Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Life is full of questions. I mean that literally.
Have we ever stopped and noticed how many questions that we ask or answer on any given day?
Questions asking for information. What are you doing? Where are you going?
Questions asking for clarification. What did you mean by that?
Questions asking for help. Can you lend me a hand for a sec?
Questions asking for directions. Can you tell me where to find…?
Questions asking for permission or approval. Is it okay if…?
Life is full of questions. Practical, functional ones like the ones I just mentioned.
But life also is full of bigger, deeper questions too.
Questions about meaning. What is the point of it all?
Questions about purpose. What are you living for? What motivates you to get up in the morning?
Questions about commitment. Who or what matters the most to you?
Questions about destiny. Where is your life ultimately headed? Where do you want to find yourself?
Have we ever noticed that Jesus asked a lot of questions?
Questions often were the hallmark of Jesus’ encounters with others.
If we look and listen carefully as we read the scriptures, asking questions often was one of the primary ways Jesus taught and preached.
In fact, the Gospels record more than 100 questions asked by Jesus!
But there is one question he asked that everyone whoever hears about Jesus, whoever encounters Christ must answer.
Today, as we turn to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 9, we will be confronted by this question – a question that Jesus asked his first disciples, a question that Jesus asks all who follow him.
And it’s the kind of question that cuts right to the heart of the matter.
It’s the sort of question for which lots of answers can be given but for which there is one answer that is right.
And because of that one, correct answer and its far-reaching implications, there may be no more significant question than this one in all of life. (TEXT)
We’re going to look at this brief episode in two parts.
Today, we are going to focus on the conversation Jesus initiates, the replies he gets from his disciples, and then, how Jesus first responds.
Next Sunday we’ll reflect on the second half of what Jesus has to say to his followers in light of the conversation they’re having together.
But it all begins with a question.
On the other side of feeding so many with seemingly so little – satisfying the appetite of a crowd of more than 5,000 people – with only five loaves of bread and two fish.
In the aftermath of twelve baskets of leftovers, and, as we learn from John’s gospel account, the crowd’s forceful impulse to get another miracle meal and to make Jesus king, Jesus has retreated to a place, a posture of prayer with his disciples.
And Luke tells us, it is out of this sacred space of conversation, of communion with his Heavenly Father –
“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”” -Luke 9:18
that Jesus turns to his followers and asks them a pointed question.
“Who do the crowds say that I am?”
The disciples have been following Jesus on his long journey across the land and regions of Galilee, so no doubt they’ve picked up on the speculation of the people – the average Israelite.
That Jesus has become the talk of the town is evidenced earlier in this chapter of Luke’s gospel (v. 9)
“Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead… But Herod said, “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” -Luke 9:7,9
when we’re briefly told even King Herod was asking about him – about who Jesus is.
Jesus recognizes the crowds that have followed him – those who gathered to hear him and be cured, who listened to his teachings and then questioned him, who pressed in on him – these crowds, by now, have sized him up and formed their opinions.
And so, initially, what Jesus wants to know from his disciples is, “What have you heard about me? What’s the word on the street? What do the opinion polls suggest about my true identity?”
In response, the disciples parrot back the three standard answers everyone has come up with.
“They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” -Luke 9:19
The same answers, by the way, if we go back and look, that King Herod received when he was making inquiries about Jesus.
“Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life.” -Luke 9:7-8
Can we picture each of the disciples scrambling, perhaps even talking over each other, as they look to share what they’ve heard.
Some people say you’re John the Baptist!
In Mark’s gospel account of this episode, this is what King Herod concluded – that Jesus was John the Baptist (whom Herod had beheaded) raised from the dead.
But there are others who speculate you’re Elijah!
Elijah, was a popular theory, because Elijah we might remember never physically died but instead was swept up into heaven in a fiery chariot.
Ever since then, prophets like Malachi, were anticipating Elijah’s return or at the very least, someone with Elijah’s spirit to come back to usher in the salvation of the people.
Of course, some folks think you might be one of the other ancient prophets – someone like say, Jeremiah – come back to life.
