Who is Jesus? That is the resounding question that we hear in today’s Gospel. Jesus is wandering about with his closest followers, going from one town to another, near the area that today is known as the Golan Heights. And in the course of their journeying he cuts straight to the chase and asks them point-blank, “Who do you say that I am?” That vexing question is still with us today. It’s an important question for each of us because it compels us to think hard about what it means for us to be Christians. Or at the very least, if you’re not exactly comfortable bearing the designation “Christian,” the question is an invitation to consider why Jesus is such a compelling figure and worthy of consideration, attention and even admiration.
How should we answer the question? On one level the church—i.e., the early church councils and the ensuing history of Christian thought and deliberation—has already provided the groundwork for the answer. Part of our initiation into following the Way of Jesus—our Baptismal Covenant—includes the words of the Apostles Creed, which affirms that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah) and that he is God’s only Son, our Lord. That’s what the history of Christian thought has continued to affirm up to the present. But Jesus’ question—Who do you say that I am?—touches us as individuals, regardless of what the church as a wider institutional body has upheld.
So, who is Jesus? Who do you say that he is? When Jesus raised this issue with his followers, he eased them into it gently. He first asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And his followers immediately pointed out that there wasn’t much consensus among the people. Most thought that Jesus was some kind of prophet, but there was disagreement about his exact identity. Was he Elijah? Or one of the other prophets? Or was he John the Baptist brought back from the dead? Among the people, Jesus’ identity was contested—and it remains contested in our present moment, too. Is Jesus a mere mortal human who lived an exemplary selfless life? Is he a prophet who denounced the powers of his day? Is he a charismatic leader and social reformer? Is he a magician? (Jesus the Magician is the title of a scholarly book that appeared In the late 1970s.) Is Jesus “very God of very God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it? Opinions about Jesus have always been wide-ranging and disputed.
This is why Jesus put the question to his followers a second time, but with much more personal force: “Who do you say that I am?” And that is the question posed to each of us today. Laying aside what everyone else thinks, who do you say Jesus is? Peter thought he had the answer. He was confident that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the divinely promised king from the lineage of David, who would deliver the people from Roman imperial rule and establish peace in the land. For Peter, Jesus was at long last the political leader who would drive out the Romans and their cronies and restore Israel to what God had promised.
Peter wasn’t exactly wrong to identify Jesus as the Messiah. But Jesus wasn’t too enthusiastic about his followers broadcasting this. In fact, we’re told that “he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Why? If Jesus were in fact the promised Messiah, wouldn’t that be good news to spread throughout the land, especially among the masses struggling under the weight of Roman rule? Why the gag order?
The reason, as I see it, is that Jesus’ followers carried a lot of mistaken assumptions about what the Messiah was really all about. They were expecting a strong leader to liberate them. But immediately Jesus had to explain that his destiny was one of suffering, rejection and execution. His messiahship would be would that of a Suffering Servant, not a triumphant victor. That certainly wasn’t what Jesus’ followers, or anyone for that matter, were expecting. So there was a lot of unlearning and new learning to be done. The Messiah wasn’t going to be a strong deliverer. His leadership would not be exercised in the typical corridors of political power. Instead, it would be among the social outcasts. And it would culminate in one of the worst forms of execution: death by crucifixion. There’s more: Jesus was inviting all his followers to join him along that path, to participate in this utterly counter-intuitive messianic life.
In our day, we might be inclined to see Jesus, like his earliest followers did, as a Messiah figure, a savior, a deliverer, a liberator. We’re not wrong to arrive at that conclusion. But are we nonetheless prone to read into Jesus’ identity something that isn’t there? Perhaps. That’s why, just like Jesus’ first followers, we need time and space to wrestle with who Jesus is. We live in a world where populist sentiment seeks out strong masculine leadership to rule decisively and quickly, even impulsively, with little regard for those near the margins. In our day, the words of Scripture, even the words of Jesus himself, are often wielded as weapons to advance a politics of fear and exclusion. Many self-identified Christians are quick to speak on the airways or in cyberspace, letting loose their tongues, often with ruthless vitriol.
All of that needs to be unlearned. If I can take the liberty of paraphrasing Jesus for our day, I think he’s saying, “Don’t spread the word just yet lest you misunderstand who I really am.” Instead, Jesus invites us, like he did his first followers, to come alongside him, to do the hard thing and give up our certainties and expectations—indeed, our lives—to follow him into the darkness of rejection and death. That requires us to examine the social trajectory of our lives. To what extent are we committed to unlearning power and privilege? Our challenge is to know Jesus not so much as a victorious deliverer but as a Suffering Servant. I don’t think we resolve to do that overnight. Following the Way of Jesus is a lifetime of struggle. We may fall off the path for a time and then find our way back. That’s one reason why this Church of St. Aidan exists: to be a place for pilgrims to figure out who Jesus is, to learn how to follow him with integrity.
So as you leave here today and head out into what’s left of this summer, remember that Jesus’ question is always there for our ongoing consideration. “Who do you say that I am?” Who is Jesus? You don’t need to figure it all out right now or tonight. It’s a journey that we’re all on together—with the help of those who’ve gone before us and with God’s ever-present Spirit who, as we are promised, will lead us into all truth.