The stories of the life of Jesus, as we find them, reflected upon and brought together by the Church in our scriptures, record several very pointed, poignant and powerful questions that Jesus asked of those who were around him. They challenge not only the first hearers in the time of Jesus, but us too, who are his disciples, who read them today.
From Luke’s Gospel, for example, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” or again from Luke’s Gospel, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord, and not do what I tell you to do?” These are questions that demand a response from us, we cannot simply put them to one side, or respond to them with a counter question as Jesus so often does when others are seeking to catch him out. The questions of Jesus in the Gospels are designed to put us on the spot, and to keep us honest, to protect us from our own instinct to be pious. They are dangerous questions, because they unrelentingly cut to the core of our relationship with God and with each other, as we are forced to respond again and again to who Jesus is, and what our response to him will be.
The great Trappist spiritual writer Thomas Merton once remarked that we should never underestimate our ability to deceive ourselves. Taken seriously, Jesus’ questions cut through our self-serving self-deceptions and leave us wonderfully and frighteningly vulnerable to the transforming, enlivening presence and power of God. All of this reminds me of that passage in the Letter to the Hebrews, where the writer declares, “indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is a risky business when we allow the thoughts and intentions of our hearts to be surfaced, when we let the word of God – the questions of Jesus – do their work on us, and in us. Perhaps not what we signed up to when we agreed to come to Church for the Eucharist week by week.
In today’s Gospel reading, from the Jewish community of Matthew, Jesus asks two questions of his disciples. One of them is much easier to respond to than the other. He begins by helping them to reflect on what they are hearing other people say. “Who do others say that I am?” he asks them. It is a safe question, because although it requires the disciples to engage with what is going on around them – to listen carefully to what is being said by others, it does not require from the disciples any kind of conviction or commitment of their own.
Clearly, there had been a lot of speculation about Jesus swirling around, a lot of wondering amongst those who had followed Jesus and listened to his teachings. According to the disciples’ response, some of those who had encountered him believed that he was John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. All of those great heroes of the faith have one thing in common. The Jews believed that they pointed to someone else who was to come. John the Baptist said that he was a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Elijah was understood in Jewish tradition to be the harbinger of the Messiah. Still to this day, at Jewish formal meals, a spare seat is left for Elijah whose arrival will herald the imminent coming of the Messiah. In the same way, Jeremiah and the great prophets pointed, in their own time, to a world in which the messiah would come to bring justice and equity and peace. “Who do they say that I am?” asks Jesus, and the response that he receives from his disciples is, “they say that you have come to prepare the way for the Messiah, who in turn will come after you.”
How would we respond to that question if we were asked it today? Not the question that requires a personal response, but the question that asks us what the people around us are thinking. “Who do the people of East Maitland and Tenambit and Metford say that Jesus is?” Some say that he is a great moral and political leader, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, we might reply. Some say that he is a great prophet like Mohammed, still others say that he is a great spiritual teacher to be numbered with the likes of the Buddha, or Confucius or even the Dalai Lama. Others, we might reply, say that he is nobody with whom they do not need to be concerned at all. He is part of a fairy tale from a less scientific age. It is fascinating to me that there are Christian associations linked with almost every political party in Australia. Socialists around the world enlist Jesus in their cause, conservatives do the same, some environmentalists see him as the champion of a greener world, and the revolutionaries of various shades and persuasions see him as their revolutionary inspiration. Meanwhile in the Church of England it sometimes appears that Jesus is the champion of cream teas and cucumber sandwiches, and the status quo.
Who do the people who live around us say that Jesus is? What does he look like for them: like something out of Jesus Christ Superstar? Or perhaps like the picture of the blonde blue-eyed Jesus which was on their wall as a child? Or like the Jesus of the Church of the priest who helped them to bury their mother, or the priest who abused their children? Or like the Jesus of the Samaritan volunteer who helped them with emergency food? When we ask the question of who people say that Jesus is, we are asking a question about who people say that we as the Body of Christ are, because the people around us see Jesus through the spectacles of his Church. They see him through us: that is a challenge for us all.
But Jesus goes on to ask a second question of his disciples. They have talked about how others see Jesus, but now he asks them, how do they see him: “who do you say that I am?” In my study in the Rectory I have about two shelves of books devoted to that very question. Over many years now, since the writings of a man named Albert Schweitzer, theologians have been engaged in a quest to uncover or to re-discover the historical Jesus, to unearth who Jesus really was and is. They have begun from the proposition that what we find in the Gospels, and indeed in the rest of the New Testament, is a reliable and reasonable record of how the Early Church came to reflect on the life of Jesus. But they argue about the events of the life of Jesus that are the foundation and the source for these reflections. Some scholars want to state that Jesus was one of many itinerant preachers who were roaming the countryside, underlining their message with miraculous signs and wonders: someone special but not someone unique. Other scholars want to suggest that we have got it all wrong, that Jesus did not plan to inaugurate the Kingdom, he simply wanted to revive the Jewish tradition which was on pretty shaky ground because of the invasion and occupations of the Romans. Some writers see Jesus as the pattern of the classical hero, who embodies the heroic life of his followers… For as many writers as have written about the historical Jesus, there as many different responses. So things have not changed since this original Gospel encounter. There are still so many different ideas, both within and outside of the Church, about who Jesus is: so many responses to the question which Jesus asks, because the question of Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter of faith.
Bishop Tom Wright who is an internationally renowned biblical scholar, comments very helpfully from within our Anglican tradition, “What you say about Jesus affects your entire world view. If you see Jesus differently, everything changes.” So these questions, asked by Jesus in our Gospel reading today, are not just an opportunity for us to recite what we know of him from the Creeds and from Sunday School, they are an invitation for us to journey with him and in this faith community, to discover more about him and about us.
“Who do you say that I am?” There is one response, which the Early Church remembered and recorded for us in this Gospel, which has been heard and read again and again as Christians have gathered together through the centuries – the response of Peter. When we read the Gospels, we need to remember that Peter is not only a person in his own right, he is also symbolic of the Church. When the first Christians heard stories about Peter, they knew that they were really stories about all of them. That is why we enjoy reading about Peter, because in his mistakes and mishaps we are able to laugh at ourselves, the Church, and to be re-assured in our own shaky journeys towards Christ. So Peter’s response is the response of the faith of the Church. Peter is not going to simply accept the presumption around him that Jesus has come as a prophet, or as a good man, to prepare the way for the future arrival of a messiah. “Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus, and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answers him, “Blessed are you…. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
Responding in faith to that question was a self- defining moment for Peter (and a sign of all of our growing into faith). Through the grace of God he had discovered himself in the presence of the one who disclosed God and revealed the Way of God: the way of forgiveness, love and justice. Peter spent the rest of his life figuring out what that meant for who he was and how he lived.
Continuing to ask the question “who do others say that Jesus is” is important for us here in this Church, if we want to be serious about responding to the questions and challenges of faith in our local community. But we start here at the Eucharist week by week, as we gather together to meet with Jesus in word and sacrament, by asking of ourselves, who we say that Jesus is. Because our response to the question of Jesus, will say as much about us, as it does about him. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus says to us all today, as we gather as his body, “who do you say that I am?” It is a question that we need to ask together again and again and again.