Everyone had their theories.
People – especially in crowds – are rarely shy about voicing their opinions.
And more often than we realize, not coincidentally, those opinions, those theories tend to be based and shaped entirely on the perspectives, the assumptions, the factions to which we’re partial to.
Do we notice Jesus’ posture as the disciples respond to his question?
He neither affirms nor denies any of their answers.
Jesus doesn’t interrupt them or react in any way.
He just listens, allowing his disciples to share what they’ve heard – the consensus of the crowd when it comes to the preferences, ideas, and expert opinions of others.
Once they’re finished, however, Jesus has a follow-up question.
And as it quickly becomes clear, this is the real question he wanted to ask as Jesus says, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” -Luke 9:20
The first question: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” sets up the second question: “Who do you say that I am?”
We do this all the time in our relationships and conversations – beginning more broadly in search of an answer
So, what do most people order here? How is everyone feeling about the new boss? What is the word of mouth on this movie?
but then pivoting in looking for a more specific response.
What do you like to eat when you come to this restaurant? How do you think the new boss is doing so far? Did you see, did you like this movie?
While Jesus initially wonders aloud what the crowds think about who is, the truth is Jesus is much more interested in the assessment – the confession of his disciples – those who profess to believe in him.
To put this another way, by repeating his initial question in more personal terms, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
Jesus isn’t asking his disciples a multiple choice question – to pick from the three most commonly held answers about his identity.
Earlier, back in chapter 8, in the aftermath of a sudden storm on the water where they were convinced, they were going to drown – a raging tempest that immediately ceased with but a word from Jesus, the disciples asked each other in fear and amazement,
“Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” -Luke 8:25
And now, Jesus basically is asking all of them, “You’ve had some time to chew on and talk amongst yourselves about that question you asked back in the boat. Well, what have you come up with?”
Jesus, in looking at each disciple in turn, is probing for a more intimate answer – their answer to the question of why as much as who.
Why are you following me? Why have you left behind everything you know?
Who do you say that I am?
The gospel writers don’t offer us much detail in terms of what happens next.
However, there are a couple of things we ought to notice.
First, all the disciples are not answering Jesus like they were the first time. It’s just Peter who speaks up.
“Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”” – Luke 9:20
Second, while we don’t get this detail from Luke’s account, in Matthew’s version of these events, when Peter does chime in, Jesus clarifies the answer he has given is not from himself but from the revelation of the Father – the discernment of the Holy Spirit.
“Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” – Matthew 16:17
In other words, it appears the disciples hesitate and struggle in answering this question – “But who do YOU say that I am?”
It’s not hard to imagine the awkward silence between Jesus’ question and Peter’s eventual response.
How long were the disciples shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact with Jesus before the Holy Spirit put the words on Peter’s lips?
They were quick to answer, they had a lot to say, in speaking about what others surmised about Jesus.
But they remained oddly silent – they seemingly struggled – even to make a claim, just to say something out loud, to take a risk, to confess the truth that might cost them.
Beloved, as so-called followers of Jesus, are we any different?
We’re comfortable repeating what we’ve heard about Christ from others but when it comes to answering for ourselves about who Jesus is we tend to conspicuously remain silent.
Many Christians have grown up in the faith and have been raised in the Church.
Others of us, as Christians, have come to faith and learned about Jesus through a particular ministry and/or a dedicated teacher or mentor.
When it comes to understanding the question of who Jesus is, the answers we repeat borne of tradition and creed are both a valid and valuable place to start.
All explorations and revelations of who Jesus is begin with what we’ve heard from others, reflecting upon whatever we’ve inherited, and starting to build on the faith we’ve gleaned from parents, pastors, or peers.
But a full, abundant relationship with Jesus is and cannot be forged simply by repeating back or leaning solely upon what others have told us about Christ.
The gift of faith we are given is not grown and matured based on living with and for Jesus vicariously through the relationship other people have with Christ.
No, there is a difference between having information about Jesus and experiencing life in and with Jesus.
