Who do you say that Jesus is? Who do you say that Jesus is? I want you to take your time with this question this morning. In fact, I hope you let this question stick with you way beyond this sermon and way beyond this worship service. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. Who do you say? You matter. Do you hear that? You’re an important part of the equation here! With this question YOU are being offered an invitation into grace and relationship.
It can be hard to hear this invitation and just what it’s offering us. Often, I think when we’re posed with questions like this, it’s easy to feel like we’re just being quizzed. Like there’s one right orthodox answer that is the one right answer for everybody and that the goal of Christianity is to be taught the right answer and then to spit the right answer back out at the right time. Sometimes, we think that that’s what church is about: Receiving and then giving the “correct” answers. Like a pop quiz in school: What’s the capital of Wyoming? How do you spell Mississippi? Who is Jesus?
Some of us get a little sweaty when we hear this question, “Who do you say that I am?” Some of us think, “Well, I didn’t grow up going to church so I never had Sunday School and I don’t really know the right answer.” Other people think, “Well, I know the answer I’m expected to give, but I’ve never really understood what it really means or how it’s supposed to relate to my life.” We can feel put on the spot by a question like this. We can feel like frauds for attending church but not knowing the answer. Or for knowing, but not really feeling it. We sometimes hear this question like a request for a secret password on the other side of a locked door we’ll never get through. If you do, I hope that you can begin to hear this question instead like a deep profession of love.
I remember the heady days falling in love with my wife, Bonnie Mohan. I remember the hours we spent alone together, snuggled up and staring into one another’s eyes. I remember dinners for two. Meeting one another’s friends and families. Learning about one another’s personalities, desires, and dreams. I remember the misunderstandings and the fights—oh boy—and the terrible vulnerability of true intimacy. I remember the ache of exposure the first time I said, “I love you,” to her and the physical thrill that ran through my body when she said, “I love you too.”
And what is all of that? What is falling in love if it’s not two people trying to mutually answer the question, “Who am I to you and who are you to me?” The answer wasn’t “I do” or even “I love you.” The answer is everything we share with those we love. Bonnie has shaped and defined me. And I have shaped and defined her. And our relationship will hopefully never become just an answer. Because once that’s all it is, it’s not alive, it’s not growing anymore. Hopefully, our relationship will always be a living, growing acknowledgement of one another full of love. Hopefully, I will always look to her and she will always look to me as one source of identity, meaning, and purpose—“Who do you say that I am?”
And now we’re parents to a squirmy 11-month-old son named Romey. And every day that that beautiful wild little man spends with us, I hear the question of my relationship to him and his to me. He can’t talk very much yet, but I hear the question echoing in my heart—in my father’s heart: my son is asking me, “Daddy, who am I becoming? How will you help me to figure it out? Will you give me the answer one day? Or will you live every day that you have with me with a love that will help me to love whoever I may be?” There is no answer to “Who is Romey?” There can only be relationship.
And this is one of the bizarre and miraculous truths that hits many of us when we become parents—we were living full, productive, good lives before we had kids. But when Romey arrived I realized that I had not fully known myself until I knew myself in relationship to him. Every moment I spend in relationship to Romey, especially when I let those moments resonate with real attention and intimacy, is a moment of asking Romey, “Who do you say that I am?” and hearing his response.
I can imagine that there might be some people listening this morning who say, “Well, that’s nice, Pastor Jeff, but this isn’t one of your ‘living the questions,’ ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,’ hippie-dippie, wishy-washy, swirly questions. The question of who Jesus is is central to our whole faith. This is about creed! This is about a proclamation! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God! Isn’t that the heart of what we believe? Isn’t that what holds us together as a Church?”
And, of course, you’re right. The answer that Peter gave to Jesus’ question is at the very heart of who we are as Christians: You are the Christ, the Son of God. And yet. If I’m not 100% sure that Peter’s answer is my answer, does that close the door on the invitation to figure out an answer to, “Who do you say that I am?” on my own? I think Peter’s answer is central to who we are as Christians. But Jesus’ question and his invitation to us are foundational to who we are as Christians.
When I arrived here last summer many of you asked me, “What do we call you?” And I said, “Well, you can call me whatever you want, but I invite you to call me, ‘Pastor Jeff.’” Now, it is true that I am a pastor. And it is true that I am the minister here at your church. So, yes, it is true that I am your pastor. But I don’t invite you to call me “Pastor Jeff” to provide you with some sort of knowledge about my position. I do it to invite you into the pastoral relationship with me. Pastor Jeff is my name around here, but the reality of what it means can only be discovered in relationship to one another. No two people are going to have the same relationship to Pastor Jeff. And Pastor Jeff is going to respond a little differently and grow with each new relationship. But the name Pastor Jeff highlights the very best of what I can offer in my calling here with you.
So, Peter’s answer (You are the Christ, the Son of God) shouldn’t close the door on our invitation to discover our relationship to Jesus. Instead, it’s meant to make the invite shine brighter. To draw us in to the way, the truth, and the life, like lights along a runway at night that a pilot sees from way, way, way off so she knows which direction to head in.
Another way to say it is that we receive Peter’s answer not to regurgitate it, but to actually digest it in the journey of our own relationship with God. The problem with simply falling back on the received answer to the question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” is that it could lead us to make Jesus an object of the past rather than a relationship of the present. After all, Jesus didn’t say to the disciples in our scripture reading this morning, “Today we’re having a lesson on who I am and tomorrow there will be a quiz. I hope everyone gets 100%!” The “lesson” wasn’t a lesson at all, it wasn’t an answer in the traditional sense. It was just Jesus living with the disciples in relationship, working, and doing ministry together. It wasn’t about an answer given in the past, frozen in time. It was about a relationship right there in the present moment actively unfolding all around them. Who do you say that I am? What do I mean to you? What is it that you think we’re doing together? The answer, “The Christ, the Son of God” points at that relationship. It directs us to that relationship. But it cannot replace a relationship. And we have to remember that the relationship came first, and then came the proclamation of faith, the words to describe it.
A hundred years ago, the great philosopher Martin Buber published his most influential work, I & Thou. In it he defines two classes of relationships: the I-it relationship and the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship. I-it is the way we relate to objects and machines and things without souls. I-Thou is the way we relate (hopefully) to other people.
But Buber is not just a philosopher, he’s a poetic prophet. And he sees an increasing tendency in modern culture to treat other people as “its” rather than as “thous.” Buber believes that the only way that we can truly grow, transform, or better understand ourselves is in relationship. It can’t be done alone. It can’t be done with objects. “Its” cannot reflect you, they cannot challenge you. Growth can only happen in connection to someone we treat with full humanity. Buber says that the I-Thou relationship can be achieved when we live with respect, attention, and love to other people, to the natural world, and to animals. And that all of these I-Thou relationships are what define our relationship to what Buber calls “the Eternal Thou,” God.
Buber warns us that we can even treat God like an “it.” Like a means to an end. Like an answer we know that distracts us from the relationship we need. Buber says that there are some atheists who have a better relationship with God than some theists because they more fully live their lives in I-Thou relationships rather than in smaller, more manipulative, objectifying I-it relationships.
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s inviting us to experience him and to know him and to live with him as more than an It. His question is not a demand for the right answer. It’s an open door into a relationship that will define us and that God promises to respond to. So, Beloved, who do you say that Jesus is?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations