I have found that one of the greatest joys and challenges I have had in ministry is getting to know the people that make up the congregation on a deeper level. Many of you gathered in this space have decades of history with one another. Each month it seems that I find out that two people in this congregation are siblings or cousins or kin in some form or fashion, but it came as a surprise to me. The people that make up this particular church carry so many identities. You’re parents and grandparents. You’re happily single, widowed, and recently married. You work. You’re retired. You’ve sung in the choir, taught our children, and weeded the gardens. You cycle and run. You golf. Some of you think golf is a giant waste of time.
There is a depth to each one of us. Even when we truly know the depths of a person — perhaps the way that best friends or spouses can know some — even then there are depths to the person that remain unknown. Jess and I have been married for over 23 years now, and just last month we shared multiple stories about our past that neither of us knew about the other. As a church family, we’ll never fully know each other, but I do urge us that it is very much worth our while to dig more deeply into each others’ lives to appreciate the complexities each of us offer. Those complexities are actually part of what God in all of God’s wisdom has chosen to work together in this particular body for God’s purposes.
In the same way that I will never fully be able to know the depths of each one of you — as much as I will keep trying to! — you also will never fully be able to know more in all of my identities. I’m pretty sure that every time I’ve interviewed for a pastoral position, the search team begins with this question, “Would you share with us your story?” And so, over the next few minutes, I’d try to trace the trajectory of my life and faith. There are always the way posts that I hit along the way.
It goes something like this: I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. My parents met in middle school and have been together ever since. They still live in the same county where they grew up. I spent my first 18 years there before my first exposure to Michigan when I went to Calvin. I grew up in the Baptist church, and while I really loved the church and faith, I never felt secure in my faith. I struggled to trust God’s grace and love. Generally, I felt I was under threat from God. At Calvin, through class, friends, professors, and other mentors, I finally was able to grasp grace. Jess and I met around that time. Less than two years later, we were married. We’ve moved for school and work to Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, New Jersey, Georgia, and back to Michigan. Along the way, God has blessed us with three children.
It’s my story, but it hardly scratches the surface of who I am and what I love. I carry so many identities. Pastor. Father. Uncle. Friend. Runner. Reader. I love cooking and enjoy lawn care. I’m a Mug Club member. I drive the swimming car pool and run the clock at water polo matches (that’s a new one for me). I love listening to music. I enjoy playing music. I need organization and get stressed out when things are in disarray. I know emotions matter, but I also am good at keeping them strapped in the backseat. I strive to be trustworthy, but I don’t always succeed there. I am in ministry because I believe that the gospel is transforming the world, but sometimes I get bogged down in the business of just running the church.
You get it. Like you, I contain multitudes. Try as we might we’ll never fully know one another. Try as we might to avoid this, we’ll end up making assumptions about one another that are simply untrue and that are often more a reflection of our own hangups. There are approximately 1000 people connected to this congregation. Each of you is unique, special, and loved by God. There is only one Pastor Troy, and it will forever be impossible for me to know all of you the way you deserve to be known, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. So, consider this your invitation. I’d love to know you better. Let’s have coffee or take a walk or sit on your porch. My email is right there in the bulletin. We’ll never fully get to know each other, but we can at least take a step towards it.
So, why would I take the first third of the sermon to focus on our identities? Because this passage is about Jesus’ true identity and about how others perceive him. It’s a crucial passage in Matthew’s gospel. It’s the last thing that happens before Jesus turns towards Jerusalem and begins sharing with his disciples that he is facing crucifixion and that he will be raised three days later.
Our passage takes place in the foothills of Mount Hermon in Caesarea Philippi. Mount Hermon dominates the landscape of the area. It’s snowcapped much of the year — something rather unexpected in the Middle East. Often significant revelations in the Bible happen on or around mountains, and this text is no exception. Caesarea Philippi was an important city in that region. Herod the Great’s son, Philip, took control of it a few years before the birth of Jesus. He renamed it Caesarea in honor of Emperor Augustus, who was reigning when Jesus was born. Philippi means “of Philip,” and he named it that to mark it as different from the other Caesareas dotting the Roman Empire. It was a regional capital, the center of worship and government. It also sat along a major trade route connecting Tyre and Damascus. That Jesus would ask these questions in Caesarea Philippi is consequential. Maybe this isn’t the best parallel, but imagine that you decided you wanted to run for governor and brought your campaign announcement to the capitol steps in Lansing. The location is speaking volumes.
