13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
One day up in heaven, Saint Peter saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention. “Hey Jesus, could you watch the Pearly Gates while I go run an errand?”
“Sure,” replied Jesus. “What do I have to do?”
“Just talk to the people who arrive. Ask about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve to be let into Heaven.”
So Jesus waited at the gates while St. Peter went off on his errand. The first person to approach the gates was a kind looking, wrinkled old man. Jesus stopped him at the entrance to the gates, greeted him, and asked, “So…what was it you did for a living?”
The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.” Jesus remembered his own life on earth, and he leaned forward just a little.
“Did you have any family?” Jesus asked.
“Yes, I had a son, but I lost him.”
Jesus leaned forward some more. “You lost your son? Can you tell me more about him?”
“Well, he had holes in his hands and feet.”
Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”
The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”
Despite being one of the most famous individuals in all of history, Jesus seems to have this recurring problem of people not recognizing him. In our passage from John, Mary Magdalene at first mistakes Jesus for the gardener–even though she knew him better than most, she doesn’t recognize him because he isn’t where she expected him to be. In the passage from Matthew, the disciples point out that people are mistaking Jesus for John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. The pharisees in the New Testament have been waiting for the Messiah for 400 years, and when he finally shows up, they don’t recognize him either.
In fact, even the people who knew Jesus best–people like Peter and John, people like his parents and his brothers–seem constantly surprised by things he says and does, and unable to grasp at a basic level who he is, and what he’s trying to accomplish.
This doesn’t stop after his death and resurrection. In the earliest days of the Christian church, the great leaders Peter, James, and Paul frequently (and passionately) disagree with each other about who Jesus was and what was the essence of his teachings. Church councils and creeds in the first five centuries provided some unity, but also by their very existence, by the fact that they were needed at all, point to splits and schisms which continue right down to the present day.
And so today, on Easter Sunday, as churches around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, it might be helpful for us to once again ask the question that he asked of his own followers: Who do you say that I am? Who IS this Jesus person we celebrate? Who is this person that (despite all our differences) unites us together with Christians of every kind, in every age?
This is also a fitting question to ask today, because in addition to being Easter Sunday, today is also Confirmation Sunday. At the end of our service, we’re going to recognize and celebrate some pretty amazing young people in our community who have been asking that same question for the past three months. More on that later.
But first, I want to really challenge those of you here today who think there’s an easy answer to that question, “Who is Jesus?” Because a lot of us grew up in churches that, trying to make things easy for us, gave us simple answers to that complicated question. Simple answers only work when you don’t think about them too hard.
One simple answer Christians often give when asked, “Who is Jesus” is that he is “the Son of God.” That’s certainly a title given to him often enough in the scriptures. But what does it mean? For example, I’m Neal Locke. I’m the son of Michael Locke, the man whom I called “father” but whose genes I do not share, since he was my adoptive father. I’m also the son of Cotton Ruthven, whose genes I share, but who did not play the role of “father” for the majority of my life.
What does it mean for Jesus to be God’s son? Was it a biological connection? A relational connection? A spiritual connection? The scriptures also refer to all of the Jewish people as the “sons of God.” Was Jesus (who was Jewish) somehow different than the others, “more” of a son than they?” And of course, in Jesus’ time, the Roman Emperor also referred to himself as the “divine son of God.”
Some Christians answer the question by saying that Jesus is the Messiah (a Hebrew word that simply means “anointed” or “chosen one” and in Greek is the word “Christos” or “Christ”). But when Peter says this in Matthew 16:16, what he means is probably what all the Jewish people in his day meant when they spoke of a Messiah–a military leader who would defeat the Romans in battle and liberate the nation of Israel. Jesus clearly did not do this–in that sense, he was not the Messiah that Peter was speaking of.
Some Christians say that Jesus is our “savior.” But here again, what is it exactly that Jesus is saving us from? From Rome? That’s hardly a threat for us today. From death? We still die. From an eternity in hell? Perhaps, but other than Jesus himself, we don’t know of anyone who has ever come back from death to verify this, so it is at best a hope, a belief, rather than a provable fact.
People outside of Christianity will often say that Jesus was a “good person” or an “enlightened teacher,” but even this is problematic. If you actually read the Bible, some of Jesus’ actions or sayings are shocking and not in line with what many of us consider “good” today; and as a “teacher” he seems to have utterly failed to get his most basic points across to his closest students–those in his own lifetime, as well as those who claim him as a teacher today.
