A sermon text, based on Matthew 16.13-20, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2020.
“Who do you say that I am?” This question has divided the world. Christian from non-Christian. And Christian from Christian.
The division occurs, immediately and inexorably given how we answer. Whether we say Jesus is the Son of God, truly, God. Or an esteemed prophet. Or a wise teacher. Or the one in whose name a world religion was founded. Or if we have no idea. Or have no opinion at all.
The division also occurs given how important we think the question is. A matter of life or death? An issue of existential significance; our response being our declaration of who we say we are? Or something of lesser import. Like an intriguing intellectual exercise suitable for a relaxing late summer evening with friends over a good meal and a fine glass of wine?
For if we think the question is important, then that sets us apart from someone, anyone who considers it a casual matter or not worth thinking about at all.
And here’s an irony. When we take the question seriously, how we answer may not be the most important thing. For orthodoxy, right belief, without orthopraxy, right practice, isn’t enough. Christianity is about the connection between what we say and what we do. Before Christians were called “Christians,” they were known as followers of “the Way.” For following Jesus was not, is not primarily a matter of our thinking, even our believing, but rather the manner of our living and behaving: Loving God, loving our neighbors; all of our neighbors as we love ourselves; which really means as God loves us.
In a word, Christianity is about who we say Jesus is and what values we associate with that belief and how faithfully we practice them and how we deal with others and ourselves when we don’t.
My Christianity is about love and justice. For as I continue to read and reflect, ponder and pray over the gospel accounts of the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, love and justice is who he is for me. And, therefore, what he, in calling me to follow him, am to be and to become in him. Unconditionally benevolent and fair with others. All others. Those whom I like and don’t like. Those with whom I agree and disagree. Those who share and don’t share my values.
My Christianity also is about how loving and just I am and can be (am able to be) given the limitations of my personal history, from whence I come and from whom I come, my experience, my insight and understanding, my preferences and prejudices. Therefore, my Christianity calls me, commands me always to turn to God, trusting in God’s grace and mercy to forgive me when I fail to be and to do love and justice and to strengthen me to try again.
What’s Christianity for you?
This is my primary point. You decide. You get to decide. It’s for you to decide. No matter how I put it, it’s your call. Your choice.
I believe Jesus meant what he said. Jesus means what he, down through the ages, continues to ask, calling us to declare for ourselves our understanding of his identity: “Who do you – not what do others – say that I am?”
One antepenultimate word. Today or any day, after we answer, tomorrow or any next day, given new experiences and circumstances and our reflections on them, we may find ourselves answering Jesus’ question differently or, though using the same words, understanding them differently. Nevertheless, our truths are the truth only for us.
My point is that we remain open and honest, transparent and vulnerable with ourselves in our continuing, deepening individual walks with Jesus in our lives.
One penultimate word. Today or any day, however we answer Jesus’ question with the statement of our individual truths, remember that what Jesus said to Peter remains true for us: “On this rock (of your confession of my identity) I will build my church;” my community of disciples, all who have come to learn from me.
My point is that though true our individual truths are for us, they neither are nor can be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth for anyone else. Therefore, we are to remain open and honest, transparent and vulnerable with others in our continuing, deepening communal walk with Jesus in our lives.
One ultimate word. For now. What Jesus said to Peter remains true for us: “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed his to you, but my Father in heaven.” Who Jesus is never is a matter of the depth of our intellect and insight, but always and only the breadth of our reception of the gift of Divine revelation.
My point is that we remain open and honest, transparent and vulnerable with ourselves and with others in our continuing, deepening walk with Jesus into his life.
 See Acts 11.26.
 See Acts 9.2.
 Matthew 22.37-40
 Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13.34; my emphasis).
2 thoughts on “Who do you say that I am?”
Great sermon Paul! My favorite two words are “you decide”!!
I know several who have shared with me that the reason they struggle with Christianity is because they feel they are told what they MUST believe. That turns them off. Your words, for me, do the opposite… They are uplifting!!! Choose for yourself!! I believe that anyone who knows you fairly well would know that Christianity for you is all about “love and justice”! It would be so interesting for me if there was a class that asked people to share their two words on Christianity. I’m going to think this week about what my answer would be. What’s even more uplifting for me is the fact that there’s no right answer that fits all… that as I take my deepening walk with Jesus it’s all going to be fine as long as I am honest and transparent about WHO I AM! Thank you!!
Another thought occurs…
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”, he is demonstrating great care for us and respect for us. Care in that he asks. Respect in that he desires that we speak for our (individual) selves.
On this point, I, too, manifold times, have heard folk say that religion (meaning organized, institutional and congregational religion) has little to no appeal to them, for too often they’ve had the experience of being told what to think, how to feel, what to believe and to do. Moreover, similarly often, they’ve encountered rejection or dismissal when they deigned (dared!) to ask questions. (On this point, I think of the fabled St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, ethos of questions being more important than answers; although I have come to believe that such an approach to religion or faith or belief can be overdone to the point where and when one becomes a great question-asker, but less able to discern and decide and defend what s/he values.)
One last (actually, a reiterated) thought (for now)… If or as God is the ultimate Truth, which always is beyond our fullest apprehension, then, at the least, that means (it seems to me) that our responses to Jesus’ question necessarily can and will change. Nevertheless, each of us is being asked to answer for our individual selves, which we, living in community, have the wondrous opportunity to bounce our views off others as we continue to learn and to change and to grow.