Arnold Horshack in Caesara Philippi
A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
How would you answer the question, “Who are you?” It’s actually harder than you think. Jesus wanted to know, “who do people say I am?” In this country, we’ve got a whole subsection of the genealogy industry devoted to helping the famous and not so famous find out who they are and who others say they are. That is because we value identity. It matters to people where you come from, who your parents are, what house you were raise in, and especially in a place like this. I’m going to preach now. People put a value on having been born and raised on this island over those who have not been or came after they left their momma’s womb in some mainland hospital. This distinction exists. You could go to a tiny little island off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada and hear the exact same discussions about how you’ll never be considered a local, probably word for word. This is because we’re not as unique as we think we are, and yet we’re all individual, wonderful human beings on a quest to find out who we are, in relation to each other and to God.
Many people, if asked, to define themselves, would go to their Facebook page. Like it or not, whether you have a computer of not, that’s how most people define themselves to the world, whether they are 9 or ninety. That’s where you’ll find their profile, their family albums which once sat in stacks under the coffee table (or on shelves in the closet) , their favorite books, movies, and songs. When you go and look at someone’s Facebook page, you realize it is more than a question of simple identity. It is a composite of many factors that creates of mosaic like picture of who this individual is.
If you were to go to my Facebook page, what would you see? Who am I? Who do people say that I am? I am many things. It would tell you that I am my family. You would see things about my friends and my experiences. You would see things about the church. You would see some poetry and crazy pictures. But does that tell the whole story? But none of that is all of me; it’s part of me. It reflects parts of portions of me. For instance, nowhere on my Facebook page do I say anything about my love of Jazz improvisation and taking pop hits (say those from the Dave Clark Five) and turning them into smooth jazz piano classics. No matter how hard you look, it’s just not there.
This is because out identities are not about stuff. Our identities, as people and Christians, are ultimately defined by what we believe. The best example of this in modern Christian time is the Amish. The Amish have nothing, in the most practical sense of modernity. They have only what they need. Yet they live, are known, and are defined by their beliefs. Their lack of a belief in a modern sense of identity defines them. They are what they believe. Identity is about belief.
So when Jesus asks the disciples (and the group), “Who do people say that I am,” he’s also asking, what do people think I believe? And in another way, he’s also asking, “What do people believe about me?”
In modern political parlance, you might call this a focus group. He wants to know what people really think. He wants to go beyond what they go get off of the Facebook pages, Twitters, on village yard gossip of the day. The common knowledge, the stuff that was unique from Ocracoke to Nova Scotia, to Mauritius, he didn’t want to know. He wanted to know, what were people saying that they weren’t posting on the internet and that they weren’t talking about in public. Tell me that stuff!
One of my favorite television shows from the 1970’s (and really of all time) is Welcome Back Kotter. You probably know the premise. Gabe Kaplan came back to Brooklyn to teach in old high school. One of his students, Arnold Horshack, had a very distinctive laugh as well as an insistent manner in which he answered questions. If you know it, do it with me. “oooh oooh, Mr. Kotter, Mr. Kotter” Horshack always wanted to be called upon.
I like to imagine the disciples as group of first century sweathogs with Peter, particularly in this passage, just nailing Arnold Horshack.
Jesus asks, who do they say I am? Peter goes into full Horshack mode, “ooooh Jesus, I Know, ooooh Jesus, I know.”
Jesus gets back, what may seem to our ears, three rather random answers. But on closer inspection, not really:
Some say you’re Elijah
Some say you’re Johnny B
Some say you’re Jeremiah
Those are the greatest prophets in Israelite history. If they had portraits and posters back then, people would have had commemorative plates with each of these guys on plates from the Franklin Mint.
Everybody knew who they were and respected their work.
It’s only natural if they heard that a new prophet had come back, they might first assume it was one of these big three, someone everyone was more familiar with from the very beginning.
It’s as if someone would say, “Who else would it be?” It’s because their world had not expanded to include the idea of Jesus yet.
But then Jesus turns the question back onto Peter. Who do you say I am? What, Peter, do you believe about me? And believe it or not, Horshack gets it right.
You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Do you see the genius of that statement? It’s not just a statement of identity. It’s a statement of belief. Peter believes Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Identity and belief are one.
The step between identifying Him and believing in Him is the action. That’s where we build a relationship with Jesus. You can call it salvation, friendship, companionship, whatever word you want to use. When you realize that the moment you utter those words, you are making a statement of belief, that’s when your journey can begin.
If you have the common sense to identify Jesus you have the common sense to believe in this rational, inquisitive, compassionate Jesus who is there exploring with his disciples what people believe and how people can believe together-he’s in search of unity here.
So who is Jesus for us today? Is he someone who unites us or divides us? The answer, as I hope we’ve started to explore this morning means much more than are you saved or not. For many people, it raises the question if America is saved. Is the world saved? Jesus is savior, moral arbiter, judge, shepherd, king, moral arbiter, and messiah; he has a complex layer of titles, many he never applied to himself. Is he those things so that we may better understand who we are?
What a journey of enforced complexity we have laid at the feet of this man from Galilee who never knew any of what we tried to attach to him, classify him as, or simply want him to be 2000 years after his humble birth and humiliating death.
Are we ready to identity what we believe and to start the path toward a deeper relationship with something we may not fully grasp, we may not want to post about, but is as real as the building we are in and the person sitting next to you.