Questions From Jesus: Who Do You Say That I Am?

The First United Presbyterian Church
“Questions from Jesus: Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 11, 2019

Psalm 63:1-8
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
 3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
 5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
 6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
 7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Luke 9:18-22
18 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"
 19 They answered, "John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen."
 20 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "The Messiah of God."
 21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone,
 22 saying, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

Jose worked in the kitchen of a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City that was quickly going under. All of us who worked there knew it wouldn’t be long before the place shut down. The owners were fighting. The management was hardly ever around.

Jose jumped ship before the rest of us. He managed to get a job at Sardi’s, the famous establishment in the Broadway district with caricatures of celebrities papering the walls. When Jose told me about his new job, he asked if I’d like to come to work there, too. “Of course,” I told him. It would be a dream job for me. So close to the theatres. Mixing with actors, directors, and producers who dined there.

I thought it was nice of him to ask. But I also thought it was a joke. Jose was a Spanish-speaking kid with no legal status in the U.S. His parents had brought him to New York from Columbia as a toddler. He had no special skills or status that seemed to give him the ability to pull strings and get me a job in one of the most high-profile restaurants in the city.

I wished Jose well in his new job, and never expected to hear from him again.

And then I got a call from Mr. Sardi’s nephew, who managed the restaurant. He asked me if I’d like to come in for an interview. The manager was puzzled, he told me. I didn’t have enough experience for the job. Waiters at Sardi’s had worked decades to get there. But the head chef, Orlando, had insisted on hiring me. The manager wondered why.

I had to admit I had no idea. I had never met the head chef. I just knew a kid in the kitchen from a previous gig.

“Who is this kid?” the manager asked. I knew his name. I knew a little bit about him from our time bantering in the kitchen. He and his friends had let me practice my high school Spanish on them. Why he held so much sway with the head chef, I’ll never know. Maybe their families had connections. Maybe he was an amazing cook. Maybe he was royalty in Colombia.

But who would I say he was? The implications of my answer were important. Not just for my job. Maybe for Jose’s as well. My answer would define our relationship. It would impact how other people saw him. It might change the way we interacted with each other.

I could have said that he was just a kid I worked with. A line cook. Part of the machinery that makes a restaurant run. That would have made us mutual cogs in the wheel, impersonal mechanisms for delivering baked Alaska to wide-eyed tourists.

I could have said he was an illegal alien. That would have made him inferior. A criminal. Inhuman. Other.

I could have said he was a New Yorker. Or a Latin American. I could have said he was an immigrant or a food preparation professional.

None of those things seemed right, even though I knew they were things other people might say about Jose. But none of those things came close to reflecting the relationship we had.

We didn’t really hang out much outside of work. I didn’t know him or his family well, just a few of his friends from the kitchen. We had never talked about defining the relationship. But we shared our frustrations about work and life, we encouraged each other, laughed and had fun together in our brief interactions.

So, as I sat across from this manager, who was waiting expectantly for my answer, I said, “He’s my friend.” And from that moment on, that’s what we were. That’s how we interacted. That was our relationship.

As Jesus sits with his friends, as he rests and prays and lets down his guard, he begins to wonder. What are people saying about him? What are the rumors going around? What are the crowds saying about him?

This is not the first time these questions have come up in the gospel of Luke. Earlier in this same chapter, Herod is perplexed about Jesus’ identity, and he ponders the same rumors that the disciples indicate are being circulated in the crowds.

Some say Jesus is John the Baptist. John had already been beheaded by Herod by this point in Luke’s narrative. So the rumor was that Jesus was either some kind of John the Baptist zombie or that John had been resurrected and changed his name to Jesus. However you worked out the mechanics of it, the point of this speculation was that Jesus’ mission and ministry were similar enough to that of John’s that it led people to believe they were, in fact, the same person.

Now, I’m sure Jesus respected and appreciated John. I’m sure he grieved his cousin’s death. But it’s possible he was also hurt or frustrated or at least annoyed that people couldn’t tell the difference between them.

People also said he might be Elijah or another one of the ancient prophets. The prophet Micah had predicted that Elijah or one of the other prophets would return before the coming of the Messiah. So if you were hoping for the Messiah, the first person you would hope to see was Elijah. So you can see why the identity of Messiah wasn’t jumping to mind for people when they encountered Jesus. Elijah hadn’t returned yet.

The real trouble with these mistaken identities, these flawed answers to what people are saying about Jesus, is that what people said about Jesus defined their relationship to him. Those people who said Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or another of the ancient prophets related to Jesus as a forerunner of the Messiah. They understood that he was there to prepare them, and to prepare the way, for the arrival of God’s anointed king or divine end-times prophet – depending on your definition of Messiah.

