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21st sunday in ordinary time

Matthew 16:13-20

What’s The Big Deal About Jesus?

Is Jesus a Big Deal?

The intent of the conference was to explore ways in which the church can minister as peacemakers in a world of diversity and conflict. Its planners wanted to explore ways the Presbyterian faith could witness to the power of God’s reconciling love. But rather than bring reconciliation, peace, and harmony, the conference set off a firestorm that is threatening to destroy the Presbyterian Church.

The controversy has focused on a comment made by the keynote speaker, the Rev. Dirk Ficca in his address, “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Diversity.” Dirk is the Executive Director of the Parliament of World Religions, an organization that brought together the leaders of various religions to share their heritage and gain an appreciation for one another’s teaching and ministry.

During his presentation, Dirk told a story about how he had seen God at work in the lives of people of the Sikh faith, an offshoot of Hinduism. He had been moved by their devotion to God and the commitment to break down the barriers created by the Braham caste system. He then went on to explain different approaches to viewing our faith in relationship to others. At a pivotal point in his presentation he raised the question “Well, if God is at work in our lives whether we're Christian or not, what's the big deal about Jesus?”i

The question was not designed to produce controversy but rather to challenge the listeners to consider how they could live as faithful disciples in an age of religious diversity without imposing their theological perspective on others. Dirk gave a rather compelling argument but failed to consider the Apostle Peter’s understanding of who is Jesus.

Popular Opinion Polls

Peter’s understanding of Jesus is revealed in his response to a question by the carpenter turned teacher. It comes at a critical time in the ministry of our Lord. Jesus is enjoying a wave of popular opinion. His message is fresh and his miracles exciting. He has not disappointed anyone nor has a scandal tarnished his image. His ministry is maturing. For whatever reason, he decides to find out if people are not only understanding the central theme of his message but also who he is.

The story occurs at an interesting location. Caesarea Philippi is situated along the northernmost border of Israel. It is an entirely Gentile community named in honor of Tiberius Caesar. At the time of Jesus, three temples stood in the region to the Syrian god Baal, the Greek god Pan, and the Roman godhead Caesar. Its geographical location is striking. Jesus examines the theology of his disciples on the boundary that separates Israel from the world. The symbolism is striking. He wants to know if the people and the disciples understand what separates him from Baal, Pan, Caesar and their Jewish tradition.ii

Jesus displays an interesting method of teaching. Though a series of questions, he uses an inductive method to allow the disciples to make their own theological discoveries. He frequently used this approach throughout his early ministry. He never told anyone who he was. Whenever the demons would refer to him as the Son of David or the Son of God, he would quickly silence them. When John the Baptist sent his disciples to inquire about his role, Jesus cited a reference to the prophet Isaiah and forced the followers of John to draw their own conclusion. Even with his own disciples, he required them to observe, listen, and then make their decision. This inductive method removed the possibility of manipulation and required the disciples to take ownership and responsibility for their own decision. It is quite instructive for both our educational and evangelism programs. We cannot spoon feed our children. They must be taught the stories but they must come to their own decisions.

His opening question introduces the disciples to the subject by directing their attention to other people. It is easier to talk about what others think of a subject then what we think. We do not have to commit ourselves. We do not have to fear being wrong. So, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

Popular opinion is seldom accurate. It will blend truth with fiction It will allow irrational prejudices, misconceptions and illusion to distort its view of reality. The Jewish people were no different. They had transferred their religious dreams and aspirations onto the man from Galilee. They hoped he would be the spiritual leader that they wanted him to be. Some wanted a reincarnation of the prophets—a leader who would bring Israel back to obedience to Torah. Some hoped for a new Elijah—someone who could do the spectacular, like stop and start a drought with a simple prayer or call down fire from heaven and destroy Israel’s enemies. Other people hoped for the embodiment of John the Baptist—a leader who would denounce the so-called leaders of Israel.

Let me ask you, who do you want Jesus to be?

I have often been asked why I do not have a picture of Jesus in either my office or my home. They are surprised that a minister would not include such an obvious picture amongst his collection. Personally, I find such pictures distracting to my understanding of Jesus. They serve more to reveal what the artist thought about Jesus and in that, they limit who Jesus is. The artist will always interpret and misinterpret. He will always put more emphasis on one characteristic than another. She will exclude something that I would include. That is the danger of pictures, statues, and icons. They cannot only represent but misrepresent the person of Jesus Christ. A New Testament scholar writes

Our images of Jesus are often reflections of ourselves and our aspirations. Yet, Jesus keeps breaking free of our limited images of him. He keeps being more than we would have him to be. He keeps coming to us, revealing himself as he is, rather than who we would have him to be. Thus today's gospel is a kind of parable of our experience of Jesus.iii

We must be ever mindful that our belief in Jesus of Nazareth is reflective of the Jesus we find in Scripture not personal opinion or popular vote.

Let’s Get Personal

Jesus then moves the question from the non-threatening they, to the more direct and confrontational you. In doing so, he reveals its importance. He asks Simon, who would soon receive a new name,

“But what about you Simon!”

Let’s not talk about other people!

Let’s not do a fancy dance around the subject!

