This is what I'll be preaching tomorrow in church. Thank you for your prayers and encouragements.
Our world is increasingly digital. We buy clothes, books, movies and music online. We pay our electric bills, our credit card bills and our car notes at a computer. We have email addresses, instant messenger identities and chat room names. Our information goes streaming all over the web in mere seconds – credit card numbers, social security numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and even our mother’s maiden name. In such a suspicious world, we make ourselves vulnerable online and in fact, most of us are cases of identity theft waiting to happen. Identity theft is a fairly new but terribly heinous crime – so terrible that now almost all banks and credit card companies offer “Identity Theft Protection”, promising to keep us safe from those criminals who seek to steal our credit card numbers, social security numbers and even our names to acquire whatever they want. Whether they’re hackers or opportunists – petty criminals who pick up our left behind account information – they steal your identity, perpetrate fraud, spend your cash and leave you to deal with the circumstances. They ruin your credit. They steal your name, your self, and violate it. They damage your identity. The mere idea of identity theft fills me with fear – I’ve worked long and hard on who I am. I don’t want to have to be afraid that someone can, without caring, steal that which is at the core of who I am. My identity is important to me. I imagine your identity is important to you to. And it is to your parents. And was to your grandparents. And to their grandparents as well. Throughout the ages, no matter the culture or country, WHO we are is primary. And when I say that, I don’t mean the color of our skin or the pigment of our eyes – I mean the core of our self: our names, our history, our choices and values. We cannot be understood if our WHO remains hidden. We cannot connect to people if their WHO is concealed or forbidden. WHO is the foundation of all relationships whether loving or bitter.
The question we come to today in our scripture reading, is a question of WHO as well – of identity and what that means. Jesus asks his disciples – WHO do you say that I am – and the answer isn’t apparent in the beginning. Why is the WHO so important when it comes to Jesus? Because the answer changes everything. Jesus has been doing some miraculous things already – healing the sick, casting out demon, feeding the thousands with only a few fishes and loaves, even raising the dead. Jesus must be a powerful man, but it still isn’t clear WHO he is! The WHO question reveals more questions – why is he doing these things? What are his motivations? What are his ambitions? Why is he teaching this way? Why should his opinions and interpretations matter more than the opinions and interpretations of the Pharisees or Sadducees or even the average first century Jew?
The question of “WHO Jesus is” is the foundational question of our faith. Everything we are, everything we believe, everything we do in the name of God, we do because of WHO Jesus is. And in the gospel of Matthew this morning, we learn once again WHO it is that we call upon and are saved by.
In the beginning out our passage today, Jesus asks who people say that the Son of Man is. To strip away the cryptic language, Jesus is asking who people say that He is. And the first thing that comes up is a prophet.
For us, the word prophet conjures up many images. I think of the charlatan psychics like Ms. Cleo who come on late night tv and plead with you to part with your money for their “predictions” of your future. Or I think of the wild-haired, crazed homeless men or women who hold up signs predicting the ominous and fiery future of our “fallen” culture. “Repent” they always say “or perish.” There are other kinds of modern day “prophets”, however. Take for instance, Li Edelkoort. Ms. Edelkoort is a Dutch business woman who has been a ‘prophet’ of some renowned for over 30 years. With a list of over 2000 clients including some of the top fashion houses of the world, she makes a business about predicting the futures of fashion, food and pop culture. She is a prophet of trends. And she claims to have always had the ability to predict how the fickle world of popular culture would wend. Every year she sends out booklets to her clients, booklets that contain swatches, colors and patterns of her predictions for the fashion world; these books cost 2000 euros – close to 4000 American dollars - each. When she was asked about what fashion would look like in 2009, she said to expect more color and patterns; she hesitated, though, in her explanation, saying that she and her apprentices were already done with 2009 – they were already working on their predictions for the food, fashion and pop culture world of 2010. Not only is she a year ahead – she’s predicting two years in the future; and the stunning thing is that her predictions are always right on the money. She may not really be a prophet – but she’s close enough.
But our idea of prophet and the New Testament understanding of prophet are quite different. Think back to the prophets that we know in the Old Testament – Moses was considered to be the greatest; there’s Jonah, Hosea, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah…none of them are government leaders or priests. Their power comes from God directly – they received no ordination from men, no election by committee – they speak the Word of the Lord directly to the people no matter if the Word spoken is happy, sad or Hell Fire Condemnation! And usually it was the latter of those. It may be hard for us to understand, but the prophet stands as one of the most remarkable and powerful people in the Jewish tradition. So in our passage today, when Jesus asks who the people think he is, and the disciples respond back that “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets," they’re being generous. They have no other category to put Jesus in – he’s not a government or civil leader, he’s not a Pharisee or Sadducee, he’s addressed as a Rabbi but there’s no proof he had formal training. He’s powerful, mysterious and brilliant – why not a prophet? And even Jesus has hinted at it – he’ll say things later that seem to imply he’s like a prophet – only more. Only better. Only more important.
