Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? asks Jesus. For once it’s a question the disciples can answer: other times when Jesus asks them things they’re shown up to be obtuse, or slow to understand or seemingly incapable of seeing what’s before their eyes. Here, at least, Jesus is just asking them what people are saying. And you can be sure people were talking. Jesus has fed the 5000 and the 4000; he’s healed withered hands, loosened stopped-up tongues, opened the eyes of the blind and made the deaf hear; he’s transgressed the holiness code by healing lepers and Gentiles and women; he’s even raised the dead daughter of Jairus to life. Of course people are talking about him.
So who do people say that the Son of Man is? What is it they’re saying in the streets and the market places, in the synagogues and in low whispers behind closed doors? Who is Jesus? The disciples report what they’ve heard: ‘some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’. So far they’re on safe ground: Jesus clearly stands within the prophetic tradition of Israel. But Jesus pushes them further: ‘but who do you say that I am?’
It’s Peter who responds first: impetuous, passionate, fickle Peter. ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. This is what Peter has learnt by following Jesus. It’s not a conclusion he’s arrived at after an abstract sifting of the available evidence, but a confession made possible through being a disciple. Like so many of Peter’s declarations, it’s spoken before his mind has entirely caught up with him, as we will see in next week’s reading, when Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he will be killed. But Peter is able to recognise Jesus as Messiah because he is his disciple, because he has shared Jesus’ life, and in him has recognised the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.
But because Peter still hasn’t understood fully what this means; because others, too, will misunderstand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, he orders the disciples not to tell anyone. Because people will want a Messiah on their terms, not God’s. They will want him to be a shrewd political operator, or a military figure who will overthrow oppressive Roman rule. They’ll want him to restore the fortunes of Israel, to usher in a new golden age where Israel will be confident, strong and secure. They want a Messiah who will save them, but what they imagine salvation to be is very different from the salvation Jesus comes to bring.
‘Who do you say that I am?’ It’s a question each of us has to answer, too; a question whose answer will have life-changing consequences. To say Jesus is the Messiah is an answer of a very different order from saying that Elizabeth is the Queen or Theresa May the Prime Minister. To say Jesus is the Messiah makes us disciples, and sets us on the path to Jerusalem with him. It’s a declaration of faith and trust.
And it’s a commitment to keep on learning who Jesus is, to letting him keep revising our expectations of the Messiah until they are more truthful. For it’s not just Peter or the crowds who flocked to see Jesus who were liable to misunderstand what it means that he is the Messiah. We do it too. We do it when we think that confessing Jesus as Messiah will bless us with wealth or security or a life free from suffering. We do it when we want a Messiah to comfort us but not to challenge us; a Messiah who will feed the hungry without requiring us to become too engaged with the question of why we live in a society where so many people don’t have enough to eat. We want a Messiah who will vindicate our theological viewpoint and show our opponents to be wrong, because we are often more interested in self-righteousness than the righteousness that comes from life in Christ. Sometimes we too confuse the salvation Jesus brings with the salvation we imagine we want, whether that’s restoring Britain’s fortunes in the world or making America great again.
What we get is a Messiah who makes us holy, who restores our relationship with God and promises us abundant life in him. A Messiah who calls the poor, not the rich, blessed. A Messiah who tells his disciples not that they can expect a life free from suffering, but that they are to take up their cross and follow him. A Messiah who seems to have a particular love for the lost and the least, and asks us to share this love with him. A Messiah who asks us to love our enemies rather than smite them. A Messiah whose love for all people requires us to denounce the racism, white supremacy, and prejudice that denies and diminishes others’ humanity. A Messiah who saves us not by making us comfortable and secure but by making us more like him.
‘Do not be conformed to this world’, says Paul in the reading from Romans. Conformity to this world will limit our ability to confess Jesus as Messiah, for it will shape our expectations about who this Messiah is. Conformity with this world will make us seek a Messiah on our terms. Rather, our call is to be conformed to Christ, and as we grow in him, so we find our expectations of him formed not by the world but by his kingdom. Then our confession of faith is matched by the lives we live: as we grow in Christ so we learn to see with his eyes of love, to act with his justice and mercy, and to be ministers of his healing and reconciliation and blessing.
This doesn’t come easily, always. We can’t say Jesus is the Messiah and just carry on as before. Some of those Christ looks on with love are those I find tiresome, or unlovely, or difficult, and to learn to love others as Christ loves them takes the hard work of prayer and service and patience. To be able to be ministers of Christ’s reconciliation requires us to practise penitence: to be willing to admit to our faults and seek his pardon and grace for amendment of life. To be a sign of his kingdom asks the Church to be a community of justice, integrity and peace – an often costly witness amid the kingdoms and powers of the world. And none of this is possible without prayer, without learning to know Christ better in the scriptures, without seeking his grace in the sacraments, without the practical holiness that comes from learning to live together as a Christian community with people we may find irritating or difficult, and others who may find us hard work.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? As in the time of Jesus, some will recognise him as a prophet, others as a wise teacher. Some will see him as a rabble-rousing troublemaker and a threat to power. But for people to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, requires a Church, a people, in whom Jesus’ life is made visible and compelling. Institutionally, too often the Church has confused this with acquiring power and influence. But Jesus’ life is lived in the Church’s involvement in foodbanks, in the befriending of refugees, in providing shelter and hospitality to the homeless, or in visiting the sick or housebound. It’s visible in a community that reflects the diversity of the kingdom and in the willingness of people to share their lives with each other.
The Church is founded upon the confession of Jesus as Messiah. As long as the Church is faithful to that confession, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. We don’t need to concern ourselves with saving the Church: that’s God’s job. Our job is to be disciples, to be those through whom others can recognise that Jesus is the Messiah. To do that requires us to stand alongside Peter, and to give our answer to Jesus’ question: who do you say that the Son of Man is?