Sermon: "Who Do You Say that I Am? Identity or Allegiance?"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; psalm 124; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20
Last Sunday we contrasted the offense taken by the scribes and Pharisees over the issue of washing one’s hands before eating with the faith of a Canaanite woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon. This Sunday we wrestle with questions concerning Jesus’ identity, but in retrospect, last Sunday’s sermon also raised questions concerning Jesus’ identity – is he someone with whom we take offense or someone in whom we have faith and place our trust?
After his interaction with the Canaanite woman, Matthew recounts how Jesus cured many people such that the mute spoke, the maimed were made whole, the lame walked, and the blind could see (15.29-31); how Jesus fed the four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish (15.32-39); how the Pharisees and Sadducees tested Jesus and asked for a sign (16.1-4); and how Jesus warned the disciples to beware of the yeast (the teaching) of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (16.5-12). All of these stories could prompt one to raise questions concerning Jesus’ identity.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus and the disciples have come into the district of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16.13; NRSV). With knowledge of the locale, one cannot help but wonder if it might have prompted this question. Audrey West, visiting Professor at Yale Divinity School, comments on the significance of the location and the question as follows:
Situated about 25 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi was near a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the Northeast. A nearby cave housed a great spring that fed one of the sources of the Jordan River.3 The cave and spring had long served as a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god, Pan. Greek inscriptions and niches carved into the rock, still visible today, suggest dedications to other pagan gods as well.
In addition to the polytheism represented at the site, signs of power and authority were on display as well. A couple of decades before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi had been given over to the auspices of Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government.4 By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory.5
Thus, Jesus’ question—“Who do you say that I am?”—hangs in the air at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. It is a question not simply about Jesus’ identity ... It is a question about allegiance (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4557).
West’s commentary presents us with crucial insights. There is far more taking place in Jesus’ interchange with the disciples than meets the eye.
In response to Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, the disciples tell Jesus that some believe he is John the Baptist while others believe he is Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Having heard their responses, Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” This is a very different question – we have moved from an objective inquiry concerning Jesus’ identity to an inter-subjective inquiry grounded in personal relationship. In effect, Jesus is saying, “Those responses are all well and interesting, but, on the basis of your experience, on the basis of our relationship, who do you understand me to be?”
Peter is the first to reply: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Simon Peter recognized that Jesus was not like any of the gods of surrounding countries, he has nothing in common with Pan; having witnessed Jesus’ many miracles, having walked on water, having sat at the rabbi’s feet, Peter recognized this rabbi was unlike any other – he is God incarnate, the long-promised Messiah.
Jesus then told Peter he was blessed, for his knowledge had not been revealed through flesh and blood but through his Father in heaven. Jesus continued: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16.18-19; NRSV). These two verses are controversial for they raise the question of papal authority; thus, they are interpreted differently by the Roman Catholic Church than by the Protestant Church. The question hinges on what Jesus meant by “this rock”: did he mean Peter or God’s revelation? Many are left wishing for a clearer understanding of Jesus intent. “Bind” and “loose” are to be understood from the rabbinical sense of ‘forbid” or “permit.”
We should also note “Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah” (Matthew 16.20; NRSV). This caution may reflect Jesus’ knowledge of, and concern regarding, the peoples’ expectation of a strong military leader, a mighty king, who would overthrow the Roman oppressors. As Jesus repeatedly made clear, he did not come to establish another worldly kingdom grounded in military might and power which would supersede all other kingdoms. His kingdom was not of this world, although it is intended to be in this world.
We Christians have long wrestled with the question of Jesus’ identity. Looking at Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, we have to note this has been answered variously throughout the centuries. In theological terms, this is the question of Christology which is directly connected to questions concerning the nature of the Trinity. The Church has long responded to certain views and classified them as heretical. We recite the official view in the words of the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God … begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father … And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son… (BCP, pp. 358-59).
Given that Jesus Christ was both human and divine, heresies tend to exaggerate either the human nature or the divine nature at the expense of the other. For example, Arianism holds that Jesus Christ was a special creation (as opposed to being begotten) by God for the purpose of effecting our salvation (denial of the pre-existing divine nature). Docetism (grounded in “to seem”) holds that Christ was not a real human being and did not have a human body (emphasis on the divine nature). Socinianism (a form of Arianism) holds that Jesus was simply an extraordinary man – a view held by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians. On this view, Jesus had no divine pre-existence (emphasis on human nature). It strikes me that reason only takes us so far; Christianity asks that we believe, that we exercise faith.
But take note – heresies appear to be more interested in addressing questions of identity as opposed to questions of allegiance. In part, it may be argued, the Nicene Creed, in that it is addressing these heresies, also leans heavily toward questions of identity. We need to recognize Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” addressed to the disciples and to us as a question of allegiance.
Jesus raised this question at Caesarea Philippi, the seat of Herod’s power. Will you side with imperial power and the values of this world or will you place your allegiance with me and the message that I bring? Allegiance is “devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/allegiance). Allegiance asks for more than belief – it asks for action, for true commitment. Allegiance would have us live out the Sermon on the Mount and live more fully into our baptismal vows. Right belief is only the beginning – Jesus calls us to right action. Amen