Who do you say that I am? During the Epiphany season last winter, we collected the congregation’s responses to a similar question, Who is Jesus for you? Here are a few of the things folks said:
The lead of the Questioner’s Club, who sometimes shines a light for us to see answers and solutions.
I’m not sure.
A revolutionary religious leader; a radical healer and teacher.
God revealed in other people.
A problem solver.
Proof that each of us is enough.
In our congregation and denomination, the United Church of Christ, we don’t have a doctrinal statement we all adhere to: here’s who Jesus is and what you must believe about him. We try really hard to live faithfully with the questions that come with following Jesus. And we seek to be open to a diverse set of answers that allow a multiplicity of perspectives to creatively coexist.
I like that Jesus engages his disciples with this question: Who do you say that I am? At first, I struggled with the way this passage seems to narrow down the possibilities to one “right” answer. As I studied it and pondered it through the week, though, I found more flexibility, freedom, and inspiration. First of all, Jesus asks the disciples what other people say about him. “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This litany reminds me that in the Gospel of Matthew, ancestors are particularly important. That’s why the book begins with an elaborate genealogy. So perhaps Matthew is pointing out that these truth-tellers, healers, and justice-makers are Jesus’ spiritual ancestors. There are many others we could add to this list. This morning, I’m thinking particularly of the Hebrew mid-wives who cleverly and boldly foiled Pharoah’s murderous plans. These ancestors of Jesus embody a spirit of love, creativity, and life that even this world’s mightiest forces of violence and oppression cannot quell. And this same irrepressible spirit lives on in Jesus’ ministry. I think that’s what Peter really means when he declares that Jesus is the “Son of the living God.”
Who do you say that I am? is not only a question about Jesus. It is a relational question, a question about who we are as well. As one commentator, Eric Barreto points out, “It’s another way of saying, ‘Why are you following me?’ ‘Why are you here?’ ‘Why are you on this path?’” Jesus shows us a way of being, how to be human, how to be community. In the ritual of baptism we enact this way of Jesus—in the naming of each of us as God’s children who promise to care for each other, who embrace both the gift and the responsibility of belonging to each other and to the family of earth.
In this congregation, these baptismal promises are not empty words. We seek to live them out, ever so imperfectly and incompletely. Living this way of Jesus together is an act of resistance that sets us at odds with the prevailing norms of society and often even with parts of ourselves. All summer long I’ve felt the truth of this in the experiences I’ve had with our community. In Guatemala. At camp. With our summer community groups. At playgroup. Amid the Community Kitchen crew. The way of Jesus is revealing itself to us whenever we come together with a posture of listening. As we live honestly with the heartaches, and gifts of learning and accompanying, rather than defaulting to our inheritance of fixing, saving, and dominating. As we become willing to face the limits of independence, the lie of self-sufficiency. As we come to trust each other, and to reveal our vulnerabilities and needs for support. As we show love that is more than sentiment, love that requires real effort. And as we honor the boundaries of what we can and should give.
The setting of today’s Gospel passage is very important. At Caesarea Philippi there is a mighty spring, sheltered by a cave. This spring is one of the origins of the Jordan River, and a traditional place of worship for the Greek god Pan. In Jesus’ time, the Romans laid claim to this sacred site. Herod the Great built a temple there. Herod’s son, Phillip, established this city, situated at the crossroads of important trade routes, as the seat of his government. The temple beside the spring was dedicated to the emperor, Caesar Augustus, who believed himself divine, and called himself “son of God.” So . . . against this backdrop, Peter’s response to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is a bold and potentially explosive expression of resistance to the Roman empire.“You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Now, read within the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, today’s passage is strangely ironic. Despite Jesus’ admonishment to his disciples to keep his identity as the Messiah a secret, the reader has known all along. Matthew declares it in the first phrase of his Gospel: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.” Marilyn Salmon, emeritus professor of New Testament at United Seminary, writes:
In first-century Judaism, there was no single understanding of “messiah.” The Hebrew mashiah . . . means “anointed.” A messiah was one anointed by God for a special purpose. Then, like now, faithful people interpreted the scriptures differently, and there were diverse understandings of how God’s anointed one would act for Israel’s sake. In the gospel narrative, Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, but the meaning of that role has yet to be revealed.
Next week we’ll hear the rest of the story, but the short version is that despite Peter’s enthusiastic endorsement of Jesus as Messiah, his understanding of who the Messiah was and what the Messiah would do did not match Jesus’ vision.
Who do you say that I am? Jesus continues to ask us today. And how does your relationship to me shape the way you live? It is painful to witness just how many folks are living with food insecurity. And it is maddening to watch our community continually displace our most vulnerable neighbors and try to make them disappear. And it is troubling to know that we all live on stolen land, and we all live through stolen labor, stolen breath, stolen dreams. And, as Adrienne Maree Brown expressed in a powerful poem posted on social media this week:
My intentions are good
but the earth is on fire
I am part of a collective dying
praying for rebirth
I say yes to each task
but the stovetop sea boils—do you hear the whales singing panic
as the ocean rages into new storm
the balance tilts into chaos?
All the normalcy agitates me
my pretense is broken.
In Jesus, the anointed one, may we find hope and energy for these perilous times. May we draw strength and wisdom from our ancestors, from whom we inherit the irrepressible spirit of resistance. In this community shaped by baptismal promises, may we ground ourselves in the living God, the Creator, who births newness even amid death. Amen.
 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21/commentary-on-matthew-1613-20; https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/8/18/who-do-you-say-that-i-am-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-twelfth-week-after-pentecost