By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV)
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The past few weeks we have been with the disciples and Jesus in the region north of Israel, where they visited the countries we now call Lebanon and Syria. These nations that we often hear about in the news are significant to our Christian heritage. We often disregard them because a thousand years ago a conquering force came into those nation and converted them to Islam, but they are still significant. Even today there are Christians that live in those areas, even in Israel some of the people known as Palestinians are Christian, and many of them can trace their spiritual heritage back to the very pages of scripture. We cannot imagine that in our culture because we do not live in the lands Jesus walked. And very few of us have even visited those lands.
We hear about these lands in the news and we hear only the items that make the news. News is filled with the sensational, the violent, the riots and protests, and the attacks. News is rarely filled with the common things of life, families raising children and teaching them to follow God, individuals that go out of their way to assist another for no other reason than to encourage them. We do not hear these things in the news because that does not sell. What sells is the feud between Israel and Palestine, what sells is the violent conflicts between religious zealots, what sells is the pain of others. We look at these lands and we see them as uncultured and uncivilized, but those same conflicts happen all around us even in the United States. And people in those areas we often look down on are watching their news and they are wondering what is wrong with us.
I thought about this as I contemplated this week’s passage. I thought about this because we like to call ourselves a Christian nation. We call ourselves this, but what do those outside of our boarders really see? I thought about this and I lower my head because what is seen in the media is not Christ. I have urged you all often to turn off the news, to stop listening to the radio for a reason, because what the media is doing to us is causing a continuous cycle of anger that is drawing us deeper into darkness. It is distracting our attention from what is most important and focusing it to things that overwhelm us. We are allowing the opinions of the news channels to place wedges between our friends and even cause division between those within our family. But I want us to consider something, how much does the things we hear about on the news really affect your everyday life? Yes, at times it is important to know, but are we using the information to encourage those around us or to cause greater tension?
Today, Jesus and his disciples have returned to their home base by the sea of Galilee. And Jesus is still trying to get his disciples to understand what his ministry really is. We often look at the disciples’ lack of understanding and laugh but we are seeing them on this side of history. We know the outcome, the history we know had yet to occur for them. Each of them had perspectives and opinions that were being derived from their current events. They were attempting to understand what was going on around them while only knowing a small portion of the total story, and they were interpreting that story through the ideas they hoped for. When Jesus told them that he was going to die at the hands of the religious and political elites, they did not want to hear those words because they were hoping for something else, they were hoping for a kingdom and a nation of their own.
What is a kingdom or a nation? When we look at a map, we see a world filled with nations. Each different nation or state has a different color that is set off with a dark line. We know the reality of those lines because one of those lines is just a few blocks to the west of our Meetinghouse, the only reason there is a line on that boarder is because there is a road, without that road we would be unable to distinguish where Missouri ended and Kansas began. If you were to download the Google Earth app on your phone you would see this expanded to the entire world. Where are the nations on our satellite images? You cannot see them because nations and boarders are concepts that humans develop and are recognized by consent. Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the other central American nations are one land mass the boarders that we recognize were agreed upon by mutual consent of governing bodies of people made an agreement at the end of a war. And those boarders are maintained as long as the people continue to agree. When one side chooses to stop recognizing that boarder peace has been broken.
But what is a nation? A nation is simply a group of people that have been unified or brought together under a common system or form of order. A nation like a boarder is nothing but a concept within the minds of humanity held together by the consent of the people within. How that consent is obtained and maintained is different. The majority of nations garner consent with the use of force, but there are other organizations that are built by voluntary consent. This is the difference between that kingdom that the disciples are wishing to gain and the kingdom that Christ is ushering in. The kingdoms of men use force where the kingdom of God is voluntary.
A kingdom or nation can also be a scope of influence and not merely geography. We consider ourselves part of the United States, but we are also part of other nations as far as influence goes. The organizations of NATO, and the UN offer avenues that allow influence to extend far beyond the boarders of one geographic nation. And in these voluntary unions of nations seemingly small nations hold an influence that is greater than their collective might. This idea causes many to become fearful of the future.
