Who do you say I am?

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Matthew 16:13-20
9th Sunday after Trinity,11am SMAS Holy Communion (21.8.2011)

A frog went up to a bank cashier. He can see from her name plate that her name is Patricia Whack. "Mrs Whack” he says, “I'd like to get a loan to buy a boat and go on a long vacation." Patti looks at the frog in disbelief and asks how much he wants to borrow. The frog says "£50,000." The cashier asks his name and the frog says it is Kermit Jagger, his dad is Mick Jagger, and that it is OK, he knows the bank manager.

Patti explains that £50,000 is a substantial amount of money and that he will need to secure some collateral against the loan. She asks if he has anything he can use as collateral. The frog says, "Sure. I have this," and produces a tiny pink porcelain elephant, about half an inch tall.

Very confused, Patti explains that she'll have to consult with the manager and disappears into a back office. She finds the manager and says: "There is a frog called Kermit Jagger out there who claims to know you and wants to borrow £50,000. And he wants to use this as collateral." She holds up the tiny pink elephant. "I mean, what the heck is this?" The bank manager looks back at her and says: "It's a knick knack, Patti Whack. Give the frog a loan. His old man's a rolling stone."

Well I thought that kind of fitted in with today’s reading in as much as the joke was a bit about a case of mistaken identity. In our Gospel reading there wasn’t a case of mistaken identity though – because Peter got it right didn’t he? Do we?

After Jesus has asked the disciples who other people say He is, He asks the disciples who they think He is. Jesus uses language and grammar that specifically referred to the disciples. And those passages where Jesus is speaking to the disciples are always as much addressed to us as they were to the original 12. And He speaks as one does to children who are being urged to learn to develop and discover on their own. Jesus having spent a long time teaching them now decides its time that the disciples take responsibility for their own faith - they have to think through the real issues.

The setting in which Jesus is asking them is a place called Caesarea Philippi. He seems to have gone there to escape the crowds so that he might prepare his disciples for his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Rather than telling the disciples his identity, he asks them to tell him who people believe the Son of Man to be.

Now Caesarea Philippi was a centre for cults - three in particular. And these particular three had much in common with the society we live in today. Cult of Pan was basically nature worship - this emerges today in New Age and pagan practices - the fastest growing religion in the UK today. New Age and Pagan worship are cultish religions that stress nature and ‘mother earth’. They often talk about wholeness and about the goodness of the earth/natural world and about we must be in tune with it and care for it. However whilst Christians are to respect the earth they are not worship it.

Secondly there was the worship of Baal. Baal means ‘master’, possessor or husband’. When the Israelites had entered Canaan they had found that every piece of land had its own little god - its ‘owner’. Places/things became sacred - and I often think that when I go into some of our modern shopping centres today it feels almost like going into worship at the Temple of Baal - in this case the great god of consumerism. I often think of it too when I see people polishing their cars on Sunday mornings - their very own ‘mobile’ centre of Baal maybe? Perhaps its also worth mentioning that much of the worship of Baal was tied up with fertility rites and child sacrifice - a very uncomfortable thought today.

Then thirdly there was the cult of emperor worship. This was a mix of nationalism, military dictatorship and hero worship. And again today in politics, entertainment and sport, one person can control lives of many people within a nation. You only have to think of certain footballers have influenced many a hairstyle.

These cults therefore raised the question then of who was in fact Lord of people’s lives and that is exactly what Jesus was asking about. But remember the setting is similar to that of today and the people who He is asking, His disciples is the same. And so today when we listen to that reading He is asking exactly the same question of us right now here in this church. ‘Who do you say I am’. What is your answer and ‘what or who is the Lord of our lives?’ It would be fairly easy to answer - ‘You are the Christ - You are the Lord of our lives’ – but is He?

I never cease to be amazed at how many people say they can’t come to this or that service because it interferes with the family’s Sunday lunch. Is Christ the Lord of our life or is the Sunday lunch more important? More uncomfortably is our family more important?

It is fairly easy to answer - ‘You are the Christ - You are the Lord of our lives - of course we know that is the answer’. That was my initial answer. Oh yes I know what this question is all about Lord - I’ve been here before, done this, bought the T-shirt even. But in writing this I’ve discovered there’s more to this than meets the eye.

