“Who Do You Say I Am?” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is the second Sunday of Lent and we are continuing our journey through the Bible — especially the gospel of Luke — to see what it says about who Jesus is and what that means for who we are. In last week’s text from Luke chapter 4, we joined Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. He was filled with the Spirit, but empty of physical sustenance: he was hungry and weak when the devil came to him with things which would tempt any of us: to have food to eat, to have all nations proclaim his glory, and to demonstrate God’s protection. Through that account, we learned that Jesus was human and subject to the same weakness of other humans: his strength to resist temptation came from his understanding of himself and his purpose in God’s kingdom, his knowledge of the law of the Old Testament, and his trust in the strength and power of God. Those are the things which get us through whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.
Today’s text is from Luke chapter 9, verses 18-21, but we may do some comparison to Mark 8:27-23 and Matthew 16:13-23. I’ll try to give you those references as I use them, but if you’re following along in your own Bible, you may be flipping pages between gospels. I am happy of you want to do that, but it’s fine if you choose not to: whatever works for you.
We have moved forward in the timeline of Jesus’ ministry: angels have fed him in the wilderness, he has begun his ministry of teaching and healing, and he has called twelve men to be his followers, or disciples. In all three gospel accounts, the disciples act kind of like a Greek chorus, speaking as a group, until one emerges and speaks in his own voice. That disciple is Simon, son of Jonah, otherwise known as Peter: and this account as told in Matthew is one of the reasons we know him as Peter.
Jesus is alone with his disciples, and he asks them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And the disciples answer, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.” Now, this list is nothing to sneeze at: John the Baptist had recently galvanized the people of Israel with his preaching, and had even more recently been executed by Herod. Elijah was a venerated prophet who took on Ahab and Jezebel, and the gospel of Matthew also mentions Jeremiah. These were respected prophets. But Jesus isn’t satisfied with hearing what the crowds say. He asks, “But who do you say that I am?” It’s a great moment for Simon Peter, who speaks alone to say “You are the Messiah.” That is, you are Christ, the Savior of our people.
And then an interesting thing happens: Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. What are we to make of this? Peter had given the correct answer, why would Jesus want him and the rest of the disciples to keep quiet? The answer comes in the next paragraph: part of being Messiah, Deliverer, Savior is that Jesus will undergo great suffering and be rejected by the Jewish leaders and be killed and raised on the third day. And Matthew 16 and Mark 8 record Peter as saying — and I’m paraphrasing here — “C’mon Boss, don’t talk like that, I’m sure that won’t happen to you.” And you probably know Jesus’ response “Get behind me Satan!” which is a pretty harsh thing to say to Peter.
It is significant that Jesus is so determined to connect his identity as Savior to his suffering, death, and resurrection. We 21st century Christians are so familiar with Jesus story and how it plays out that it’s difficult to imagine how shocking it would be for the disciples to hear Jesus say he was going to suffer and die. How can Jesus save anyone if he’s going to die and can’t even save himself? And, what does it mean for them to commit to follow a rabbi who is already predicting his own death? How far do we have to follow this guy? If he is who we say he is, what does that mean for us?
What we believe about Jesus always comes around to the question What does that mean for me? If you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, well then, you might be in for a rough ride. Of course, we are not up against a hostile religious elite, or an occupying military force. We live in a country which guarantees religious freedom, so Christianity should be a cakewalk, right? That is precisely the kind of thinking that Jesus rebuked Pater for. Let’s put it another way: if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior, who is it that needs saving? If your answer is “people in Africa, Asia, Russia — wherever” fill in the blank, or “other people,” or even, “the people who annoy me” — you are only partly correct. Believing in Jesus as the Savior for other people only works if I have first acknowledged the need for Jesus as my Savior. You can call Jesus your personal Savior if you want — that phrase doesn’t appear in the Bible — but that phrase ought to be a declaration that I personally am a mess and need saving. Having a Savior, as Peter found out, doesn’t mean bragging rights about how great I am, it means acknowledging that I am a mess, and cannot save myself. And if we are sincere in the confession that we cannot save ourselves, we are in for some pain, because most of us would really rather do things our own way. And unless our way is Christ’s way, then we’re going to have to give some things up.
Here’s the irony of this: if we decide, the heck with it, I’m not that bad — in fact, I’m pretty smart and capable and good-looking, and this sin-talk is overblown and I’m doing fine on my own, thank-you; I don’t need a Savior — if that’s your line, you are also in for some pain. You may be in line for a death from which there is no rising on the third day. Christ cannot save you if you don’t think you need saving.
A couple months ago, after an insurance check-up, I decided that I needed to make some better food choices to help lower my cholesterol. One of the ways I hoped to do this was by using an egg substitute, so when Tim was at the grocery store, I asked him to pick up a carton. I have to smile every time I see that product, because it says “Egg Substitute” in big red letters, then has a label which reads: Made with Real Eggs! I’m not sure it’s helping my cholesterol, but it has gotten me thinking about things for which there is no substitute. You can probably think of your own list of things, but Jesus is at the top of my list: there is no substitute for Jesus Christ. We can try other ways to save ourselves: good works, being a workaholic, being an alcoholic, believing in heaven knows what, believing in nothing but yourself, believing that nothing is your fault, believing that everything is your fault . . . none of those things are the way to salvation. The way to salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. (Amen?) It is not enough to simply say that — although it’s a good start — and when you believe that, you have just begun the journey of discipleship. Simon Peter knew the right thing to say: he said Jesus is the Messiah, and then stumbled immediately by trying to get Jesus not to talk about the cost of being the Messiah. Believing in Jesus does not mean that you’ll never be wrong again, it just means that you are on the right track: and God knows it takes a lifetime to figure out what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
Who do you say Jesus is? If your answer is “He’s my Savior,” that is correct. And that is a courageous thing to say, because it confesses that you are in need of saving and there is no substitute for the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ. That grace and salvation came at a terrible cost to him: suffering and persecution and death; and it’s a gift we should never take lightly, because following Jesus means walking that same path of loss and suffering; we will be shaped by the humility and compassion of our Lord and Savior. We are who Jesus says we are: beloved, redeemed, saved. I pray that you would accept Christ as your Savior and yourself as precious in his sight: you are the reason God’s Son came to earth, and his sacrifice is the reason we have hope for every day. God bless you. Amen.