If I’ve seen one internet meme or heard one person say a variation on this statement, “if as many people were talking about heroin addiction, God, (insert other vital national issue) as we are the eclipse or Confederate statues, maybe we’d be better off,” I’ve heard a hundred. The presupposition of such memes is that America and Americans can’t multi-task morality. We forget we beat the Germans and the Japanese at the same time. There’s also an underlying theme that some issues, from one person’s perspective, are more important than another. From one perspective, your issues are simply wrong. From another perspective, your issues are historic and under addressed. There’s no set criteria who gets to be the person who gets to make the “that’s the more important issue” or what criteria is used. You need only have a Facebook page and an opinion. It becomes an individual, case by case, recipe of condemnation and wrongness.
Here’s what I’ve noticed within all of these discussions: whether they are trying to take the high road (if we would only talk about things other than the eclipse), the middle road (statues don’t matter), or the real road (we need to confront our past), very few people are talking about Jesus. Lots of people are talking about politics, God, religion, and Christianity. Jesus’ name is hardly mentioned and rarely invoked. Jesus, a man I’m certain wouldn’t be into statues of himself. Jesus, a man who discouraged his followers from engaging violence with those who opposed him, is rarely mentioned by name.
Think, for a moment, how rarely we talk about the specifics of Jesus’ message and Jesus the person. Of all the good things we do as a church, congregation, and a denomination; we don’t make Jesus sound like the kind of guy you would to have a cup of coffee with, drink a beer with, go fishing with, or hang out with on a Sunday afternoon. Jesus’ identity, Jesus’ normalcy, as I call it, is in the Bible, but we’d rather argue with atheists about whether the world was created in six days. What is going to bring people back to church?
Why is this? I think it’s because we love talking about Jesus. We love talking to Jesus. I’m not sure how well we know Jesus. We know Paul because he’s got the dramatic conversion story. But Jesus, he’s the carpenter who became a teacher. Let me put this in post-modern, millennial technological terms: We see all Jesus’ posts on Facebook, we see everything he’s posting, we occasionally comment on his pictures; we talk like he’s our best friend, but in reality, is there a relationship? Do you get invited to actual his birthday party or do you throw one in his honor, every Christmas and hope he’ll show up?
Jesus wasn’t even certain how well his own disciples, walking with him on the dusty roads of first century Galilee knew him. The closer he came to Jerusalem, he wanted to know, “do the people I’m with understand my work and do the people I’m reaching understand what I’m doing?” In one respect, Jesus is being retrospective. Has it been worth it? Have I been wasting my time and effort? Is this doing any good at all? That’s part of what he’s asking. Secondly, he honestly wants to know, how do the people see him. Who do they understand him to be?
I believe Peter is caught off guard by the question; just as we are. Step back for a second and look at the strangeness of the answer. “Some say, John the Baptist, other Elijah, and still other Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” First, according to Peter, among the earliest followers of Jesus, there is no consensus as to who Jesus is. Jesus, according to the wisdom of the masses, must be someone else. He can’t be who he is. He has to be someone else. He must be easily classified into one of these four categories or we do not know what to do with him. Four established and well known categories at that! Did you notice “Jesus” wasn’t one of their choices? This is who the people say Jesus is.
Could they be anymore wrong? Jesus couldn’t possibly be Jesus. They won’t let be Jesus. Are there times when we won’t let Jesus be Jesus? Do we leave Jesus out our moral equations altogether? Even when we try to identify Jesus, we don’t listen to his message. We tune out or talk over him. His words, so clear and distinct from each of the four prophets to whom he is compared, to us sound vaguely religious, inspirational, and prophetic. For the crowd, Jesus is a distinction without a difference. If you’ve seen one prophet, you’ve heard them all.
Like Jesus’ early followers, I’m not sure we know what makes Jesus distinctive. I’m not sure we care why he stands apart and above from John the Baptizer, Jeremiah, Elijah and others. We cannot effectively embody Jesus’ teaching unless we understand this difference. Jesus’ identity is different from these other prophets because his message is different. The Sermon on the Mount is not the 10 commandments. Jesus didn’t preach words that grated like sandpaper in isolation like John. Jesus never worked at a royal palace. Jesus lived and moved among ordinary people. Jesus’ message and his means of delivering the message were different. Jesus is a new category.
Next, Jesus flips the script. He asks Peter the same question. Jesus wants to know who the disciples believe him to be. “You’ve told me about the people, those who come to the sermons and healings but what you guys, who do you really think I am?” Now Jesus puts them on spot. Peter’s sweating bullets.
From the moment Jesus asked the first question about the crowds, I can imagine Peter rehearsing his answer, over and over in his mind, hoping Jesus would ask him this question. I see Peter as that kind of guy. He likes to impress the boss. He says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Bingo! Peter got it right. Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, for you figured this out for yourself”. That’s my translation. Jesus pats Peter on the back for getting it, intuitively, from witnessing everything he’s seen (miracles, teaching, healings,) and saying this can be nothing other than what it is.
Peter came to the conclusion that Jesus was who he said he was from being in Jesus’ presence and observing Jesus being Jesus. In doing that, he saw that Jesus could be nothing other than who he said he was. That’s important enough to restate: we come to know Jesus’ identity by being in Jesus presence, seeing Jesus do Jesus things, and realizing that this can be none other than what it is.
It’s Sunday morning, the Resurrection is always occurring, and where do we come to know Jesus identity by being in Jesus presence? It starts right here: in the sanctuary. Our first step is to come to this place. The second step is to go back into the world. The third step is to ask ourselves (then each other) Jesus’ question: who do we say Jesus is? We need to talk more about Jesus. It’s not “What Would Jesus Do, but how does Jesus enter into lives we live and the conversations we inhabit. The fourth step is to see Jesus’ presence by doing things as Jesus did them, emulate his words, actions, and deeds. The fifth step is to then realize, Jesus can be none other than Jesus. Bring that love back home to this place next Sunday, so we can send it out into the world and do it again.