Homily by Bruce Johnson – 12 September 2021
“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.Mark 8:27-30
Today’s gospel reading recalls a time when Jesus and his disciples were in the area north of the Sea of Galilee near a town called Caesarea Philippi. They had stopped to rest – probably at a spring to have something to drink.
They are sitting in the shade of a tree. Jesus asks them, “who do people say that I am?” One of the disciples answered, “some say you are John the Baptist.” Interesting answer since John the Baptist had been executed by Herod several years earlier. But elsewhere in the gospel, we read that when Herod learned of the huge crowds that were coming to hear this young Galilean rabbi preach he thought that John the Baptist had come back from the grave. Another disciple said that some people were saying that Jesus was actually Elijah. You may know that the final prayer at the conclusion of the Sabbath is for the return of the prophet Elijah. Others say you’re one of the prophets.
Finally, Jesus looks at his disciples and asks, “But, who do you say that I am?” There’s a long pause and finally, Peter speaks up. “You are the Messiah!” This is so like Peter – always the first to speak up, the first to act. But then Jesus admonishes Peter and the other disciples to keep this to themselves. Do not go around telling people that I am the Messiah.
Why did Jesus say that? Why did he tell them not to tell people that he was the Messiah? I believe that the answer is that Peter and his fellow disciples did not know what they were talking about. Their ideas about the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David, in no way prepared them for what would unfold in the days ahead.
In the Gospel narratives, we learn that as the disciples became convinced that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah they began to anticipate the time when he would enter Jerusalem triumphantly, casting out the Romans and taking his place on the throne of David. And, of course, they would all have very high-level positions in his new government. At one point some of them even asked if they might possibly have positions that would allow them to sit next to his throne. In one version of this story the mother of two of the disciples actually approached Jesus to ask if her sons might have high-level positions in his kingdom. That’s the kind of thing my mother would have done. If you had known my mother, you would know that she certainly would have done that for me! Oh yes! If Jesus was really the Messiah, they all had wonderful futures ahead of them!
Peter and the other disciples all had a great deal to learn about who Jesus was and what he meant when he said to them, “… if you want to be my disciple you must take up your cross daily and follow me.”
And so, fast forward ahead in time. It’s eight years later and a lot has happened since that day up in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked them who they thought he was. The disciples have lived through the trial, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension of their Lord. The infant Church is now growing steadily throughout Judea, Galilee, and even in some synagogues in other parts of the Roman empire. The Church is now centered in the city of Jerusalem and, not surprisingly, Peter has become one of the leaders. But he is not the head of the Church. That would be James – not the Apostle James. Not the brother of John. Remember James and John had been two of the first people to leave their jobs and follow Jesus as disciples. No, not that James. James the head of the Church is none other than Jesus’ brother!
One day a man arrived in Jerusalem asking to meet with James. He’s a Pharisee named Saul who goes by his Greek name Paul. Paul is one of the many Jews who at that time had embraced the Christian faith. He had become a follower of Jesus Christ. They learn that Paul has been visiting synagogues in several Roman cities, calling on people to follow Christ.
When he is introduced to James, Paul explains that he has been called by God to be an “apostle to the Gentiles.” He’s convinced that Gentiles do not need to convert to Judaism to become followers of Christ. This is a new and very strange idea to both James and Peter. However, after a long discussion and prayer and with some reservations they were finally persuaded. James gave this Pharisee Paul his blessing and sent him on his way to preach the gospel to Gentiles.
And so, you see, after all, he’s been through, Peter is still learning who
Christ is. He’s still learning what it means to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
And I believe he never stopped learning until the day he died. Peter was eventually executed by Emperor Nero. And all those years Jesus’ words were echoing in his ears. “Peter, who do you say that I am?”
This morning our Lord is asking us, “who do you say that I am?” We think we know who you are Lord. You are the Messiah. You are our Lord and Savior. But I’m pretty sure that we still have much to learn. We have heard his voice speaking to us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29) But what does this mean in our lives today?
There are two basic approaches as we seek to have a better understanding of who Christ is. The first is what I would call the “solitary” approach. This involves prayer, reading, and meditating on the scriptures. Jesus advised his followers to “go into their room and shut the door and pray to the Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mathew 6:6) This is a very personal, solitary approach.
The second approach which is no less important is what we can call the “corporate or group approach.” We follow Christ with a group of Christians and together we learn day-by-day and year-by-year who Christ is and what it means to be his disciple. Those of us gathered here this morning are such a group. We pray together, study the scriptures together, and help one another to work out the implications of following Christ.
In one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, Paul wrote that, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and that He has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” What does that mean? What does it mean to you? “He has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” What does this mean? What is the ministry God has given to you and me?
Each day, as we seek to follow Christ there is always more to learn – more to know – always more to experience. And that will be true for as long as we live.