It would be easy for us to be like those first century Jews who first came in contact with Jesus: to acknowledge that Jesus is remarkable but to cop out by calling him a prophet. Jesus was like the prophets of old (and not so old – John the Baptist was his contemporary) but he was more and by limiting him to that prophet status, the people of Israel were limiting who Jesus was and the power he could have over their lives. How many times do you do this – let Jesus be a really cool dead guy who did cool stuff but who has no relevance for you anymore? Give Jesus a little bit of honor – he must be just as important as Moses or Jeremiah – but you don’t give him all the honor of God incarnate who walks and breathes among us? How are you limiting the identity of Christ in your life? Do you let him rule your mind, body and soul? Do you let his teachings guide all of your decisions? Do you let his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension transform your soul? Or do you talk about him in the past tense? Do you relegate him to “awesome guy in the past” status? Do you equate him with other leaders – Moses, Jeremiah, Mohammed, Buddha? Do you? Because if you do – you’re missing it just like the people of Jesus’ time were; you’ve only gotten part of the picture.
But the next part of our gospel reading today gives us more of that picture – by Peter’s confession. And Peter’s confession is a startling revelation about who Jesus of Nazareth really is.
When I was a junior in high school, my English class read through several internationally acclaimed novels – The Joy Luck Club, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Siddhartha, Kokoro and a novel I will never forget: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. I remember it so vividly because of how cold it made me feel. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was a fiction novel about prisoners of war and government dissidents who were sent to Siberian gulags in Stalinist Russia. Many times, the prisoners would be forced into heavy labor in the most extreme of weather – they only got to stay in out of the cold if the temperature was below negative 70. Otherwise, they were expected to work or be killed. Solzhenitsyn’s novel could have been just a negative portrayal of Stalin’s regime, except for the fact that it was based on his own experiences in Stalin’s labor camps. The publication of this novel was like setting off a bomb in the Kremlin in Moscow – Alexander Solzhenitsyn became an enemy of the communist regime and like other dissidents was hounded and persecuted by Stalin and Kruschev’s governments. He just recently passed away, a hero to the Russian people, an acclaimed novelist and speaker, praised for his bravery and skill. At his funeral, young man said that because of Solzhenitsyn’s bravery in the face of the terrible and corrupt totalitarian government, He was “our Savior…the savior of our morals, our dignity, our consciousness.”
Savior…Messiah. The words mean the same thing. And yet, they mean so many different things. Was Jesus a Messiah, a Savior like Solzhenitsyn was? Was Jesus a Messiah, a Savior, even in the way that the Jewish people were expecting? Savior? From what? From who? To what?
Listen again to today’s scripture: "But what about you?" Jesus asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” If you’ve been in a Christian church long enough, you’ve heard this word before “Christ” and by now it’s become inseparable from Jesus. This wasn’t always the case; you see, Christ is not Jesus’ last name – it’s a title. The word Christ, though, is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word – messiah. And Messiah means something very distinctive to the Jewish people. To understand messiah, though, you have to remember the past of the people of Israel. They were wandering tribes first. And then enslaved for centuries. Once they were free, they conquered Canaan but weren’t united under a king until 1000BC by Saul, then David and finally Solomon. And then the kingdom split into Judah and Israel. Wars ensued. Israel was destroyed, then Judah, the Jewish people alternately slaughtered or sent into exile. Some returned to Jerusalem, but always ruled over by another king, emperor or dictator. But always, there was a promise of vindication, restoration, reconciliation. Whispers of prophecies circled through the Jewish people – they would be restored; God’s chosen people would once again be free from oppressors, a savior would come to defeat their enemies and restore them. A savior would come – a messiah would come. He had come. The Messiah – the Christ was finally come. Though…not in the way he had been expected. And Peter, Simon Peter who walked on water then sank, will be called Satan by Jesus…the least likely of them all understands who Jesus is – the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
We’ve all had lives like Peter; we think we have faith but it turns out to be not enough. We try to understand what we’re taught but we always miss the mark. We can’t even fish right – strangers have to help us. And yet, Peter, flawed and sometimes dense Peter, recognizes Jesus before anyone else. And why? Because God the Father revealed it to him. So it is with our God. There are some things in life that are too strange, are too wild, are to improbable for us to come up with on our own. And what is stranger, wilder or more improbable that Jesus of Nazareth, the tradesman and itinerant rabbi, being God incarnate? What is stranger, wilder or more improbable than Jesus of Nazareth being the long-expected Savior of not only the Jewish people, but of the world? Our God is a Strange God. A Wild God. An Improbable God. He parts seas, sends plagues, creates life, destroys worlds, anoints foreign kings, exiles his people and chooses to be born into first century Palestine surrounded by animal feed, ne’er do-well shepherds and unwed mothers. We’re like Peter – this is all too hard for us to get on our own. And so God gives it to us; he whispers in our ears, hhe roars like the ocean and he thunders across the skies “Jesus is the Christ – the Son of the living God!”
The passage today ends strangely, though. Jesus praises Peter and invests him with “keys” to God’s coming kingdom. And then tells the disciples to keep his “Christ” status a secret. Why? Wouldn’t he want everyone to know? Why is he trying to keep his identity a secret?