So, who IS Jesus?
This is the part of the sermon where you are probably waiting on the edge of your seat in great anticipation of a wise and comprehensive answer from your pastor that will settle the question for all time! Let me TELL you exactly who Jesus is!
If I did that, and if you believed me, then we’d both be arrogant, and foolish, and wrong…and right, to some small degree. I’m not saying that there is no good answer to that question. But I’m also not saying that any one person, or institution, in the last 2,000 years has had a complete monopoly on that answer, although some have claimed as much (and many churches still do!).
Jesus speaks to us and is made known to us in a variety of ways–through study of the scriptures, through prayer and personal experience, through the created world around us, through archaeology and history and science, through conversation and community, and through service to the people around us.
And so there are as many answers to the question “Who is Jesus” as there are people who ask the question. And I think that’s the point.
Notice in our scripture passage from Matthew that Peter is the only one to answer the question, and Jesus is careful about how he responds. He doesn’t actually say, “You’re right, Peter! That’s the correct answer; that’s the ONLY answer. Now everyone can go home.” Instead he affirms Peter’s answer by saying “Blessed are you Peter, for God must have revealed this to you, not some other person.” And then at the end of the passage, he actually says, “But don’t go around telling everyone your answer.” Which, as a teacher myself, I take to mean…let them figure out their own answer. And I suspect that Jesus would have affirmed whatever truth there was in any answer given earnestly and thoughtfully from his disciples, or anyone else.
We did something similar a week ago, when several of our church officers met with our confirmation students and listened to their answers to this question–their faith statements, which spoke of what each of them currently understand about God, Jesus, the church, the afterlife and many other subjects we hadn’t even considered! There were so many things worth affirming in every answer–as well as so much more room to grow and change in understanding through the years.
At this point, I would expect some of you to be a little worried: Wait a minute, Pastor Neal–are you saying that ANY answer is acceptable? What if someone said that “Jesus is a purple dinosaur who gives chocolate candy to children who make straight A’s on their report cards?” And what does that make Christianity if anyone can believe whatever they want about Jesus?
Not so fast. Remember I said earlier that I think Jesus would have affirmed whatever truth there was in any answer given earnestly and thoughtfully, and that comes from diligent study of scripture, prayer, personal experience, the created world, archaeology, history and science, conversation, community and service to others. Those are pursuits of a lifetime, and our faith begins, grows, and changes over the course of our lives.
In the 20th century and before, I think perhaps we (all the different branches of Christianity) tended to emphasize our answers to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” Where we could agree, we worked together, and where we couldn’t agree, we argued, split, and fought.
But I think in the 21st century, what should unite us as Christians is not so much our answers (for they are flawed, like us) but rather that we are all people asking the same question, the Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” We are people pursuing that answer, knowing that it will change and grow with us, that we will be challenged, inspired, and stretched by each others’ answers, not threatened, excluded, or marginalized.
When our answers to life’s great questions become fixed, unchanging and static, frozen in time and unassailable, they are, essentially, dead. When your body stops growing and changing, it dies. I believe that God calls us to a faith, and a knowledge of Jesus, that is living–and that means fluid, growing, and ever-changing.
On Easter Sunday, we proclaim that Jesus is not dead, that he is alive. So if you proclaim faith in a resurrected Jesus, then I hope you’re still actively pondering his question, “Who do you say that I am?” and that your imperfect, unsatisfactory answers, are alive, not buried or bound in a dark tomb. “Do not hold on to me!” said Jesus to Mary in the garden that day. May we too seek him, recognize him, call his name, without holding on too tightly to what we find.
I want to end with a story that I often use on Easter Sunday. Forgive me if you’ve heard it one too many times, but it illustrates the point.
Three old friends were sitting around one day, discussing death. One of them asked the others, “What would you like for people to say about you at your funeral?” The first friend replied, “I’d like them to say ‘He was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community.'” The second one said, “I want them to say ‘He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.'” And then the third friend, the one who had asked the question, thought about it for awhile…and then finally looked up and said, “I’d like for them to say, ‘Look! He’s still moving!'”
People of First Presbyterian Church, we are still moving, still growing, still wandering, wondering and seeking wisdom in the way of Jesus. Happy Easter, happy resurrection day, to you all!