I want us to think about nations, not as geography, but as people. When I was in school we would often go on field trips and our teachers would tell us before we got off the bus that we represent the school. I always found that annoying because I was an individual not the school, but as I have matured I have come to realize that it is true. We are more than mere individuals, but we are part of a community. Our position and influence within that community can be positive or negative, and it can inspire a community or promote feelings of despair. When the read the words of the prophets we can sometimes be confused by some of the wording because they speak as parts of a community and not just as individuals. When Isaiah says, “I am undone for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” He says this because he knows that he is part of a community that has not always done the things that it should. He knows that he personally had not contributed enough to his community to move them to righteousness, so he held some of the blame. Spiritual directors across Christian traditions recognize this phenomenon, even among Protestant groups. Dallas Willard, in his writing on the Renovation of the Heart, recognizes the community as part of an individual’s soul, because the community can influence the individual and the individual can influence a community. You are Willow Creek Friends, you are Kansas City, you are Kansas or Missouri, you are the United States. You might seem insignificant, but you are important.
The influence of the individual within a nation, or group of people, is the kingdom that Jesus is concerned with. When he stood in trial before the people of great status they asked him if he is the king of the Jews, and he responded you say so. It seems like an odd response, but it is accurate. When the Roman official made that statement, he was forcing Jesus to represent the entire population of the Jewish people. At that moment the behavior of this one individual was seen as the response of the masses. This is also why Jesus also said that his kingdom is not of this world, because the nations of the world use force to influence where Jesus uses voluntary response. The kingdom of God is beyond the borders of earthly nations because the kingdom of God includes all people.
The disciples, like many of us, were unable to see the difference. They have a desire to make Jesus their king, but they do not understand the manner of which Jesus will provide influence. Jesus told them that he was going to suffer, and they responded in a manner that prompted Jesus to call them sons of Satan because they had their eyes set on the things of man instead of the things of God. Today Jesus is explaining to us the true kingdom.
“If a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother.” If someone sins against you, what do you do? The natural response is often to hold a grudge against the person. They have wronged you, so the response is to withdraw from that relationship, to stop talking to them until they realize how they have wronged you. There is a problem here, and that problem is that we as humans are stupid. We do not always realize what we have done and we will never know until we are told. If we train someone to do a job, we show them how it should be done and then we let them do it. As they are doing the task, if they transgress we quickly correct them. In some cases we do this because if they do not perform the task in a certain way they can cause harm to themselves and others. We again show them the proper way to do the task and we let them try again. We do this in a work setting but when it comes to our relationships we often withdraw. We leave those we often care about the most blowing in the wind. They are doing something that threatens the community, threatens our friendship but instead of speaking to them and building a stronger community we often let the transgression cause division.
Jesus urges us to speak to them, let them know how their actions are causing harm within the community, and maybe if we speak together, we can build understanding and a compromise that will be mutually beneficial. Jesus says when we do this, we gain a brother. We have gained someone in our community that will assist and promote a common goal.
But personal relationships are tough. There is an entire industry within our culture devoted to assisting others talk with each other. If we are unable to find a way forward individually, we are charged to seek counsel with others. And if we are still unable to find a mutually profitable way forward we are to take it before the community. This very specific counsel from Christ points to something deeper and more pressing. The kingdom is not about force. The kingdom is not about power over others or even power within a nation. The kingdom is about how we interact with each other.
You are the church. You are our nation. You are the world. And you are the kingdom. We can look at everything going on around us, we can even cast blame upon a specific generation or political ideology if we want to. But what does this actually gain? If we do not personally get involved encouraging the people around us to enter a different type of lifestyle, we have done nothing and are just as equally at blame as those on the other side of the issue. That is a very sobering reality, but the reality all the same. What are we doing to promote peace in the Middle East? The reality is that that process does not start in Israel or the United Arab Emirates, it starts right here in our own community. Peace begins in your own interpersonal relationships. It begins with how you respond to your family and your friends.
What we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loose in heaven. Again we this weird saying comes to us in the words of scripture. Before it seemed like power over others but when it is spoken in this instance it takes on a new form. We are actual instruments of binding and loosening, and more accurately we are the one bound or loosed. If we refuse to initiate the acts of reconciliation we bind not only those that offend us but we bind ourselves. They are bound on earth, but we are bound in heaven. We are bound because we know the truth and by refusing to participate in the call of the kingdom, we close the gate on ourselves.
