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"Who do you say I am?"

(St. Peter-tide)

Once upon a time, we're told, George W Bush visited a home for those suffering from dementia. He enjoyed a brief exchange with one of the residents, who seemed to be fairly lucid, so he risked asking, “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” replied his conversation partner, “but if you ask that nice nurse over there I’m sure she’ll be able to tell you”.

Of course, even on a bad day, George W wasn’t really in need of information any more than Jesus is, in our gospel reading. But that doesn’t mean that the question is unimportant. Quite the reverse.

“Who do you say I am?”
In asking that crucial question, Jesus is doing all that he can to make the disciples think

I’m sure you’ve met the old advice for teachers: First you tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then you tell them. Then you tell them what you’ve told them. Put like that it raises a smile, perhaps – but adopted as a teaching strategy it’s unlikely to be successful. I’m sure we’re familiar with it, though teaching like that is simply the passage of information from one person to another, teaching that relies on the expertise of the lecturer and the passive openness of the listener, teaching that, if we’re honest, demands very little of those on the receiving end and, I suspect, may not have much lasting impact.

It’s horribly easy to fall into that sort of pattern when you are the one “up front” – but it really won’t do.
Contrast this with the sort of teaching that engages you fully, the teaching that begins by recognising the premise that to hear is to forget, to see is to remember and to do is to understand. Perhaps that isn’t the sort of thing you’d welcome week by week in your sermon slot, but I’m sure you’ve noticed before that when Jesus wants his disciples to really learn something, he doesn’t give them the answer straight away.

Often, of course, he tells them stories, stories which leave things open, so that the hearers need to work out not only the inner meaning but also its application for their own lives. Sometimes he asks them a direct question as he does today. His whole ministry is a story that points to his identity, and now Jesus wants to see if his disciples have learned the central lesson he came to teach.

“Who do you say I am?”

Who do you say I am?” Imagine Jesus asking you. I think it’s the most important question any of us will ever need to consider

“Who do you say I am?”

What would you answer?
Son of God?
Good man?
Innocent victim?
Colossal embarrassment?
Disturber of my peace?

“Who do you say I am?”

This isn’t a question reserved for theologians, for priests, for the great and the good, or those who like that kind of thing. This is a question aimed at each one of us. It’s a question on which pretty much everything depends, for if we decide against Jesus, then there’s not much point in hanging around waiting to see what will happen next.

We can, of course, answer with our lips like dear Peter, quick to leap in with his extraordinary insight:
"You are the Messiah " – but then be as quickly disappointed when Jesus turns out not to be the kind of Messiah he expected and longed for.

That’s something I can sympathise with. I have my own preconceived notions of who Jesus is, based on childhood imaginings, on received wisdom, and some serious Bible study. Sometimes I think I know. Often I get it very wrong. I think Jesus should be over HERE doing THIS, when he is apparently over there doing something else, and I feel confused and at odds with him. That’s when I’m specially grateful for Peter – so proudly and gloriously wrong, but redeeming his blindness with the warmth of his love!

Listen to him, rebuking Jesus for telling his friends exactly where his path was leading. I wonder if you would have felt any different. Here’s that part of our gospel as it appears in theologian Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase, The Message:
" But Peter grabbed him in protest. Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, wondering what to believe, Jesus confronted Peter. "Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works! Calling the crowd to join the disciples, he said, "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self Help is no help at all. Self Sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I'm leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you'll be an ever greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendour of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels."

Don’t run from suffering, embrace it.
You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am.


That’s not the sort of thing we want to hear, is it? We believe in self help, in independence, in clear rewards for effort and in prudent business practice. In fact, this invitation to embrace suffering is indeed deeply embarrassing for us, conditioned as we are to seek an easy path for ourselves and for our families. If this is what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then we want none of it? Discipleship is so akin to discipline, and that’s something we none of us enjoy. We would so much rather choose the easy way, the way of green pastures and still waters. The hard way is, quite simply, too hard.

Why go there?

We want Jesus to lead us to life, but we want him to clear the way and make it easy for us. We want to enjoy the glory, but skip the graft. But that is just where Jesus shone and where we must shine if we are to be his disciples. In the hard places, in the washing of feet and the carrying of crosses.

Christianity - not for the fainthearted!

So, though we might make a reasonable stab at answering that crucial question with our words, our actions too tell others just who Jesus is for us:
"Who do I say Jesus is when I cut in on someone in traffic?"
“Who do I say that Jesus is, when I ignore the Big Issue seller on the High Street?
When I fail to stand against injustice, at home or abroad?
When I put my own needs, or those of my family, ahead of the needs of my neighbour?
When I just can’t be bothered to go the extra mile?
When (to touch base just briefly with our New Testament lesson) my words are destructive and hurtful, not affirming and encouraging?
Who do I say that Jesus is, then?

If we are known as disciples, then our actions tell the world just who we say Jesus is as loudly as any declaration of faith, and sometimes they seem to be sadly at odds with our protestations here, Sunday by Sunday.

Think about that.

Of course, it’s fair to say that our understanding and our answer to the question will change and evolve through the years. The Jesus of my childhood was above all a best friend, someone who shared my pleasure in creation, someone who understood when I was sad or hurting, someone who laughed with me at the strangeness of the adult world, and, quite often, of the adult church as well.

Today when I seriously engage with Jesus, he is a rather different One, who challenges me to a larger vision, a deeper commitment – though he’s also the one who scoops me up and loves me whole when the struggle with myself and with life threatens to overwhelm me, who laughs gently when I tremble on the brink of behaving as if it were down to me to save the world!

Most of all, he is the one I love, the one who first loved me.

Perspectives matter, and Jesus will have different words, a different call for you, so that your answer to the greatest question may be nothing like mine.

But you must HAVE an answer. Jesus will not accept agnosticism from his friends. He confronts us with the reality of his presence in our midst. Coming among us, he invites us to be changed:

“Who do you say I am?”

He stands there, waiting for an answer. There’s no time like the present. We are each called to respond, and there’s no way to hide. It’s such a deceptively simple question, really, but it must be answered, not just with our words alone with our deeds as well, - a response of heart and soul - of total commitment – for what will it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our life?

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