Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 16A

TEXT: Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:13-15)

Ever had an embarrassing moment? We all have memories of times we’d rather not think about—because, when we remember them, all the anxiety and embarrassment of the moment comes rushing back. Right? You know what I mean. We’ve all had experiences that obliterated our self-confidence or damaged our self-esteem.

It’s called “high school.”

One particular high school embarrassment, when I recall it, still makes me cringe. And it didn’t just happen once, unfortunately. It happened numerous times, and maybe some of you can relate to it, too … unless you grew up to be an accountant. You see, I’m talking about math class. Math was always my worst subject.

There were days in high school mathematics class when the teacher would fire off a question out of the blue, and most of the class was not prepared to answer it. Or, at least, I wasn’t prepared. It seemed to me like the teacher called on me more often than on anyone else—maybe because he knew I would never have the right answer. And the questions were always so bizarre!

I remember one time he set up a problem, saying, “The level of water in a funnel drops at a rate of six feet per minute.”

Yeah. Feet, not metres. It was that long ago.

Anyway … Six feet per minute? That’s one big funnel! Anyway, his question was: “At what rate is the surface area of the water changing when the water is ten feet high?”

Like we should know this! The room grew quiet. I knew that, if no one raised their hand to answer, the teacher would pick someone (probably me). In the silence of it all, my palms grew sweaty, my mouth dried out, and it seemed like I had only two options.

Either I could sit completely motionless, hoping that the teacher might mistake me for a statue and call on a kid in the next row … or … I could look down at my desk, shuffle my papers deliberately, click my pen meaningfully (as if I were somehow in command of the subject matter), and again hope that the teacher would spring the question on someone who looked less “with it” and even dumber than me.

Those were the two options. However, regardless of which one I chose, the teacher usually seemed to pick me! It was horrible. You can’t really fake an answer in math—especially when you know your peers are going to burst into laughter the minute they hear how ridiculously “off” your answer will be.

So why, today, am I reliving the misery of my high school math class? Well, it’s all because of a little exchange that happened between Jesus and his disciples one day. He asked them what they had heard other people saying about him: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Now, to answer this question, all that the disciples had to do was regurgitate what other people had been saying. There is not a lot of controversy or risk involved when you speak using the third person: “Well, some say you are John the Baptist, but others say you are Elijah, and still others speak of you as Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

Now, even if that was the “word on the street,” those comments did not actually reveal much. At best, they were mere snippets of information shared.

So, Jesus altered the question. Evidently, he wanted more than impressions from people eating at the deli down the street. So he changed one word, and repeated the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Can’t you see the red faces on the disciples? Their sweaty palms? Their dry mouths? Jesus’ question must have evoked something like the terror that I knew in high school math class on those days when I didn’t have the answer and the teacher called on me without warning.

That little word “you” can make all the difference in the world when asking a question or giving direction. It implicates a person. And you know, it’s the first word God ever spoke to a human being in Eden. To Adam, God said, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden [except for, of course, that one over there]” (Gen. 2:16). Suddenly, Adam realized he had a stake in creation—and a personal place in the heart of God.

Insert that little word “you”—as in “Who do you say that I am?”—and it’s a bit like the teacher suddenly catching you unaware. One little word can make all the difference in the world. Talking about Jesus as an idea is a far cry from trusting your life to him. Believing in the concept of God does not begin to compare with actually knowing God.

It’s the difference between talking about love and telling someone that you actually love him or her. That’s the kind of difference Jesus seems to be hinting at here. Something in his question—“Who do you say that I am?”—wants to know about the disciples’ love.

How would they respond to their teacher’s unexpected question? Some of them probably tried the “statue option,” hoping that Jesus would mistake them for marble slabs and call on someone else. Others likely stuffed their panic inside, cupping their chins in their hands and looking down as if studious and reflective on the whole situation.

But not Peter. No. Peter was the first to speak up—and, without any equivocation, he said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Something in those words struck Jesus as completely genuine—full of love and personal passion. It wasn’t anything like the textbook responses that the other disciples were thinking up. No, this was Peter through and through—heart and soul, all Peter. It felt to Jesus like Peter was saying directly to him, “I love you, Lord.” And all Jesus could say in reply was, “Blessed are you.”

