(Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘Who do you say that I am?’
Someone once told me that their faith changed in a moment of revelation when they worked out who God was for them.
At home with her cat, she realised that she picked the cat up when she wanted to, or if the cat clambered onto her lap, she would let it stay if it was a convenient time for her. She would happily spend time with the cat, get comfort and pleasure, but when she was ready, she would put it down again.
And then she had her moment of revelation. She had turned Jesus into God-my-cat. God was only getting her attention when it was convenient to her, picking up and putting down God at a whim. She was annoyed when God wanted something from her on a different timescale. And so she had to re-evaluate her understanding of Jesus, and her relationship with him.
So who do you say God is?
Is he simply a good man? A great teacher?
Lots of people think so. They like his words when they are convenient, when they back up what they believe is right – and of course, Jesus told his followers to be kind, care for the poor and the vulnerable, to be righteous and thirst for justice. Who doesn’t agree with that?
What do other people say?
Some say he didn’t exist. But that’s not true. As well as the New Testament there was evidence about Jesus in the ancient writings, by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and Josephus, a Jewish historian.
So what is left?
When Jesus asked Peter to say who he though Jesus was, Peter, having heard Jesus preach and teach, and seen him heal and perform miraculous acts, spoke boldly. ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
This is the answer at the heart of this question of Jesus’ identity. C.S.Lewis summed this up beautifully when he wrote in ‘Mere Christianity’:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Jesus knew that when Peter proclaimed him the Son of the living God, those words came from his heart. Peter was the one who didn’t always get it right. He wasn’t the visionary scholar that John was. He wasn’t the zealous evangelist that Paul was. But there was something in this man that led Jesus to say to him, ‘Peter’ (a word we know means ‘rock’), ‘you are to be the rock on which the church is built, and you will be given the keys to heaven.’ What an awesome gift and responsibility!
At some point in our journey of faith we each have to ask ourselves ‘Who is Jesus to me?’ This is not because Jesus himself changes, but our response to him will change, depending on our answer. If in our hearts we accept Jesus as the Saviour of the world, the One who died to free us from sin and was raised to new life so that we might too live the risen life in him, then we cannot treat him like God-our-cat or a teacher of occasionally convenient, even bland, moral truths. Who we say Jesus is will define our faith and our life.
‘Who do you say that I am?’ says Jesus.
(Artwork: Jesus Christ Pantocrator, a detail from the deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)