Let’s get down to the bottom line!

Who do you say that I am?

It is easy for me to picture Simon standing before Jesus in that brief moment that seemed like an eternity—the events of the past year racing through his mind. Recalling the words of his brother, Andrew telling him, “We have found the Messiah!” Watching in amazement as Jesus turned water into wine, produced a catch of fish from a lake that appeared empty, fed five thousand, walked on water and healed the sick. It is easy for me to picture Simon pausing while all those events rushed through his memory and then in a moment of illumination, it all came together and he understood. ”You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” could be the only response.

But what did his answer really mean? What does it mean to confess, that Jesus is the Christ? The tandem, Jesus Christ, has become so overused that we assume that neither part is complete without the other.

The Greek word for Christ is Xristos It basically means to anoint. It could be used to refer to the anointing of a person or object with oil or water. During the development of Israel, kings and priests were anointed with oil to designate their divine vocational call and in later Judaism the term was used almost exclusively to refer to the one who would be anointed by God to bring salvation to God’s people, the Messiah. When Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ,” he was saying, you are the embodiment of all the hopes, all the dreams, all the aspirations of God’s people. You are the one we have been expecting. You are the one we have been longing for. You are the one to whom all our religious rituals, all our religious celebrations, all our religious obligation point. You are the fulfillment of our faith.

Only One Way to Salvation?

For Peter and the other disciples, the question was answered. But what about today? Is Jesus still the Messiah, the only way of salvation for the world?

The coed came to the campus chaplain to discuss the differences between Christianity and the Jewish faith. She was in love with a young man who was Jewish and they were discussing marriage. She wanted to know how to deal with the differences of two related but disparate faiths. They discussed the rituals, festivals, and beliefs of both, and then she asked a fundamental question, “When it comes right down to it, what is it that makes Christians, Christian?” Her pastor tried to explain that it was not pot luck dinners, WWJD bracelets, or pushy preachers but one person—Jesus Christ.iv

All the religions of the world have love, they all believe in some form of a divine being. They all share many but not all common virtues. They all strive in some way to bring inner peace and eternal salvation to the adherent but only Christianity has Jesus. If God had only given us the writings of great men and women then we would be followers of a book. We would not be Christians. Our religion would be one philosophy among the many. We could not argue for any preeminent position.

But we believe that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has come in the flesh. We have the audacity to claim that when we look at the Jewish carpenter, who was conceived out of wedlock, born in a borrowed stable, walked about the countryside homeless, we see as much of God as we hope to see.

I can appreciate those who struggle with the claim that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation. A more inclusive approach that allows for many roads and other possibilities is much more appealing, it is less offensive. However, since Jesus first started preaching, people took offense at his claims. He never told anyone who he was, he never demanded that anyone adhere to a specific doctrine but he always seemed to offend people. That’s why he was killed. He was not adverse to offending the rich and the powerful. To the rich, he told them, “This is God’s way, the poor are precious, unless you provide for the homeless, feed the hungry and clothe the naked, I will say that I never knew you.” To the powerful, he overturned their money tables not once but twice causing two riots and huge financial losses. To the government he said, “Caesar is not God. I do not give anyone my national allegiance.” You do not say things like that and get elected governor.

But that was Jesus, he was always saying things that we wish he had not said, Things like, “Hate your mother” and “Go sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” We try to explain those difficult sayings and award PhD’s to the women and men who come up with the most creative approaches that somehow soften and make respectable his words.

Someone approached her pastor after the sermon on Sunday saying, “I know that you would never intentionally hurt anyone in your sermons, but I was hurt by the comment today.” The pastor thought to himself, “Where on earth did you get the notion that we wouldn’t want to hurt you? This is Jesus! It’s going to get rough from time to time!”

Jesus challenges us because he makes an exclusive, confrontational claim upon us. We are to serve him and him alone as Lord. We are not to have any other gods but God alone. We are not to make any graven images, the present a false or distort view of God. We are not to create our own gods. In response to his claim, he offers an exclusive promise, that through him and him alone we will find salvation.

What is the big deal about Jesus? The big deal is that Jesus asks each of us the same question he asked Peter. “Who do you say that I am?” Be careful how you respond, your answer will determine your relationship with God…

Your capacity to handle challenges …

Your character and conduct during difficult circumstances…

Your capacity to love unlovable people…

Your courage to die…

And most importantly where you will spend eternity.v

i Dirk Ficca, “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Diversity,” delivered at The 2000 Peacemaking Conference, July 26-29, 2000, Chapman University, Orange, California, Online: August 22, 2002, Witherspoon On The Web,

ii Frederick Dale Brunner, Matthew: The Churchbook, Vol. 2, (Waco, TX: Word, Inc.; 1990), 568-570.

iii N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992]. Quoted by William H. Willimon, “Jesus, Messiah, Son of God,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 30, No. 3, August 25, 2002, 33-36.

ivWilliam H. Willimon, “Jesus, Messiah, Son of God,” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 30, No. 3, August 25, 2002, 33-36

v Lloyd J. Oligvie, Life Without Limits: The Message of Mark’s Gospel, (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1975), 171-172

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