There is much at stake in this passage. How we respond to something as small as a seemingly insignificant slight of another can build into quarrels between nations. Am I being a bit overly dramatic, sure, but there is truth in the words. If we do not practice conflict resolution with those around us, how can we expect it on a global scale. If we will not encourage those within our community that seemingly fall away from faith, how can we expect to legislate faithfulness on a national scale? Are we a Christian nation? The answer will not be found in the media, the answer is right here. Are you? Today we have an opportunity to adjust our course and repent. Today we can take steps of reconciliation and promote faithfulness. Today we can become instruments of healing, by speaking to our brothers and sisters. We can encourage those around us to turn from a life of pain and destruction and embrace an abundant life with Christ. We can loosen the gates of heaven and it all begins with how you respond to the ones God has by his grace allowed you to live among.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21–28 (ESV)
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, that this section of the Gospel according to Matthew is a transition period within Jesus’s ministry, he is moving into the next phase of his ministry. He had been teaching in Judea, and he had moved past the northern boarder into the areas of modern day Lebanon, and last week he was in that currently disputed region where Syria, Israel and Lebanon meet around Mount Hermon in the city of Caesarea Philippi. I mentioned that this area is unique because of the religious and cultural diversity.
Imagine being one of his disciples on this journey. He had taken you completely out of your comfort zone. This is an area where those that call themselves Jewish are a minority, yet this is the area the man you consider to be the Messiah takes you. The excitement around Jesus is probably at the highest point in Judea. Not long ago you had witnessed Jesus feed over five thousand people with a small boy’s lunch of five rolls and two fish. Then shortly after that again Jesus fed a multitude of people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. In each case the disciple filled several baskets with what was left uneaten. No one had seen such a thing since the days of Moses. Jesus had healed diseases, cast out unclean spirits, he had even raised a girl who had died back to life. The excitement surrounding Jesus could not be greater.
But there is an issue that remains. Those that held power and influence over the people were becoming jealous. Jesus would come into a town and begin to teach and restore life, and those that were from the established religious orders would begin to challenge Jesus over matters of religious practice. Jesus would then tell parables that would illustrate the truth of the law they used to challenge him. At times, the parables would be easy to interpret, and in those cases, Jesus would publicly expose the hypocrisy within the established practice. At other times, the parables seemed to confuse even those that knew Jesus the most.
These challenges were coming fast and hard. John the Baptist had also challenged the religious establishment. John called the religious leaders a broad of vipers, which was likening them to the very pestilence that represented the weakness and rebellion of the children of Israel in the desert. By calling the religious leaders vipers, John was saying that they were the source and cause of the problems in Israel. And John had lost his head for his public challenges to the sinfulness of those that held seats of power.
Jesus was in cooperation with John. While John was still ministering along the banks of the Jordan, Jesus would often be seen in the same area. They complemented the other’s ministry and they promoted what the other had to say. Jesus said that of the men born of women none is greater than John, and John said that Jesus must increase and he must decrease. They did not compete for followers or disciples. They did not poke holes in the other’s theological understandings. They did not discredit the other’s approach to ministry or even expression of faith. Even though they seemed to have opposite expressions, John lead a lifestyle of abstinence where Jesus would be seen at the parties of those considered sinners.
The people of Israel were excited. They saw the signs, they heard the teachings, they had eaten the miraculous bread and they had ideas. The people began to think the Messiah has come and they were beginning to prepare themselves for the next steps. The one they saw as the Messiah could heal injuries, he provide food enough for an army with scant supplies, and they had heard stories that he could even walk upon the water as if it were land. They were excited. They were going to throw off the oppressive hand of Rome and restore the glory of Israel.
The disciples were among those excited people. They had not only seen what Jesus could do, but Jesus had given them the power to do the same. They had provided healing to those that had illness. They had liberated people from demonic bondage. They had brought people to join team Jesus, and every day it seemed to grow.
Then seeming out of nowhere Jesus turns north. They should be marching to Jerusalem, yet Jesus instead goes out of province of Judea, he leaves Galilee, he even turns away from Samaria, and he goes into the region of Tyre and Sidon. The disciples are in a holy frenzy of Messiah devotion, they are ready to take on the world and Jesus takes them to the land of the Gentiles. They are confused, they do not know what is going on and there is a woman that keeps crying out to them. They look at this woman in tears and they can tell that she is a Canaanite woman, yet she is pleading with their Messiah’s for favor. It was one thing for Jesus to help a few of those God-fearing Romans in Judea, at least they were in Israel, but this woman is a complete outsider. She continues to cry out, and you are increasingly annoyed so you plead with Jesus to just tell her to go away. In their self-righteous pride they turn with Jesus to look at this woman, and they get excited when Jesus begins to speak words that support their nationalistic pride. And they glance at Jesus and see something in him that confuses them. His displeasure and the words he uses are not directed at the woman, but them. And while they converse, Jesus commends this Gentile woman for her faith and he heals her daughter just as she asked. What is going on?
