Who do you say that I am?
Who we say that Jesus is, has significant and life changing consequences.
This is one of the most well-known passages in the gospels. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ asks Jesus, and Peter answers ‘You are the Christ, Son of the Living God’. It’s this response of faith that prompts Jesus to declare ‘You are Petros – ‘the rock’ – and on this rock I will build my church’. We often think more about Peter’s response and what it means about him, though, than we do about Jesus’ question and the answer.
To understand the significance of the question, it might help to think about where the question is asked. A lot of Jesus’ teaching we don’t know where he was, so when we are told, it generally has some significance. Jesus is at Caesaria Philipi. The name Caesarea means ‘Caesar’s town’. There were lots of Caeasareas all over the Roman Empire, built to honour the Emperor. So the name of the place is all about somebody saying “this is somebody important and we ought to honour them”. It’s about someone saying who is in charge. It’s also the regional headquarters of the roman empire. So symbolically and literally this is where Ceasars power is shown.
Matthew pointing out where this happens is more than a coincidence. For Jesus to ask ‘who do you say I am’ in this place – when the right answer to that question is ‘You are the Christ – the rightful ruler of this place – you are the most important person here’. This is to raise the stakes.
To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ in Caesarea Philippi is to say ‘Caesar is not Lord’.
So be sure that Jesus knows what he’s doing when he turns around and casually asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”
And they tell him what people have been saying about him…. ‘one of the prophets, maybe’ – something fairly vague, ‘you’re someone from God, who is kind of important’. And then some more specific stuff that’s realy just wish-fulfillment stuff, things you suspect even the people saying it knew wasn’t true ‘ john the bpatist come back to life again’, ‘the prophet Elijah- who has returned once more’.
Do you think maybe they had a bit of a chuckle at how stupid some of these ideas were? I mean, some of the disciples had been followers of John the Baptist. They knew this was nonsense.
But then he puts them on the spot. ‘Who do YOU say that I am?’ Are you still being vague? Is this some kind of wish-fulfillment thing for you too? Are you still sitting on the fence?
Peter’s response is the perfect one. And he says it at Caesarea Philippi, knowing what it means to say Jesus is Lord in this place, on Caeasar’s doorstep.
Peter is saying, I get it. Caesar isn’t Lord, you are. Caesar’s not the Son of God, you are. Caesar is not the authority under whom we should organize our lives; you are. You’re not just inviting us into a religion on the sidelines of Caesar’s kingdom; you’re inviting us into a new kingdom. Jesus is giving him a choice between Lord Caesar and Lord Jesus, and Peter is choosing Jesus.
We misunderstand the significance of this if we think that Jesus is just asking a question about people’s personal spiritual beliefs.
Who Jesus is, is a decisive challenge to the society that they are in. Because if Jesus is Lord, if he is the most important authority, then it means Caesar isn’t. It’s Jesus or Caesar, really. It can’t be both.
Jesus does that in every generation. Because if Jesus is Lord, if he is the most important authority, then it always means that someone else isn’t.
Saying “you are the Christ” in every generation, has also always meant saying to the society and rulers of the time, You are not the king in this area.
Significant changes in the world have always been driven by Christians standing up and renouncing the systems, structures and authorities of their society in the name of Christ.
Today, in the news, one of the biggest issues in the West right now is race. I’m sure you’ve been following the story in the US about Charlottesville and all the events that have followed. White supremacism seeming to become publicly acceptable in a way that hasn’t been seen for years.
This is an area where it is people saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ who have made a difference, who have changed the world, time and time again.
We might remember
Martin Luther king and the movement for integration of race in the USA. In the 60s in America, there was still legal segregation of black and white. Starting with a boycott of segregated buses, a movement of non-violent resistance emerged, with the Baptist minister Matin Luther King as its spokesperson. Again and again, he spoke out against segregation, and proclaimed that Jesus was Lord, not the prejudices and the unjust laws of society. And because of that he was imprisoned and beaten and eventually killed. But change came.
We might remember
William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in this country. At a time when the slave trade was the cornerstone of the economic wealth of the British Empire, when slave owners and traders were the most powerful and influential voices in the country, the politician William Wilberforce fought a tireless campaign to show that Jesus was Lord, not the needs of the economy, not the best interests of the British Empire. And eventually change came.
And you might remember Charlottesville itself
It may not have made the news in the same way, but right in the middle of the Charlottesville protests there were a group of clergy, standing in front of the marchers, declaring to them that Jesus is Lord. That in that place, at that time, Jesus is Lord, not white supremacism.
I could name examples in many other areas beyond that of race – but I wanted us to reflect together on how we can see through the generations that the kingdom is coming. In the face of misused power, Jesus is the Christ. The world is being transformed. Are you encouraged? I am. Whilst there is much in the world that needs Christ’s presence, power, healing and transformation, there is much to demonstrate that the work has, is and will continue, as disciples stand together, pray, work, proclaim and reveal the ultimate Kingdom, power and authority. As they and WE reveal Christ.
Where might we, as Wakefield Cathedral or even as individuals need to claim that Jesus is the Christ? Where might change be needed? What do we want to transform here? On a national stage: is it asylum reform, benefit reform? Locally could it be poverty? Homelessness ? hunger?
(Things we have made an impact on: WRDS: poverty and homelessness. Food bank: poverty and hunger VAT Ditty: heritage and community Messy Activities: Community and Education Asylum: injustice, hospitality to the stranger, widow and orphan)
Where might you, I or we support existing campaigns and projects, where might we need to develop new ones? Where are you and I called to stand up, serve and speak truth to power.
“Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ, son of the living God”