When an artist paints a picture he brings his own ideas and preconceptions to it. When we look at the picture we also bring our own ideas and preconceptions. I suppose how close those two sets of ideas are to each other determines how much we like the picture.

Here's a couple of pictures I quite like of Jesus. A shining and glorious face and kneeling to wash Peter's feet.

These are not my favourites though and I'll show you those in a moment but first I want you to close your eyes for a few moments and think of your favourite image of Jesus.

Sadly today some never move beyond the baby in the stable image but most of us here I guess will have moved on to seeing Jesus as the teacher - the Shepherd, the miracle worker and hopefully the man who died on the cross for our sins.
This is the first of my favourites. Christ as the Man of Sorrows. Jan Mostaert painted it to show Him looking out on those who are persecuting Him - not in anger but in sorrow for those who know not what they do.

But remember in today's reading Jesus asks His disciples (us!) 'who do you say I am?' This story is also in Mark and Luke but Matthew’s account has a significant difference. Mark and Luke have Peter saying ‘you are the Christ’. But Matthew has Peter saying "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Son of the living God. Hence my other favourite picture of Jesus - depicted here as a modern, dishevelled and homeless young man. There will, I think, be many here who at most don't like this or at least wonder how anyone can take it seriously?

If we were fortunate enough right now, here in this church, for the Son of the living God to walk through this door this is most likely what He would look like - fresh from the local pub. Your preconceptions may well make you feel uncomfortable with that. I assume that the artists of these two pictures had their preconceptions because they both, in their day, had met with the living God and both knew Him as the one who indeed gave up EVERYTHING for them, both His earthly life and His heavenly glory.

The Son of the living God - that’s very relevant - to the disciples Jesus is talking to in this passage and to us today. The living God" contrasts dramatically with the lifeless idols of a place like Caesarea Philippi. Today in this global village the world has become the multiplicity of faiths denies the Christian claim of the uniqueness of Jesus. It was the same then but they were steadily resisted. Millions died for their quiet conviction that in the world of the relative the Absolute had arrived. Christianity can’t go back on that claim without a total denial of Jesus and attempts to talk about many paths to God are a bigger danger to the church than atheism is ever likely to be.

But there’s still more to be said about Jesus being the living God. Earlier when Jesus had asked the disciples who the people thought He was He got various answers: John the Baptist who had been murdered by Herod.  The prophet Elijah, who was expected to reappear "before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord". Or one of the prophets. Matthew specifies Jeremiah because he like Jesus had prophesied the destruction of the first temple. He had also lived a life of celibacy and suffering. But such estimates It is clear that the people thought well of Jesus and had him pegged as a prophet. But when they tried to identify him, they looked to their past rather than to their future. Jesus is more than a prophet. He will challenge them as a prophet would, but he will also lead in directions that they could never anticipate. In their thinking He was Elijah they were looking to the future and thinking about when He would come again.

What about us - what about those of us who have known Jesus for a long while. Do we see Him as the ‘living God’. We might be very aware of what the Bible says about Him - we know who He was. But for you, for me, is He the living Lord of now? Most people fall into one of 2 types - those who live in the past, those who live in the future. But what about the now? Jesus is "the Son of the living God." Jesus is not only the judge of the future, not only the long anticipated Messiah of the past; he is, as the Son of the living God - the most significant person in the present.

Jesus asked His disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" The people in general are free to believe whatever they want about Jesus, but Jesus has been carefully preparing these disciples to carry on his work. They have heard his teachings and witnessed his miracles. What they think of him is critical.

How we answer this question is also critical. Uncertainty equates to unbelief. To be a Christian means believing that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Anything else - anything less - might be religious, but it is not Christian.

Last week we looked at a Gentile woman who recognised something of who Jesus was and owned up to it. This week we see Peter, a Jew doing the same thing. And both not just recognising but naming Him - acknowledging Him as the total Lord He is. Jesus needs a response. The Bible makes it clear that we cannot serve two gods and the Living Lord asks to be Lord of lives and He asks it now.