Confessing and Acting on What We Believe – August 27, 2017
Bible Text: Matthew 16:13-20 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler
“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Almost 50 years old, but still staged and revered, Jesus Christ Superstar is still going strong. I don’t like the way the musical portrays Jesus. It doesn’t represent him as someone I’d want to follow as Savior and Lord. The character of Jesus in JC Superstar seems more worried about his own legacy than caring for anyone else beside himself. It’s not a play about reverence and devotion, but it does ask a good question. A dozen years ago our daughter played Mary Magdeline and her boyfriend played Judas in her H.S.’s spring musical. The whole cast did a great job. It was fascinating to get the behind-the-scenes account of how the young man who portrayed Jesus struggled with the role and then get to see how he chose to portray him. One person from the cast who has signed up for fall semester college course on The Person of Jesus at least partly as a result of the experience with the play.
The whole play is in essence about the same question Jesus put to his disciples in today’s Gospel. “Who do people say that I am? And, “who do you say that I am?” The play is portrayed from the perspective of questions and doubt more than belief, but it is faithful in asking that one central question: Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed? It was a really good question for a high school cast and audience to wrestle with. It’s still a good question for you and me to wrestle with today.
The Gospel of Matthew also leads us to that place of suspense through Jesus’ question to his disciples – “But who do you say that I am?” The question is directed not only to the 12, but through them to you and me, the reader.
That Jesus is the Son of God is an open secret to the reader. Matthew has declared from the beginning that Jesus is the Messiah. At his baptism the heavens open and we hear a voice declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (3:17) We read of his miraculous power to heal the sick, to still the storm, to feed the multitude, to speak with authority.
Jesus’ true identity is not so evident to the characters within the gospel story. The Magi (or wise men) understood the baby Jesus’ importance and they worshipped him, but they didn’t yet know Jesus’ teaching or where he would lead them. The disciples follow Jesus but they don’t seem to comprehend him. The only people who seem to understand who Jesus really is are some blind beggars asking Jesus to heal them and a Syro Phoenician Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” they declare, calling Jesus by his messianic title. They get it right.
But the disciples haven’t yet gotten it. They almost got it a couple weeks ago when they were rowing all night long against the wind and waves and Jesus walked towards them over the water. When Jesus got into the boat with them the wind and waves were still and they worshipped him as the Son of God. But it doesn’t seem to have stuck. A couple chapters later, after Jesus had yet again fed the multitude, he warned them to “Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Saducees.” Their response was to worry that they didn’t have any bread. The disciples could believe in Jesus as the Son of God when they needed help, but their belief hadn’t yet translated into faith or action.
So Jesus took his disciples aside and questioned them. First he asked what other people were saying about him. Then Jesus asked the tough, the challenging question: “But who do you say that I am?” Matthew directs Jesus’ question not only to the disciples, but to us as well.
Fred Craddock, a respected preaching instructor, has said that “You do not know what you believe until you hear yourself say it.” If you’ve ever fallen in love with someone and declared your love to him or her you may understand the truth of Fred Craddock’s point. It is only when the words, “I love you!” are spoken out loud that they become fully alive and true. It is only when we declare our love and belief in Jesus as our Lord and Savior that they become true for us.
What will you say when the question is put directly to you as Jesus put it to his disciples? Maybe someone will want to know what you believe and do in that church of yours. Maybe you’ll argue with your son or daughter who espouses faith in some far-out new age belief. Maybe your friend or neighbor or spouse will wonder what is so important about worship that you waste your time on a beautiful Sunday morning in this unproductive activity. Somewhere someone, or more likely many people – especially those closest to you – are going to wonder what you really believe. What will you tell them?
“Jesus Christ, Superstar; who are you what have you sacrificed?” People are still very interested in that question 50 years after the play first came out. Through Matthew’s Gospel Jesus puts the same question in personal terms to us. Who do you say that I am? In can be very helpful to hammer out a statement of what you believe. One way for us to declare that would be to put the words of the 2nd article of the Nicene Creed – “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ” – into your own words. Here is a personal statement of that creed I wrote some years ago. This is who I believe Jesus is:
I believe that Jesus is the living reflection of the uncreated eternal light. He is God’s light blazing forth into the world not as a lightening bolt that blinds the eyes and whose clap of thunder deafens the ear and electricity burns and destroys all it touches, but rather as a human being, a man, born of Mary his mother and also of God his Father. Jesus embodied that blazing uncreated light of God in a human life.
His love conveys God’s blinding power in a soft candlelight glow that holds the world in its embrace and you and me with it.
His Word and teaching translates God’s deafening righteousness to an example of suffering servanthood that invites me to take up my cross and follow.
His living resurrected presence is the electric charge that thrills my soul and empowers me to live no longer for myself alone, but to serve others with his love.
I believe that Jesus is the living Son of God who invites you and me and the whole world into God’s light.
By Jesus’ death on the cross for a broken world and the power of God that raised him from the dead I believe that Jesus the Son of God wins the victory that invites us into full, rich, joyous and eternal life in Him.
That’s how I answer Jesus’ central question of “who do you say that I am?” When Peter answered that question by saying “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The same is true for us. It is not by human power that we come to believe and declare our belief in Jesus as God’s Son. There is a greater power at work here. Real faith in the living Lord Jesus is ultimately a gift from God – God working within us.
As we read the rest of the story – (Matthew 16:21-26) next week’s gospel – Peter the building block quickly becomes Peter the stumbling block. Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem. Peter, praised so highly a few seconds before, takes Jesus aside and says “no Jesus; that can’t happen to you!” Then Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”
It is not enough to declare our belief in Jesus as the Son of God. We must also listen to his words and follow his example. To believe in Jesus means also to believe in what he taught and what he did. We need to let Jesus guide us and lead us to where belief in him will take us: not necessarily to comfortable places. Not to power for ourselves, but to power for others. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God leads directly to the cross, to offering our life for God as Jesus offered his life for us.
People still want to know: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed?” Are you prepared to share your witness of faith in who Jesus Christ is to you?