The good news is that God in Christ came into this world to redeem all creation and to reconcile and restore community.
But that redemptive, restorative work starts at the individual level – in the changing and transformation of every human life.
Beloved, Jesus doesn’t seek for you to know about him. Jesus comes into the particularity of your life to be known by you.
And Christ’s presence is your life and mine is not reserved or limited to swooping in as we are about to physically die and then take our hand into the afterlife.
No, through the Word and the Spirit, Jesus is present here and now in your life and mine – walking every step of the journey with us, providing what we need, shouldering the burdens we bear, catching the tears we shed, relishing the laughter and joy we share.
And all along the way – of living not apart from but in, with, and through us, Jesus is seeking to inform and guide the thoughts, decisions, and actions we take, and so doing to reshape and encourage the transformation of our person and character.
We can’t truly know Jesus as a part of the crowd.
The crowds engage Jesus with respect but not with insight into who he really is.
To be a part of the crowd is to limit oneself to be an observer of Jesus but not a disciple of Christ.
The crowd’s relationship with Jesus is not built on knowing Jesus; it is built on making requests – even demands – of Jesus.
And when those requests, those prayers, those demands are not unanswered, the crowd is no longer engaged with Jesus. The crowds just disappear.
Jesus doesn’t ask the crowd. Jesus asks those who commit to follow him. And so again, therein lies the question, who do YOU say that Jesus is?
Now, of course, most if not all of us, would answer, like Peter – Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is our Lord and Savior.
But here’s the thing.
Is that profession of faith – has it always been or has it over time become – a default, perfunctory response – a religious answer words that have been so drilled into us, that we’ve repeated so many times, we could recite in our sleep but a profession of faith that we aren’t necessarily living through our lives?
As Christians, we learn, we know the right thing to say – Jesus is the Messiah.
But we know what we are saying?
Is Jesus merely “the” Messiah? Or is he your Messiah?
Have you ever pondered what the difference might be?
Is Jesus “your” Lord and Savior? Or is he our Lord and Savior?
How might we view and treat others differently if we recognized that person – that stranger, that enemy – as someone whom Jesus came to save, to transform just like me?
Again, let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves how much do we understand, how much do we wrestle with what it means to say Jesus is our Messiah.
In other words, does how Jesus purposes to save us line up with how we expect to be saved?
Remember Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist?
From his prison cell, before his execution, he struggled to reconcile the reality of how Jesus was working with what he, John, expected.
“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” -Luke 7:18 – 20
The coming Messiah that John had announced was going to come with vengeance and power, ushering in justice and a new kingdom.
But Jesus had to reassure and reorient John that inaugurating the Kingdom of God and proclaiming justice for all came through the power of forgiveness, through divine acts of hospitality and compassion.
Or consider Peter.
While it’s not mentioned in Luke’s version of the story, we know from Matthew’s account, that while Peter gave the right answer to the question through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he still struggled to understand the meaning of the answer he just gave.
For as Jesus goes on to describe the path sent before him
And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” -Luke 9:22
– the way of salvation for everyone – as one of suffering, rejection, and inevitably, death, Peter isn’t having it.
Peter’s understanding of who Jesus would be – as the Messiah – how Jesus would save the world – didn’t line up with his expectations for the Messiah – how he expected to be saved.
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” -Matthew 16:22
And so Peter initially tries to rewrite the answer to the question of who Jesus is – of what kind of Messiah he must be.
This, again, is why our answer to who Jesus is cannot be based solely on what others tell and teach us.
Because we are all like Peter in that while we may confess Jesus as our Messiah, we all fail to grasp the full significance of what it means, what it looks like for Jesus to save us – to save the world.
After all, the kind of salvation we normally cry out for is protecting and securing our rights – our possessions, our property, our well-being rather than surrendering our freedoms or sacrificing ourselves.
And the heroes, the champions we worship are the ones who don’t go down without a fight, who don’t get themselves killed, but instead beat the odds while everyone else perishes.
