side in his pantheon. He thought he was paying Jesus a noble tribute. He was, but that was not the gospel.
After listening to what they said, Jesus then observed: “you have told me what other people are saying, but what I want to know is this, what do you think? Who do you say that I am?” Jesus moved the impersonal discussion to a personal challenge. History forces this question upon us. Jesus has affected people in a far greater sense than Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great or, dare I say it, Napoleon Bonaparte. Some see Jesus as a prophet, along with Mohammed and others, a Jewish leader of his time, someone who did good deeds, a great teacher, the greatest man who ever lived. Some people see a man of action, a mystic, a revolutionary, a liberator, or a great moral leader. Who can he be?
The Bible forces this question upon us: a carpenter apprentice who made claims such as ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” The New Testament rings with the words that people said about him and the claims he made for himself. He is the Son of David, the Son of God, son of Man, Messiah, Servant of God, the Good Shepherd, the Divine Physician, the Savior, the Prophet, King, the Stone, Bridegroom, Bread of Life, Light of the World, the Door, the Vine, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Resurrection and the Life, the Judge, the Lamb, the Scapegoat, the High Priest, the Just One, the Amen, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Head, the Image, the Christ of Creation, the Firstborn of Creation, the Bright and Morning Star and others. Who can he be?
Conscience forces it upon us. This Jesus of Nazareth, whose word still pierce us like a sword, whose eyes still haunt us, whose loving accepting way is so attractive –who can he be? This is a question for all of us, children, youth and adults. Who is Jesus Christ? It is the most important question any of us will ever answer. It is also a question that we have to answer more than once. We need to respond to it as children, as youth and many times as adults. For we want our faith and our relationship with Christ to be a dynamic, living reality, and not just a memory. Maybe you’ve heard the expression “God has no grandchildren; there are only children.” Christianity is always one generation from extinction. This points up the importance of Christian Education. Every time you teach a class, or pray as a family before a meal, or at bedtime with your children or take or follow through on vows at baptism, like we did here a couple of weeks ago, vows to nurture and encourage new Christians. Those faithful acts help keep the Christian faith alive. We don’t become Christians automatically because our parents are Christians. God calls each generation to say yes – to respond to the gift of grace.
Would you describe Jesus as a person of the past or as someone in the present? On Easter the pastor says, “The Lord is risen.” And you respond, “He is risen indeed.” Is that a general statement or a personal answer? Is he alive to you? This passage of Scripture teaches that our discovery of Jesus Christ must be a personal discovery. You could know about all the life and teachings of Christ, even know what all great thinkers and theologians have said about Christ, and still not be a Christian. Being a Christian is more than knowing about Jesus; it involves knowing Jesus personally and experiencing his life-giving presence in your life. This question should be on the wall of every church: “Who do you say that I am?” This question and answer forms the most important conversation in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus was dissatisfied with the general answers so he asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” This question had never been asked before. Through the months of training and fellowship with the disciples, Jesus had been leading up to this question. The future of his work depended on their answer. As the question was asked there must have been a moment of silence. These disciples faced the question about the ultimate mystery of God. Suddenly Peter responded, in his impetuous, loving way – you are the Christ, the Son of the living God! The answer by Peter affirms two great truths about Jesus: his sonship and his messiahship. The Resurrection helped many people to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. In all the four gospels, Jesus is called the Son of God. But Peter made this statement before the Resurrection! To say that Jesus was the Christ is to say that he was the promised Messiah, the deliverer of Israel. Messiah is the Hebrew word for anointed. Jesus gave new meaning to the Messiah as the one who would come first, not in power and glory, but would come to suffer for the sins of the people. The suffering servant is described by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah chapter 53. The word Christos in the Greek, from which we get the word Christ, also means anointed. It is more accurate to say Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, the promised Messiah.
Is the idea of a Messiah relevant today? Was it just a Jewish idea for those times? What does Messiah mean for us? To them it meant that someone was coming who would be the hope of the world, the fulfillment of every promise, and the answer to every prayer: one who would straighten out all human troubles, right the earthly wrongs and bring in the Kingdom of God. That was the idea then and it hasn’t lost its meaning. It has more meaning now than ever. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” How could Peter say that? Something happened to Peter that he hadn’t dared put into words until now. He began to feel towards Jesus the way he felt towards God. When Jesus asked Peter to follow him, Peter didn’t realize at first who he was following. He just knew Jesus was someone he wanted to follow, and Jesus accepted him at that very elemental level of faith. It was enough for a beginning. Jesus accepted people where they were, not demanding full belief at once, but allowing faith to grow and mature. Peter watched Jesus speak with authority. He saw how Jesus touched people’s lives and changed them. Peter also noticed how Jesus was affecting him: he was being changed. Jesus did for him only what God could do. He had to confess it – “You are the Christ”, the promised Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”
In the last resort, Peter’s knowledge of Jesus and ours comes as a revelation from God. Jesus said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven.” Peter could say with conviction: “I know.” Only God can make us finally sure of God. And God is at work in our lives right now. God invites us personally to know and experience Jesus Christ not only as Messiah, but since we live this side of the Easter Resurrection –to experience him as Risen Lord. The earliest Christian creed was “Jesus is Lord.” Following the resurrection the disciples realized God was in Jesus. A group of small children were asked one day, “What do you think it means to say that Jesus is Lord?” “It means that he is the big boss,” they replied. That’s right. For you to say that Jesus is Lord means that he is the boss of your life. He directs and guides you. Our appropriate response to Jesus as the Messiah and Lord of our life is found in our epistle reading this morning from Romans 12: 1-2. “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
I return to the question Jesus posed. “Who do you say that I am?” The question demands an answer. The disciples could not remain neutral. They had to decide. Whenever Jesus comes into your life or my life, we can no longer remain neutral. We must either accept or reject him. He expects a decision and a response. We can’t ignore him. Martin Luther once wrote, “I care not whether he be the Christ, but is he the Christ in you.” Admission is not enough. There must be adoration. When Christ confronts us, if we know who he is, we will fall at his feet and say with Thomas who encountered the resurrected Christ, “My Lord and my God.”
Let us take some moments now for silent reflection and prayer. I ask that you close your eyes, relax and let your imagination take you back 2,000 years to that scene in Caesarea Philippi of Jesus with his disciples. You are there. You have been watching and listening to Jesus and his interaction with his disciples. You are standing at a safe distance at the edge of the group of disciples. Now, Jesus turns to you, looks into your eyes and asks “who do you say that I am?” (Pause for reflection and prayer).