“Who do you say that I am?” Amen.
If Jesus were to come up to you this morning and ask, “Who do you say that I am,” what would your answer be?
Would you say that Jesus was a prophet, a great moral teacher, a self-help guide, a hippie who dispenses endless love, a countercultural revolutionary, or as C.S. Lewis once asked in his trilemma, “a liar, a lunatic, or Lord?”
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus turns to his disciples, his dear ones, and asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
The disciples scramble to come up with the right answer and respond with what they have heard others say. “Some say that you are John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
I wonder why they had such a hard time answering this question. After all, the disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus. They spent a lot of time on the road with Jesus. The disciples had followed Jesus from town to town as Jesus taught and preformed miracles. In fact, just before this gospel, Jesus healed a blind person, cured the dying, performed an exorcism, and multiplied the loaves and fish to feed a hungry crowd. And the disciples’ best answer was to repeat what other people had said about him?
This time with emphasis, Jesus asks again, “But who do you say that I am?” To which Peter replies, to the relief of everyone in the room, “You are the Messiah.”
In this moment, Peter gets it right. Peter, who is a mix of a sinner and a saint, does not always get it right. A bit of an extremist, you can always count on Peter to get it really right or really wrong. If you recall, just after getting it right, Peter gets it wrong again, and is rebuked by Jesus. But in this moment, in this moment, Peter understands. He can see what the others cannot see – that Jesus is the Messiah.
The Messiah, the long awaited One promised throughout the Hebrew Bible that would deliver Israel. The Messiah, the One who came to save creation from being separated from God. The One who took on the sin and the judgment of this world to transform it and reconcile us to God. The One who rescued creation and did what we could not do for ourselves.
The challenge of believing that Jesus is the Messiah – the Savior— is that we then have to believe that we are in need of being saved from something, that something being sin.
I will never forget when I needed to be saved from something.
When I was about six years old, my mom and our neighbor’s family went to the shore together. My mom packed up the car with my two sisters and me, while my neighbor, Terry Maggi, packed up her three boys. We headed to every child’s dreamland and every parent’s nightmare: Wildwood, New Jersey. The place where there are miles of games that you are overcharged to play!
Lucky for me, my best friend was my neighbor, Kevin Maggi. As Kevin and I built sandcastles, our moms told us not to go far. Everything was going fine until I noticed that we needed seashells to decorate the sandcastles. I convinced Kevin to drop everything and to follow me along the shoreline as we searched for seashells. Like the good obedient boy that he was, he wondered if this was a good idea. He kept asking, “Didn’t our mothers say to stay close?” I convinced him that he was being a baby and that he should follow me, just a little bit further down the shore, where I was sure that the best seashells were.
When five minutes turned into an hour, we realized that we were lost… on Wildwood beach … on a Saturday… in July. We were certain that we’d never see our mothers again, that we’d live on Wildwood beach forever, and if by a miracle we were found, that we’d be grounded into eternity. That is, until a lifeguard that looked like he had just walked off a Baywatch set drove up to us on a four-wheeler and asked, “Are you lost? You must be Elizabeth and Kevin.” The lifeguard scooped us up and put us on his four-wheeler and delivered us back to our mothers’ arms. My mother held me in her arms crying, “I thought I had lost you!” I suddenly did not care what my punishment would be, because I was reunited with my mom.
Like a lifeguard, Jesus as Messiah rescues us when humanity has gone a little too far – when we get lost— and unites us back to God the Father in heaven.
Peter can see this vision of Jesus as the Messiah. Peter can see Jesus as the lifeguard who rescues us and reunites us back to our Creator.
Yet, Peter could not accept that this Messiah would also have to be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” For Peter, the shock-and-awe Rambo Jesus was easier to imagine than the Suffering Messiah, whose suffering labors on the cross gave birth to creation’s salvation.
And we are not so different from Peter.
In one moment, we can so clearly see who Jesus is. We can quickly articulate Jesus’ identity as Messiah, as Savior; and then in the next moment, we get his identity dead wrong. We, like Peter, are not alone in our struggle to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” The church has long tried to answer Jesus’ question.
I think one of the most powerful visual examples of a person struggling to accept aspects of Jesus’ identity is witnessed in the Jefferson Bible. The Jefferson Bible is one that Thomas Jefferson took scissors to. Jefferson cut out all the verses and pages in the Bible that he did not think represented Jesus or any other members of the Trinity. If you see his Bible displayed at the National Museum of American History, you will see a tattered Bible. And if we are honest, we all have days or seasons where our faith looks like this.
C.S. Lewis, who is arguably one of most famous Christian apologists, spent his life answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Today kicks off our year-long focus on Lewis’ writings. One of his famous apologies for people struggling to believe in Jesus’ divinity is found in one of his books, Mere Christianity. To those who agreed that Jesus was a moral teacher, but not the Son of God, Lewis argued that this was not possible. He coined the “trilemma” that every person faces when trying to answer who Jesus is. For Lewis, you had to believe that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. When you consider his life and teachings, Jesus could only be one of these identities.
Like C.S. Lewis, many people in the church have used their gifts to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Be it through the visual arts, sacred music, scholarship, liturgy, or social witness, we are in good company. Since the church’s conception, many have answered this question with their thoughts, words, and deeds and by using their gifts.
I am sure you can think about a painting that challenged you to see Jesus in a new way. Or a hymn or a piece of music, whose acoustical soundscape led you to experience God’s presence in a deeper way. Or your favorite writer, whose clarity of thought clarified what you believe. Or a pesky activist, whose embodied social witness and commitment to love the least of these revived your faith.
As a church, we will have an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” through participating in RenewalWorks. If you have not heard about RenewalWorks, it is a ministry of the Episcopal Church that helps congregations to grow deeper in God.
The RenewalWorks spiritual inventory is the first part of the ministry. This inventory offers us the opportunity to think about who Jesus is to us and what we have to say about Him. Not what others have told us about Him, but what we have come to believe about Him. The inventory give space to reflect on the extent to which our beliefs about Christ have made an impact on our lives.
For those who have not yet taken the inventory, an example of two of the questions include asking how strongly you agree with the following statements:
“I believe that my life has significance because God made me.”
“I do not hold any grudges, resentment or bitterness toward any members of my family.”
This online, anonymous, spiritual inventory will be live until October 6. After October 6, RenewalWorks will collect all of our data and give us a snapshot of our congregation’s spiritual health. Based on the intel, they will suggest ways we can grow deeper together in God.
To digest the results and the recommendations, a group of parishioners will meet over the fall. This January a small group from the taskforce and the Adult Spiritual Formation Commission will present the findings during a Sunday morning forum. Our hope in participating in RenewalWorks is that it will help us to grow deeper in God, and that it will help guide leadership during this time of transition.
Let us end where we began. If Jesus were to come up to you this morning and ask, “Who do you say that I am,” what would your answer be? Amen.
 Mark 8:31
 Lewis writes: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 55-56