It is all too easy for us to – comfortable and convenient – to tell ourselves or find others who will tell us – the salvation Jesus brings looks exactly like the political party we’re apart of or the national flag in which we’ve wrapped ourselves, the work philosophy or business ethic or investment strategy we operate by, the standard of living, of consumption, the level of enjoyment to which we’ve grown accustomed.
Again, from Matthew’s account of this story, we know Peter doesn’t get too far in his effort to remake Jesus as the Messiah in the image of his own expectations and plans.
“Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” – Matthew 16:23
No, immediately Jesus shuts Peter down by telling Peter to stop trying to get ahead of him and instead to get behind him and follow his lead.
And that’s a good word for all who answer the question of “Who do you say that I am?”
Because the only way we can fully know who Jesus is – is by continuing to listen and learn from Jesus himself.
The same way Peter and John the Baptist begin to know who Jesus is – by receiving it straight to the source – by listening to and receiving the Word and the Spirit – is how we keep learning and discovering the fullness of who Jesus is as our Messiah, as our Lord and Savior.
As we reflect on our answer to the question of “Who do you say that I am?” what false or flawed stories of Jesus have we inherited and need to let go of?
What assumptions – religious or otherwise – are you clinging to simply because they’re familiar, or safe, or easy – but fundamentally – when evaluated against the teaching and character of Christ need to be put behind you?
Beloved, we can’t even begin to understand what it means to know Jesus as our Messiah apart from yielding to Christ’s determination to demonstrate the love of God even if it kills him. Which it does.
It is one thing for us to simply declare Jesus is the Messiah, to repeat to one another, Jesus saves us by dying for everyone on the Cross.
But it is something else entirely to daily immerse ourselves – to contemplate and be shaped by – let alone to share the kind of unconditional love, the unbounded commitment, the overwhelming and disorienting grace that shapes the salvation Jesus expresses and offers to us as our Messiah.
For love, commitment, and grace like that cannot be controlled. We cannot influence it, determine it, horde or channel it to our purposes.
All we can do is surrender to it – surrender before the iron-clad promise of God’s salvation that is rooted in a universal invitation of welcome and homecoming for all; that is singularly delivered through the no-holds barred manifestation of mercy and compassion in and through Christ.
All we can do is reflect it – it’s abundance to a wounded world that’s learned to accept scarcity – the scarcity of time, goods and resources, the scarcity of peace, justice, and lasting joy
– reflect the way, the truth, and the life of eternal possibility.
As Christians we’re good, well practiced, when asked about Jesus, in repeating and debating the theologies and interpretations of others,
in offering boiler plate responses dressed up in churchy language.
But at some point, the question of who Jesus is, especially if we say we follow Christ, must become personal.
For everyday as Jesus looks at us through the eyes of the people we encounter – particularly, those who are hurting and suffering and especially those who we find strange, unappealing, or our enemies – Jesus looks upon us through such people and asks, “But who do you say that I am?”
And as Christ stands patiently and vulnerably in our midst for our answer waiting to hear what we, who profess to believe in him, who claim to know him, who confess we follow him, we dare not be silent.
To a creation longing for its redemption, to a world that moves ever closer towards its own self-destruction, in neighborhoods and homes where diaspointment and despair eclipse hope, we must answer the question Jesus has put – not to a select, chosen few – but to all of us, to each and every one of us.
We must recognize Christ where he told us we could find him – among the least of these – those who are suffering, isolated, imprisoned, and afraid.
We must declare Jesus to be not my Messiah or even our Messiah – but the Lord and Savior of all the world.
In word and deed, we must reflect the light and salvation Christ brings not on my terms or according to our expectations – but his.
The good news that no matter how far we run, no matter what we do or don’t do, no matter what is done to us, God in Christ comes to bless, to heal, to feed, to teach, and rescue us – even if it kills him.
The good news not of a life taken but of abundant life offered by Jesus in the name of love.
A love that in proving to be stronger than death delivers a reconciliation, a renewal, a transformation that is inclusive of all and shared by everyone. that reaches from everlasting to everlasting.
And this is the word of the Lord.