So they listened to him. They respected him. But the relational demands placed on their lives by this confession were different from what they would experience if they knew him to be the Messiah.

But this is not a problem for Peter, who, on behalf of the disciples, is able to correctly identify Jesus as the Christ, the “Messiah of God.” He’s essentially saying, “you’re not the forerunner of the Messiah; you are the Messiah.” Peter gives the answer that Herod never finds, that the crowds fail to decipher.

But while Peter may have been correct, it’s clear that his understanding of what this confession means for his life is, at minimum, incomplete.

Jesus rebukes the disciples like he has rebuked unclean spirits and raging fevers and raging storms. It’s an emphatic order to silence.

Because, Jesus says, the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and die and rise again. This is the first of three passion predictions Jesus will make, and he wants to be sure the disciples understand what kind of Messiah they are confessing. This is a dangerous confession. It is a confession that comes at a cost. It is not appropriate for public consumption.

After the text we read this morning, Jesus goes on to explain what it will mean for Peter and the others to be his disciples. The relationship they are claiming in confessing Jesus as God’s Anointed One is a relationship in which they share his suffering, in which they commit daily to taking up their cross to follow him, in which they will lose their lives in order to save them.

What the disciples say about Jesus is about more than knowing the right title or assigning him an accurate identity. What the disciples say about Jesus defines their relationship to him and places some heavy claims upon their lives. How they live from now on defines their answer to his question, “Who do you say that I am?”

And the same is true for us today. The nature of our discipleship, our way of living day-to-day, is our confession of who Jesus is. What we say about Jesus reveals our relationship to him and places claims on our lives.

There are all kinds of rumors about Jesus circulating in the crowds today. Some say he is an opioid of the masses. Some say he is the exclusive means of salvation from hellfire. The rumors over the last 2,000 years have only gotten wilder.

But when Jesus turns to us and says, “But you, who do you say that I am,” we’d better stop and think a minute before we answer. Because what we say about Jesus matters a lot.

Our answer defines our relationship with Jesus. It impacts how other people see him. It should change the way we live and follow Jesus in our daily lives.

A man named Joe, whom I’d never seen before, walked into my church in Michigan one afternoon with an inquiry. While he was waiting for the secretary to find some information for him, he turned to me, as I was passing through the office, and asked, “what do you think Jesus looked like?” Before I had time to answer, he launched into a diatribe about how some people were saying Jesus looked Arab, with dark skin, and had Jewish facial features, and that maybe he was even black. But the real Jesus looked like those pictures hanging on the wall in the church hallway. He was white, with blonde hair and blue eyes, right?

I was somewhat taken aback by his passionate answer to his own question. I told him that we don’t really know what Jesus looked like since they didn’t have photographs back then. And that many people have many different ideas about that.

But as I thought about it later, I realized the implications of what he was saying about Jesus. Jesus could only be white. Because white people were superior. White people were the only people he could admire and worship. If Jesus was dark-skinned and Jewish, as he most certainly historically was, this would have serious implications for how this man viewed the world and lived his life.

And that is exactly the point. Who we say Jesus is, whether it relates to his physical appearance or our understanding of his Messiahship, has serious implications for how we view the world and live our lives.

In some Christian circles today, Easter is observed without Good Friday services, and the risen Lord who is to come is preferred over the suffering one who has come. Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior is sometimes emphasized over Jesus as the one sent to transform the whole creation with the justice and love of God. Jesus as the Christus Victor, leading us triumphantly into the final battle between good and evil, is confessed to the exclusion of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, the dark-skinned, minority, refugee, oppressed, marginalized, political criminal.

The Jesus we confess is the Jesus we follow. “Who do you say that I am?” is not a cognitive, rational, intellectual question. It has implications for our values, priorities, and commitments. It lays claim to every aspect of our lives. It shapes who we are as human beings in fundamental ways. It is not a question to be taken lightly.

That is why, in Luke’s gospel, this is a question enveloped in prayer. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, this episode is located in Caesarea Philippi. But Luke doesn’t name a geographic location. Instead, he locates this scene spiritually, within the prayer life of Jesus.

And that is where it should be located for us as well: in prayer. In prayer, God can reveal to us those truths we have no other way of knowing. There’s no rational reason Peter should have been able to identify Jesus as the Messiah of God. This was revealed to him divinely, within the prayer life of Jesus.

So this week, I would challenge us to pray on this question from Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” Our answer will define our relationship with Jesus. It will impact how people around us see Jesus. It will change our view of the world and how we live our daily lives.

And that will matter, not only to us. But to people like Jose. And Joe. It will define our relationship not only to Jesus, but to one another as well. So do not take this question lightly. Surround it in prayer. And live into your answers.

To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.


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