Who do you say that I am?
Sermon, New Life, Dripping Springs, Texas
August 27, 2017
Matt. 16:13 ¶ Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Matt. 16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Matt. 16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Matt. 16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Matt. 16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
Matt. 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Matt. 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matt. 16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Preparing a sermon this week on this text - this famous conversation between Peter and Jesus - was curious. On my mind as I thought about Jesus and his friends walking in Cesarea Philippi and asking the big question about who Jesus was, was the background weather news feed, praying for safety of our neighbors in Corpus Christi and all along the coast, and wondering what Sunday morning would bring for us here, at an outdoor church in Central Texas. Would we be here at all? Or would lightning be in the area, and a tent too dangerous? Would we be battling raging winds? Would flooding make driving to church dangerous for many?
After Word & Wine Bible study, Mike and I stopped at HEB. Thursday was a nice, but muggy day. Very still. And HEB was, of course, hopping. Water shelves were stripped bare with signs on them to go to the register to get a rationed amount of bottled water. We worry.
The question of this famous exchange, is “Who do you say that I am?” And it is famous because it is the question, from that day until this, for Peter and everyone else who has followed Jesus after him.
In the midst of preparations for weathering a hurricane, the answer seems to be “I say you are God. You are the one who brings rain and sunshine and lovely days, and you are the God of floods and storms and earthquakes, too. The awesome God - in that frightening aspect of awe- in that way that reminds us that you are God and we are human. And you are the one who walked with us here on earth, human, too. And those things together also make you, Jesus, the one who is with us in those storms, riding through them right by our side.”
I was also, as I was writing this, in the midst of preparing for a one-day Godly Play training. For those who don’t know, Godly Play is a method of religious education for children based on the work and methodology of Maria Montessori. You’ve seen me tell some of the stories here. And it is our Sunday school Bible study for children here at New Life. It involves more than the stories, it is a whole method: I was talking Saturday about creating sacred space, and building an environment for children to learn and explore their faith. But most of all it is a philosophy. It is about passing on the stories of our faith and the language of religion so that children can deepen their own relationship with God. We don’t tell them the answers, as if we have God figured out. As if we can ever answer perfectly the question, “Who do you say that I am?” That is a question for each of us to answer at different times in our lives - in storms, in showers of blessings, as children, as adults with the wisdom and additional questions of age. Each person brings their own story to our collective story of faith.
Our story is the story of following Jesus. That day in Cesarea Philippi, Peter and the others were following Jesus into hiding, out of Galilee and the provinces ruled by Herod: They are probably taking a breather here because they have heard that John the Baptist has been executed in Jerusalem, and they know Jesus is in danger.
So now is the moment. As they stroll the streets of the beautiful shrine to the Greek nature God, Pan, with statues and shrines and tourists all around them, Jesus turns and asks, “Who are people saying that I am?” Peter says they say John the Baptist reincarnated, or Elijah or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks? The rubber is hitting the road here - Jesus asks what they think they are doing, who they think they are following. And in the midst of marble statues of other gods, Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit, and filled with the truth of who they are walking with on these streets in the shadows of the northern mountains, these streets built over mighty springs: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The son of the living God.
The Greek shrine to Pan in that city was ancient - a great cave where the snowmelt from Mount Hermon comes up to start the Jordan river. Before there was a city, there was a place of picnics for thousands of years for families celebrating the beauty and wonder of nature. Jesus asks Peter this question in a place made holy by reverence of the natural beauty, and the wonder and power of nature. It is a beautiful place - I was there once, in awe of its beauty, and of its complicated, many-layered history.
So here we are. I am here now, in the beauty of this Hill Country landscape, usually much drier than that place, Cesarea Philippi, called Banias, in the Golan Heights, half a world away. Here, in the midst of tropical storms, outside in the beauty of nature, and the awe of knowing how little we are — weather events remind us of the vulnerability of our humanity. And here we are, each asked by Jesus to answer, “Who do you say that I am?” Why are we following this teacher and healer? It appears, like the original disciples, that we haven’t followed him to safety and riches, but to danger and sadness - the sufferings of real life. So why follow? Who do we say that Jesus is?
Just as we tell these stories to help children answer those questions themselves, so we tell them over and over to all of us: not providing answers, but offering a community in which we practice, together, following the living God. And trusting that the Holy Spirit will fill us with knowledge, too, like Peter, and empower us to be the rock on which Christ builds the church.