Who do you say I am? A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

Who do you say I am? Jesus asks His disciples the question, that He has asked all of us. Who do you say I am. We gather because we share very similar answers to that question. We agree fundamentally with Peter’s answer. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah. We believe that He is the Son of the Living God. In fact, our confession goes beyond what Peter said. Peter was not anticipating the Divine implications in the phrase ‘Son of the Living God.’ We hear that and believe this uniquely points to Jesus as the Second member of the Trinity… Peter wasn’t there yet, although he would be and certainly is now. He was thinking of Scriptures like Psalm 2, where God says to the King of Israel, “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” He was thinking about how the kings of Israel were always said to be the son of God, so Peter was confessing his belief that Jesus was the great King his people were waiting for. In Peter’s day there were a spectrum of beliefs about who this Messiah was and what he would be on about. The Dead Sea Scrolls speak of two Messiahs, one a priest and the other a King. Generally speaking, as King the Messiah was expected to bring on a decisive military defeat over Israel’s enemies. As Priest, the Messiah was expected to rebuild or cleanse the temple. Jesus reveals himself powerfully to be both King and Priest, yet he did not fulfill expectations in a way that anyone expected. In fact, Jesus actively worked against the grain of people’s expectations. Looking at Old Testament and other Jewish expectations of what the Messiah was to do and be is somewhat helpful — but to really understand Jesus as Messiah, we need to look to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Then we’ll get a clearer picture of who Jesus is as Messiah, as King. And so that’s what we do. Together and individually we study, reflect and meditate on the life of Jesus to understand who he is as our King. Jesus is asking us the very same question he asked His disciples: “Who do you say I am.” And we are unified in our answer — together we say, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Yet each of us might have a little different emphasis in our confession.

Generally speaking, our different understandings of who Jesus is as our King can often fly under the radar. Sure a differing opinion might come out in this or that conversation, which may cause you stop and think, “huh, I don’t see it that way…” but generally our different perspectives on the Kingship of Jesus doesn’t hugely impact the way we relate to each other. Generally, what we agree on is much more prominent. Yet one of the impacts of COVID 19 is that our smaller differences in how we answer Jesus’ question, “who do you say I am?” Seem bigger, and they begin to impact one another’s freedoms. I’m going to look at three different angles on what we mean when we say Jesus is King. And I’m going to explore how they might impact the way we live in response to the Pandemic.

The recognition that Jesus is the long awaited for King was one of the primary reasons that Jesus was executed at the hands of the state. Questions of Kingship plays a huge role in His trial. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus later says, “My Kingdom is not of this word. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “you are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Later Pilate says to the Jews who arrested Jesus, “Shall I crucify your king?” They answer, “we have no king but Caesar.” That vignette is part of a continuous theme that we see throughout the pages of Scripture — hostility between the kingdoms of this world over-against the Kingdom of God. The theme plays throughout the trial of King Jesus, it plays throughout the book of Acts, the Book of Revelation, the theme plays loudly in the Exodus story, and in the Prophets. For example, you’ll hear this theme powerfully in Daniel 7 — where a worldly kingdom is coming against and persecuting the people of God, whom Daniel personifies as “the son of man.” Throughout the Gospels, not least the passage we just heard, Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man. He uses this title to signal that he represents the people of God as their King, he will embody the persecution and suffering of his people, but also he will also overcome the enemy kingdom and His Kingdom shall be the everlasting kingdom of which Daniel spoke. Although, we should remember that Jesus shifted focus away from particular kingdoms, like Rome, and noted the primary enemy is Satan himself. Nonetheless, Satan sometimes works most powerfully through kingdoms and systems of this world — such as Nazi Germany.

Those of us who take this narrative seriously are very suspicious of kingdoms of this world, and are very nervous when another kingdom encroaches upon our freedoms to gather and worship freely. Much of Scripture affirms that worldly kingdoms are not to be trusted as they are forever against the things of God. This is an important point. We should be leery of becoming too comfortable in this world, and too cozy with worldly kingdoms. Even if we are employed by the state, we should always be mindful that our first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. We have no shortage of examples of governments and systems that are hostile to God, His people and His creation. From this perspective, the restrictions we experience here and now may be signs of hostilities from this worldly kingdoms against the Kingdom of God — and perhaps the best response is to resist in protest.