You know, the Christian Church today is full of panic-stricken believers. Now, when I say “panic-stricken,” I’m thinking about how you feel when you are asked a question to which you really don’t know the answer.

Have you ever had trouble expressing your faith? Ever had any difficulty finding words to say what you believe? Have you ever found that when you finally got those words out, they really didn’t say very much? Didn’t contain any of the passion or insight that is truly from you? It’s possible that you even realized virtually anyone could have said them as well as you (or better).

In other words, they were not distinctive to your life. They sounded more text-bookish than anything else—almost as if you sort-of-believed them … but not quite. As if what you were saying was a nice idea or a holy-sounding concept—but certainly not anything requiring your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Back in the 19th century, a Danish theologian and philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard complained about the “paltriness” that defines too many Christian lives. In a book called Either/Or, he wrote this:

“Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is paltry; for it lacks passion. Men’s thoughts are thin and flimsy … The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry …” *

Kierkegaard lamented the complacency of his fellow Christians. He called them “shopkeeping souls,” people consumed by dull religious duty, rather than fiery passion.

For just a moment, forget about what you are accomplishing in your life or achieving in your vocation. That’s all well and good and important. But the question I want to ask you today is: “Do you love Jesus?”

Are you in love with Jesus? Is there fire in your soul for him? Does your face light up when you speak about him?

Does he really matter to you? Are you just passing time, moving through your days in emotionless fashion? Is your discipleship about nothing more than “getting by”? Or is there more to your faith?

I believe it’s worth asking ourselves these sorts of questions, because I think Jesus would like to know. He wants to know—from you—exactly who you think he is, with respect to the way you are living your life.

There is a word for the “shopkeeping” kind of faith that Kierkegaard observed. There’s a word for the dullness in too many believers’ lives. That word is Laodicean.

Laodicea was a city of the ancient world, in the Roman province of Asia, where Turkey is today. One of the earliest Christian communities was established there, and it was one of the seven churches addressed by name in the Book of Revelation. The words written to the Laodicean church take the form of a message from Christ himself—but they are far from complimentary.

He says, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16)

Wow! What a condemnation! It almost sounds like having a Laodicean variety of faith is worse than having no faith at all. We need a vibrant faith—one that’s hungry for God. We need a faith that’s in love with Jesus. Do you know what I mean? I’m talking about a faith that’s made of something besides textbook responses.

We all know there are a lot of people in this world who do not believe in Jesus. And, for some of them, their disinterest and unbelief may be due, in part, to the fact that they consider Jesus irrelevant or maybe even a fraud. But I don’t think that’s the prevailing opinion. More likely, they just see too little passion in those of us who claim to follow Jesus. They see a joylessness, a smugness, a complacency, a dullness.

So, today, ask yourself: If Jesus should call on you when your hand is not raised, and ask you the question, “Who do you say that I am?” … how will you answer him? Are you ready to answer him with your life? Your money? Your decisions? Your kindness? Your humility? Are you ready to display your love rather than just talk about it?

It’s scary, isn’t it? You may start sweating the second you realize that you’re going to have to answer with something more than just words. But take heart! To that same Laodicean church that Jesus threatened to spew out of his mouth, Jesus also said this: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Rev. 3:20)

If you feel you don’t know Jesus well enough—if you’re afraid you might be stumped by his question, “Who do you say that I am?”—well, just listen. He’s knocking at the door to your heart, waiting to be let in. He wants to get better acquainted. He wants you to know him. He wants you to be certain of his love for you.

So, open the door! Open your Bible. Open your heart. Spend time—daily—in prayer. Engage with your fellow believers. Ask questions, even if you think they’re dumb. Give answers—even if you’re afraid of being wrong. Put in the time. Make the effort. Wherever you go—to your work, your school, your home—take Jesus along with you. Introduce your friends to him. Ask him for help when you need it. Offer help when others need it—and show them the love Christ has shown you.

Do these things. Do them consistently, and—before you know it—you’ll have your own answer to his question, “Who do you say that I am?”

For the companionship, for the friendship—for the Lordship—of Jesus … thanks be to God.


* Søren Kierkegaard (trans. Alastair Hannay), Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. London: Penguin/Random House UK, 1992. p. 48.

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