This month, we’ve been talking about some of the family stories that make us who we are. We heard about Jesus gathering a huge crowd of people on a hillside for the world’s biggest picnic, and then went a little deeper into our family history with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Huge issues in our family that can only be resolved when people have faith.
Today’s family scrapbook is about a family trip Jesus takes with his closest disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have this story about Jesus and they each begin by making sure we know it happens in Caesarea Philippi. It’s a kind of an adventure.
We’re going to a Roman colony way up in the mountains in the very northernmost part of Israel. Caesarea Philippi was famous for its temple to the god Pan – the universal, all-purpose god. It’s a town they probably don’t visit much, it’s full of foreigners, and they might even feel a little out of place there, being Jewish peasants. One thing for sure, it’s a long uphill walk from Galilee, where most of them live.
Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Sometimes, Jesus takes his people off to a lonely place to pray with them or teach them something without any distractions around, but this is different. Why would Jesus go to all the trouble of coming to this place?
It’s as if Jesus is telling them, “I’m not just your Messiah, I came for the people who aren’t like you, who don’t have much of anything in common with you. I’m your Messiah no matter where you are or who you’re with. You need to know that I’m their Messiah too.”
Who am I? That’s pretty brave question Jesus asks. He’s asking for an evaluation. He pulls his people in close and asks, “What’s everybody saying?” It’s logical – that seems to be important for most people: what other people say about them. In fact, I imagine that what we spend most of our time talking about – the major subject of all conversation – is about other people. What they do, how they look, what they say, whether we agree with it or not, whether it makes us feel good or feel angry.
But the truth is, most of the time, we really don’t want to know or talk about what other people think of us. It’s too threatening. Especially the longer people know you. That’s why, at least for a lot of us, this is the one topic we don’t talk about in our families: us.
I have an old book from the 1970’s called Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (J. S. Powell) Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? Because you might not like me. You might reject me; and that’s all I’ve got. You might tell me things that would help me, but you also might tell me things that would hurt, and I won’t risk the pain. I won’t risk rejection. So, if it’s okay, I’m going to hide.
Some years ago, I met a youth camp director who did the most amazing thing I’d ever heard of. Once a year, he would sit down with his staff, and they would evaluate his performance. That’s not so unusual, but once a year, he would sit down with his family for an afternoon and they would evaluate the job he was doing as a father and as a husband, and they were closer as a family because of it. The principal at one of the schools where I taught art did evaluations every two weeks. You might think of that as a kind of torture, but I grew to look forward to those times; his constant insight was really helpful.
Well into Jesus’ ministry, after he’s healed incurable diseases, miraculously fed huge groups of people, and taught radical, amazing things that challenge the religious and political systems of that day, he takes his people to a place outside of their comfort zone and asks, “Who do people say that I am?”
Jesus! It’s incredible! You should hear what people are saying! Some of them think you’re John the Baptist come back to life! The way you call people to repentance and tell them they can be part of the Kingdom of God. The way you point out the hypocrisy of our religious and political leaders. Some of them think you’re Elijah, the way you control nature, healing, raising people from the dead, calling everyone to a public commitment to their faith in God. Some of them think you’re Jeremiah, the way you feel so deeply about the people of Israel, how you say what you think in spite of the trouble you could get into.
Then Jesus gets personal. “Who do you say I am?” Who is Jesus? The central question of Christianity, the major question of your faith, my faith, the faith of this church is: “Who do we say Jesus is?” Answering that question can transform your life. Who do you say that I am?
Peter gives Jesus the ultimate tribute. Jesus, you are the Messiah: the Savior of Israel. The king who sits on the throne of David and restores the glory of the kingdom. The Son of God. Jesus, you are the Messiah! And we want a Messiah! It’s true! We want a God who will change our circumstances, who will right the wrongs in our lives, who will straighten out the chaos, wipe out the villains, and above all, who will make us feel better. That’s what the Messiah does, right, Jesus?
And Jesus says, essentially (read ahead, v. 21…), “You’re right, Peter, that’s who I am. And in a little while, we’re going down the mountain. We’re going to hike to Jerusalem, and when we get there, our religious leaders are going to grab me and torture me. More than that, they’re going to kill me. But after three days, I’ll rise again.
He speaks to directly to each one of us. When he speaks, he goes around the circle and looks into my eyes. In a time that has me worried and edging toward hopelessness, he asks me, “Who do you say that I am?” I’m angry, and the people in my life don’t treat me the way they should and he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” You’re happy, and right now, life’s not too bad. But you think about the future sometimes and you sense there’s something missing. Jesus steps up and asks it again: “Who do you say that I am?”
Who is Jesus? Our lives reflect how we answer that question. The way we live our life as a church reflects how we answer that question. In Romans, the Apostle Paul says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8) The power of God starts to work through us. Jesus said, what we “bind on earth is bound in heaven.”
When we believe Jesus is our Lord, God begins to live through the things we do. Heaven makes a connection here on earth in us and among us. God gives us purpose, and through the Holy Spirit, the means to accomplish that purpose. You are “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God,” as Paul said. Each of us becomes a tool in the hands of God to transform the world around us.
In this place, with these people gathered here, we get recharged, renewed. When we believe, our lives are transformed and changed, as the reading said. We’re transformers. Those who have had children in the last 25 years or so have an image that comes to mind when I say “transformers.” A toy that changes from one thing into another. You’ve probably heard – there are transformer movies now.
But to be a transformer in the real world of electrical engineering is to transfer electric energy from one circuit to another, and that transfer involves a change in voltage, current, phase – whatever. The very same is true for people who think of themselves as Christian transformers. As people transformed by Christ, they go into the workplace, or school, or neighborhood to transfer Christ’s energy to the world. We leave here and do our part to change the world a little at a time.
But it’s easy to bury God and the things God gives us. It’s easy to do nothing. More and more, this is not a convenient thing we are doing here. It takes sacrifice and risk to be a healthy church. It’s a risk to believe in God and make your life reflect your faith in practical ways. We want the church to be safe, and convenient, but it’s risky. It’s a risk to pray; that means you really believe in God and God might work in your life and change things you don’t want changed. It’s a risk to love, to care, when you might not get anything back that the world thinks is valuable.
There’s a lot in the news about the physical health of America. If you sit on a couch and never move, what happens to your health? You know the answer. It’s the same for the Body of Christ.
Spiritually, where do you intend to be five years from now? Where will we be five years from now? Hopefully, we’ll use the foundation of the past to create the new future.
The reality is that if we don’t exercise our muscles, if we don’t use our gifts, if we don’t take risks of faith and love, we kill God’s church – or at least stunt its growth – and eventually, all we have is a building and a booklet full of rules. We bury life. It’s up to us to risk the investment now. It’s up to us to uncover the buried treasure in ourselves and others. There are people living on, walking on, and driving the streets of our town who need what we have. It’s up to us to use our gifts, without holding back. I believe God is going to do surprising things with those who trust that Jesus is the Messiah.
O God, you have taken so many risks with us; through your son Jesus, you’ve invested your own self with us. Help us follow him in bringing life to our families, our town, our world, and our church. Give us the courage to use our gifts. Give us the patience to follow where you would lead us to use those gifts.
Help us take the risk of believing in you and trusting you when we’re faced with the needs we see around us: the need of faith for our children, the need of stability in our homes, the need of vision for our future. Help us love and forgive each other. Give us the willingness to be your people now, living the life you give us now, leaving clear footprints of love and faith for the next generation to follow.