August 23, 2020 Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20
Identity, words and actions
Marten Buber was a Jewish philosopher who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 10 times and for the Nobel Peace Prize 7 times. Arguably his most famous book was titled “Ich und Du” translated “I and thou”. One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber’s view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.
Relationships give meaning! I and thou! But who am I? This seems like a simple question but it is really not that simple. Henri Nouwen, Dutch scholar and theologian wrestled with this question, “Who am I”. One answer to the question “Who am I?”, he says, is “I am what I do”. My work, my hobbies and accomplishments in life determine who I am. I am a teacher, a lawyer. What I do defines me. But you can already sense this cannot be it. What if you lose your job, retire or lose your ability to accomplish tasks? You are still you. You are much more than what you do!
A next answer is “I am what other people say about me”. You base your identity on other people’s opinions about you. Whether it’s how many likes you get on a post, who wants to date you, or how respected you are in your group. It is so easy to base your identity on what other people say about you. They approve, encourage and like you but what when they criticize, question dislike you? You are still you.
Another answer is “I am what I have”. I find my identity in my social class, my background, my car, the size of my bank account. But we all know these things don’t last.
So even though what I do, what other people say about me, and what I have are important, they can never really give a full answer to the question “Who am I”?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German minister and theologian, one month before he was executed by the Nazi’s wrestled with the question “Who am I”. In a moving and honest poem, Bonhoeffer asks questions and here is how he ends his poem: “They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
“I am a relational being”. Human life, being who I am, is meaningful because of relationships: with myself, with the world, with others and ultimately with God. An African philosophy calls it Ubuntu: I am because you are!
Now it is not just individuals who wrestle with the question: “Who am I?” Groups do too. “Who are we as a church community?” “Who are we as a country?” Perhaps, this is related to the question, “who do I want to be? Who do we as a country want to be?”
Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading provides us with an interesting insight into the question: “Who am I, who are we?” And as a Christian I believe I am because Christ is who He is. And Peter, guided by God’s Spirit, recognized him as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Jesus and his Disciples were in the northern part of the country, in the city of Caesarea Philippi. Herod Philippus established the city in honor of Caesar Augustus. The Roman Senate deified Caesar Augustus after his death and a beautiful temple was built for Caesar Augustus. The Romans did not tolerate any competition to their deified Caesar. Caesar was their lord!
So, it was a dangerous place for the Disciples to say that Jesus is the Son of the living God, the Messiah.
“Who do people say that I am?” The people had their views of Jesus: John, the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or a prophet. Everyone mentioned here were highly regarded in Judaism. These answers indicate that the people had a pretty respectful view of Jesus. But their view of Jesus as a prophet was not that challenging or transformational.
The answer that he was a prophet did not really have the transformational power, or the comfort and strength we need in times of trouble. Why? Because these views of Jesus were too limited. Interesting – but not enough!
Prophets can point out what is wrong, they can guide what choices are good and just. But they are not able to do what only God can do: Restore the relationship between God and us!
Speculation about Jesus is interesting, talking about faith in general or generic terms is easy. People have always been fascinated by Jesus, his life, his teachings, his approach to life and even theological themes like forgiveness. They like to think about Jesus as a person who changed the world like Gandhi and Mandela changed the world, they see him as a good man.
Some may even want to use Jesus to add weight to their arguments, or gain a few political points.
But this is not enough. Such a limited view of Jesus does not really transform you or sustains you in an existential crisis. It is not really helpful when you need assurance that God knows you, and God is with you! It does not really answer the question: “who am I?”
This is why Jesus asks a question that is not about the people or the group. Jesus now makes it personal: “Who do you say that I am?” This is the key question. What Jesus does is he is asking a personal question in order to come to a personal decision. A question that cuts to the heart. It is a question that invites a thoughtful and personal answer but at the same time it is a question about who I am before God. Peter’s answer is a theological answer but more than that. “You are the Son of the living God, the Messiah.” Peter, by answering that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God is saying: “You are the one that brings God close to us, you are the One who addresses our deepest fears and desires. You are the One who gives us peace and a place of belonging! You are the one who brings peace and reconciliation to a broken world. You are the answer to our restless soul! You are the One that define who I am and you are the One who restores relationships and therefore gives meaning to my life.”
In a sense this answer is about God’s intention with us. In Christ, God gives us a place in God’s plan; God gives us self-awareness of who we are as God’s very own! It is, in Bonhoeffer’s words: “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” Or in terms of Ubuntu: “I am because Jesus is!”
Peter’s confession, or creed, is really the rock on which the church is built; her foundation. Those who truly open themselves to God’s Son, open themselves to God who promises an abundant and meaningful life, divine peace, joy, and rest.
Creeds are important. The answer of Peter was an important one to say who Jesus was. As the years went by, the church had to expand on her creed because there were competing creed. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but what does it mean? What does it mean that he suffered, died and was raised from the dead? So, the church had to constantly think about what Jesus did and what it meant.
And as time went on the church, in spite of her beautiful creeds, was not consistent in what her creeds meant for daily living. The words of Peter about Jesus who had the transforming power to change individuals and groups, lost the power because individuals and groups discovered that it is easy to say one thing but much harder to be consistent to do what God wants. Their commitment and enthusiasm waned as their creed was uttered in words but not in actions. And when this happen, relationships suffer.
You see it is good and right to say what it is what you believe. But there also is a need to show how this belief impacts your life. Saying that Jesus is the Lord, does not automatically mean that Jesus is in fact the Lord of your whole life. Being grateful for the fact that Jesus restores my relationship with God is good and it defines who I am, but I also have to show it in the way I live!
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome, argues that stating that you believe in Christ, as Lord of all, is important. One has to know who Jesus is, one has to understand that he is the Lord, He is the Son of God and he gives life, takes our sins away and restores our relationships.
However, he is clear that creeds without actions are empty. Therefore, he writes in Romans 12: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Let me just remind you that this letter to Romans is divided in three parts: The first part is about sin. The second part is about redemption in Christ. And the third part is about gratitude. And the third part starts in Romans 12:1!
People who say that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God should show their gratitude for God’s love and redemption by what they do! They are transformed by the renewal of their minds, they give themselves to God without holding back, they seek and do what is good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.
What they believe and what they do are aligned. There is harmony between their words and their actions! Let me again remind you where they were when Jesus asked “Who do you say that I am?” Caesarea Philippi. The place where people confessed that Caesar was lord. Here the Disciples affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah and not Caesar! When we confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, we state that politicians and political power are not our lord, or messiahs. Jesus alone is.
We are called to follow Christ and not the powerful in the world. We give ourselves as sacrifices to Christ who transforms us, who knows us, who understands us, and not to other powers.
I and thou! I am a relational being. Confessing that Jesus is the Messiah restores our relationship with God, with ourselves, with the creation and with others! For this we are grateful! What we say about Jesus should be followed by our actions. Saying that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the living God won’t mean a thing if we don’t act as if Jesus is the Messiah, son of the living God. Words are important – but without actions they are empty! Amen!