Ever since Spiderman came out in May of 2002, summers seem to be filled with movies about Superheroes. Don’t believe me? Think about it – Spiderman, Spiderman II, Spiderman III, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Superman Returns, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, The Incredible, Aliens vs. Predator, Catwoman, The Fantastic Four, The Fantastic Four 2, Hellboy, Hellboy 2…. the list goes on. And what do Superheroes (or Super Villains for that matter) have in common? Their need for a secret identity. The secret identity is necessary because it protects their families and friends from evil retribution, but it also freed the heroes from expectations being loaded upon them. They weren’t available for consultation, they didn’t ask permission to do what they did or to be who they were. Bruce Wayne could be Batman, Clark Kent could be Superman because they didn’t have to consult with higher powers about how and WHO they were supposed to be. Imagine your favorite superheroes, laden down with other peoples expectations about how they should do what they do, and you can imagine a crippled, inefficient not-so-superhero. Secret identities, secret lairs, secret tricks and technology – they seem elitist and exclusive, but the real point is protection and freedom. Sometimes, any information is too much for some people. These heroes have to be able to do their jobs and they can’t do it if we’re interfering.
Jesus wasn’t a superhero with powers from Krypton or wherever, but he was a powerful man with supernatural abilities and a growing reputation. He needed freedom to move, teach and act according to plan, and he couldn’t do that if WHO he was got broadcast all over Israel. He had to remain a secret for a bit longer. Why?
I mentioned earlier that the people of Israel had been anticipating the arrival of their ‘messiah’ their promised savior for hundreds of years. They had many expectations about WHO he was going to be, how he was going to act and what he was going to do to redeem Israel. And none of those expectations had anything to do with crucifixion. One of the most prevalent ideas about the Messiah was that he would be a military leader, a fierce warrior who would lead Israel into battle against the Roman Empire and would restore her to rightful place as an independent nation. Many people heard Messiah and saw visions of battle, heard the plaintive cries of their dying enemies and could almost taste the sweet wine of victory. And Jesus knew that. He knew that having his identity as the promised Messiah broadcast across Palestine would hinder more than hurt him and disappoint thousands. But it’s more than just that. For the people to really understand what Messiah meant, the crucifixion and resurrection would have to come first. Because Jesus as Messiah necessitated the crucifixion – that’s how he would save Israel and the whole world! That’s how he would redeem the lost and exiled faithful! That’s how he would establish a new kingdom on earth! Messiah is not Messiah without death and resurrection. Messiah is not Messiah without the pain of loss and the unexpected joy of renewed life. And so Jesus asked for secrecy. IT was too soon to reveal his cards. IT was too soon to announce his true name. It was too soon for people to hear. They had to wait. They had to suffer. And then it would all be made clear. Jesus full identity would be laid out.
We are not so different from the faithful Jews of Jesus’ time. We have expectations about how Jesus will be and what he will do and how he will do it. He’ll come riding out of the clouds and strike down the unbelievers! NO…he’ll come like a thief and shame all of those who weren’t living the way they were supposed to! NO…he’ll appear to our president and say “America was always my favorite country. Three cheers for democracy!” NO…he’ll come back and condemn America for being sinful! NO….it goes on and on and on. The tough news, folks, is that Jesus will NEVER be what you want him to be. He’ll never say what you want him to say, He’ll never act like you want him to, He’ll never befriend who you think he should. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ as God the Father called him to be. He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes, he condemns the rich for caring more about their well-being than the well-being of their neighbors, he restores the demon-possessed (even if he’s a Gentile), and he drank wine and probably danced at weddings. We, just like the first century Jews, the first Christian churches, have to understand Jesus not just as a teacher, or a tradesman or a prophet or a man of social justice – but as the Messiah who was born of a virgin, who was God in human form, who was crucified and resurrected. Only then do we really know him. Only then do we really understand our own faith. Only then do our practices and doctrines and bible studies and fellowship gatherings really make sense. Jesus is prophet, messiah, Lord – and because we come after the fact, we have the benefit of a full and glorious picture. Not that we really understand it though.
Jesus had to admonish his disciples – Don’t Tell. It wasn’t out of shame or a desire to get more attention or even because he was unsure himself. It was out of necessity. The story wasn’t finished yet. The cross had not been reached. Wait. Be patient. “Who do you say that I am?” Now, though, we have a different commandment – Tell. The story is fulfilled – death has been defeated, life has been restored, reconciliation is possible! The Messiah has come and you know what that means! Not a political leader! Not a military leader! But God has come in the Flesh and established a kingdom. His identity is no longer a secret! When you eat together, Jesus is the Christ. When you sing together – Jesus is the Christ. When you mourn together, weep together, laugh together, lover together – Jesus is the Christ. The foundation of all of this, of this church, of our lives, of our futures finds its anchor in the Identity of Jesus of Nazareth – Christ, Messiah, Savior, God. Go – Tell. He died for all. He was raised for all. And he waits for you still.