13 Pentecost, Proper 16 – August 27, 2023
Matthew 16:13-20

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning, and by the way, it also appears in Mark and Luke’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

It’s instructive that this question was raised, and that it survives in our three gospel accounts. It indicates that the memories of the earliest believers varied considerably about the identity of Jesus. Exactly who was he? From then until now, his question has elicited controversy rather than clarity.

In one of his famous “letters to a young poet,” writer Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged his protégé to sit with what he doesn’t know, and trust that the questions themselves have great value.  “Be patient,” he wrote, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart.  Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

In our Gospel reading, Jesus invites his disciples to live a question.  “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them as they make their way through the villages of Caesarea Phillipi. Not simply who do other people say that I am, but who do you say that I am.  Who am I?  Where do I stand in this life we’re making together?  What do I mean to you?

Jesus is the son of the living God. A living God.  Jesus also said that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Which is where the concept of living the question comes from. God is not static. It seems that we are meant to journey through life.

As my colleague Debi puts it: “As strange and stinging as this exchange is, I like what it teaches us about “living the questions” of faith.  I like that Peter’s confession — “You are the Messiah” — signals the beginning of his exploration of Jesus’s identity, not its end.

Think about the whole of Peter’s story — all the biographical details that we 21st century Christians have the privilege to know and ponder — all that happened Peter after this day – answers that Peter must have lived into as time went on — answers he never could have articulated in the early years of his discipleship.  “Who do you say that I am?”  You are the one who found me in a fishing boat and gave me a new vocation.  You’re the one who healed my mother-in-law.  You’re the one who said, “Yes, walk on water.”  You’re the one who caught me before I drowned.  You’re the one who glowed on a mountaintop while I babbled nonsense.  You’re the one who washed my feet while I squirmed in shame.  You’re the one who told me — accurately — that I’d be a coward on the very night you needed me to be brave.  You’re the one I denied three times to save my skin.  You’re the one who looked into my eyes with pain and pity when the cock crowed.  You’re the one who fed me breakfast on a beach and spoke love and fresh purpose into my humiliation.  You’re the one who gave me the courage to preach to three thousand people on Pentecost.  You’re the one who taught me that I must not call unclean what you have pronounced clean.  You are the one who stayed by my side through insults, beatings, and imprisonments.  You are the one I followed into martyrdom.  You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.

How do you – how do we – answer Jesus’ question today?  Jesus is asking us, “who do you say that I am”?  How we identify Jesus should be based on personal encounters with God. How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the world. So, in the end, a life of faithful service may be the best answer to that awe-inspiring question: Who do you say that I am?

A living God is a dynamic God and not a static God whose clearest communication happened in the past. Jesus is the Messiah of the living God. Jesus, as Son of Man, means that God continues to speak and to act. God does not have to resurrect John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or any other prophet to speak. God never ceases to exist and to create and to anoint.

Who do you say that Jesus is? Jesus wants us to answer this question with our head, but with our heart, too, and with our soul and with our life. Is your life reflecting that answer? What do you believe about God, really? What do you believe about Jesus? The answer will set the course of your life. It matters.

My colleague shares a story:  “I have a friend who’s principal of an elementary school in North Texas.  One day there was a minor altercation on the playground – a second-grader pushed one of his classmates off the slide, and, while she wasn’t hurt, it could’ve been dangerous.  The teacher sent for the principal.

She talked with the children in the hallway outside their classroom.  She got their story and then explained the seriousness of playground safety and how important it was to be nice to each other.  When she finished, the little boy apologized, and that was that.

A couple of days later, she happened to see the little girl with her mother in the checkout line at the grocery store.  She smiled and they waved discreetly to each other.  She got into the adjacent checkout line, but was in earshot of the little girl.  She overheard the mother ask her daughter, “Who was that lady who just waved to you?”  The little girl said, “She’s works at our school.”  “What does she do?” the mother asked.  The little girl said, “She helps people apologize.”

My friend told me later, “It helped me to think much more clearly about what I do in my work, beyond titles and status, to what actions I take that make it meaningful.”

Real life is not defined by what you do for a living, but by what you do with your life; and the more what you do with your life has to do with helping others in Jesus’ name, the more others will come to know you as one of his disciples.

So, who do you say that Jesus is? The question is one of identity and our answer says more about who we are, than who Jesus is. The things we do this week — our actions, decisions, choices — will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or the damage of the world. What you believe about Jesus, matters.

May we live our lives reflecting that Jesus is the Son of the Living God.  Amen.