Jesus’ first question is this, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Son of Man is a title fraught with meaning that we find in Daniel 7. The Son of Man evokes an image of conflict and kingship. The Son of Man is the one coming to set the world to rights and to restore the proper order of things. So, when Jesus stands on a mountain in a regional capital and asks this question, it’s loaded. Who do people say the Son of Man is? Over time there has been speculation that the Son of Man was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or other prophetic figures. So, the disciples give an expected answer to this question. If this were an exam, their study has paid off. The get an “A.”
But this is no mere academic exercise. Jesus makes it personal. With Jesus, it’s always personal because encountering him is no mere academic exercise. He follows up, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter has a bold answer to give. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It’s a striking, risky answer. When he makes the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, he’s also eliminating all of those other significant figures as the Messiah. It’s not John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah. It’s Jesus, which means things are going to get real in a hurry. After all, the Son of Man is ushering in a reign that will overtake all others. He’s King of kings. He’s Lord of lords.
But notice that Peter does not simply deduce this through his own reasoning. Jesus praises Peter for his answer. “Blessed are you…for flesh and blood as not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” This comes from revelation, not reason. Peter has correctly identified Jesus, but he has done this through the work of God in his life. It’s faith that has led to this statement, not his personal ability.
Jesus goes on say that it’s on this faith that Jesus will build the church. I read this passage that Peter is serving as the mouthpiece of all disciples. The faith he proclaims is the faith that all who would follow Jesus proclaim, so there is nothing particularly more important about Peter than any other disciples — named or unnamed — in this work that God is doing through Jesus. It’s on this shared faith — that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God — that the church exists and has authority at all in the world. And, we must be mindful that the expectations the disciples have of what kind of Messiah Jesus would be are immediately defied in Jesus announcement of his impending death and resurrection. They were looking for a king. Jesus is king, but his throne wouldn’t be in Jerusalem or Caesarea Philippi or even Washington D. C. It is at the right hand of God where he reigns forever and ever and from where he empowers the church to be the church even now.
So, this passage is extremely important in the Bible because it makes a bold claim about Jesus’ identity, a claim that the church continues to make 2000 years later. But it’s not a question that sits idly by. Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
It is vital that we continue to ask ourselves this question today and that we do it both individually and as a community.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Have you answered that question for yourself? Or are you still trying to settle that question in your mind? Or did you accept an answer another gave you and stopped seeking to go deeper? Who do you say that Jesus is?
Of course, Peter’s answer is correct. He’s the Messiah, the son of the living God. He’s the Savior of the world. He’s the one who lived, died, and rose again for you. And that’s saying a lot, but there’s always more. Jesus is always more.
Jesus contains multitudes. The Bible itself uses countless images trying to capture the identity of Jesus. I have a Dictionary of Biblical Imagery in my office, and it has over 14 pages devoted to images of Jesus from the Bible, including shepherd, bridegroom, abused one, friend of sinners, dinner guest and host, Savior, Lord, suffering servant, bread, water, vine, wine, and life. Those images come from just the first three pages of that entry!
Who do you say that Jesus is? Perhaps for you he was shelter in the storm or the rock on which you stand. Perhaps he brought peace to you in a hard situation. Perhaps he is a mystery. Perhaps your understanding has continued changing through the seasons of your life. But this remains: Jesus is always more. It matters that you spend time getting to know Jesus better and better through study, prayer, worship, and community. So, as we turn our calendars to the fall, I encourage each of us to seek Jesus in our lives. Get to know Jesus in all of his complexities and come to love him for those.
And, while you’re at it, do the same with one another. I was serious about the coffee invitation. Let’s see how much caffeine my system can handle.