Let’s move on to another emphasis regarding what we mean when we confess Jesus is King. Again, if we want to know what it means to confess Jesus is the Messiah, the King, we look to Jesus’ life. The Gospel writer, Mark, tells us that Jesus’ very first sermon went like this: “The time has come! The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News!” The Kingdom of God is near — and if you want to see what King Jesus’ Kingdom looks like, you look at His life. Everything Jesus says and does is a sign of the Kingdom. He proclaims truth. He heals the sick. He casts out demons. He tames storms. He feeds the hungry. He has fellowship with outcasts. He raises the death. His words and actions show us what His Kingdom is like. When Jesus sends out his 12 Disciples he says, “Proclaim the good news, “the Kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Their job, and ours, is to paint a picture of what the Kingdom of God is like. Its a Kingdom of life, not of death. That’s what Jesus means in our passage when he says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Hades is the realm of the dead. Death will not overpower the church. Death will not overpower the Kingdom of God. So, shouldn’t we come together in faith that our King is King over death? Shouldn’t we have our church be a sign of the Kingdom. Shouldn’t our fellowship together be a sign of the Kingdom of God, which the gates of death shall not overcome!? Shouldn’t we shake off these COVID restrictions in a proclamation that our King is far greater!?

Now, let me shift the emphasis of this last one just ever so slightly, which will shed light on still another set of responses to the pandemic. Jesus’ miracles all have a very specific purpose. When Jesus healed and performed other works of power, he was demonstrating a very particular sign of the Kingdom. The miracles weren’t only simply to demonstrate the power of God’s Kingdom (though they certainly do that), they weren’t just to bring back people into their community, though all Jesus miracles do that as well. The majority of people that Jesus healed fell under those banned categories — their afflictions placed them outside of their religious community. A man with a skin disease or a woman with a bleeding problem was thought to be separated from God. For this reason, as King, Jesus’ miracles those people as not rejected by God. That’s why before Jesus heals the cripple he says, “your sins are forgiven.” His miracles are a sign of who belongs in the Kingdom. That’s the type of King that we follow. The Kingdom isn’t for the rich, the powerful, the perfectly healthy, the strong. That’s the Kingdom that Hitler strove for, but not Jesus. The Kingdom of God welcomes the weak, the small, the sick, the persecuted, the vulnerable — you and me. Those who emphasize this aspect of Jesus’ Kingdom want to make sure that no barrier, no infirmity, no condition would ever prevent someone from joining our fellowship. God’s Kingdom is here, but not in fullness. And until King Jesus returns in glory, or shows his power here and now, we’ve installed hearing devices, an elevator, a ramp to help wheelchairs onto our curb. As we wait for the Kingdom’s fullness, we want obliterate barriers that might prevent people to have access our fellowship. In this light, our Government and health authorities can be viewed not as adversaries, but as allies working towards the common goal of keeping us healthy and safe. As such, those with that emphasis would lean on Paul’s words in Romans 13, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established… Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he (the one in authority) is God’s servant to do you good.”

I’ve been blessed to have conversations with people these last several weeks who favour each of these different emphases. As you probably guessed, I lean towards the last, yet my conversations have helped me see more clearly these other important aspects of God’s Kingdom. Further, I don’t think that too many of us would flat out disagree with any one of these view points. Yet there is a tension. Where we place our emphasis will result in a different perspectives on how we should congregate as a church during this time. My instinct is to over-function and work really hard to resolve the tension so that everyone’s happy. But that’s my own problem I need to work on and I don’t make decisions alone. Our services will be a work in progress, we want to keep hearing from everyone, yet we need to be comfortable with the fact that this is going to be uncomfortable. So what do we do? We resist the temptation to feel undermined, or be dismissive or critical. We continue to engage in conversation, breathing into the discomfort. All the while, we draw closer to our King and our God. Let’s do so by pushing deeper into a significant spiritual practice that has not been emphasized as strongly in our church. Let’s embrace a spiritual practice which unifies us together in the body of our King. I’m of course talking about the Lord’s Supper. Let’s come around the table and unite our differences around the body of Christ. After all, we confess in our liturgy: “We who are many are one body, for we all share the same loaf. We confess: “the cup that we drink is our participation in the blood of Christ.” In these times of instability, in these times of highlighted differences, let’s come to our King to be fed, growing deeper in our unity in Christ.

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