Then they go the city that is dedicated to idolatry. The city that in their faith tradition is where the fallen angels take wives and breed a race of giants that eventually lead God to such anger that he destroyed the world with a flood. The city that praises false gods and worship at the very gates of hades. And Jesus in this place asks a strange question. Who am I?
The disciples are in confusion. Jesus is opening the door to the kingdom to the gentiles, without even encouraging them to become Jews. And he is asking them who they think he is while standing at the gates of Hell. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Imagine pretty much everything you hold as being important to you identity being offered to those you deem unworthy, and the Messiah your culture had waited so long for instead of going to the city of God asking you who he is at the place of complete debauchery.
Then Jesus tells them the complete purpose of his ministry. He commends Simon for his statement of faith. He even renames him saying you are no longer Simon but Peter. Because Peter said that Jesus is the Christ the son of the living God. And Jesus tells the disciples that it is on that statement that they will build an assembly so powerful that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The disciple hear those words and they look at the world around them and they see that they are standing in a Gentile land, and they begin to think now we get it. The kingdom is more than just Israel, this kingdom will challenge even the foundations of Rome. Jesus goes on to say what ever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. That statement is weird, but it basically means that they will have power. They will be able to dictate how those within the kingdom will live. And they are even more excited. Jesus is about to take his stand!
Jesus looks at the excited eyes of his disciples. They are ready to take on the world. With a single word he could have them marching to war. Then he tells them, we are going to Jerusalem. And I imagine they all responded with a hooah like a good soldier would say. But then Jesus says that when they get there, he will suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders, and that they will kill him. Imagine what would be going through the disciples’ minds. Jesus said that he would rise again on the third day but I seriously doubt they heard him say it. Their minds were probably stuck on the statement that he would be killed.
Jesus had just worked them up into a righteous excitement where they were ready to march on Jerusalem as a conquering army and then he tells them that nope that will not be how it will happen. We are going to Jerusalem but when we get there, I am going to suffer. Peter, the rock, the one upon whom the church will be built pipes up and say, “NO WAY!” Matthew says that Peter rebukes Jesus. We do not fully grasp the intensity of this word in English. Peter is not just becoming cross with Jesus; he is threatening Jesus. To rebuke is to express strong disapproval, it is the same word used about actions taken against the demonic forces that were holding people in spiritual bondage. Peter is getting in Jesus’s face and demanding him to rethink what he has said.
Do you see this scene in your mind? Peter and Jesus facing each other. Peter’s face is skewed in almost hatred and anger as he speaks to Jesus. Peter’s finger pointing at Jesus, with the other hand clenched into a fist ready to strike. In Peter’s mind, Jesus is speaking like a crazy man, this is not at all how things are supposed to be. Jesus is not going to die. Jesus is going to Jerusalem and he is going to be king. That is it. Stop with this dying talk because that is not going to happen. You see Peter, now look at Jesus.
Jesus’s closest friend is Peter. Jesus’s closest friend is in his face ready to start a fight and Jesus knows that Peter does not understand the complete story. Jesus sees that each of the disciples are with Peter in this. Each of them is ready to force Jesus into the royal throne because they have a high and holy call to conquer the world in his name. They have that call because just a breath ago he had given them that notion. Jesus looks Peter in the eyes and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Can you feel the air being sucked out of your lungs? Peter, the rock upon which the church will be built is no longer the conquering hero, but the embodiment of Lord of the Flies. In a word Jesus took the disciples from their spiritual high and body slams them into reality. “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
I want us to think about that statement. We all get worked up into righteous fervors, we get caught up in ideas of holy importance and when we get in that state, we put blinders on. Our attention is so focused on this one idea that we are unable to see anything else around us. In the early twentieth century the Temperance Unions got the nation worked up in the righteous frenzy that every social ill of America could come to rest on one thing, liquor. They drove our nation not only make laws prohibiting the sale of intoxicating drink, but to ratify a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale. It is difficult to get a constitutional amendment, not only does congress have to accept it with a super majority, but three-fourths of the states must also accept it. The temperance unions gathered that much support for their righteous cause and I do not oppose their cause, my mother was a member of the temperance union in my home church, and the temperance union bought me my first study bible when I entered high school. I am all for temperance, but while they were so focused on keeping liquor from the masses people were being denied basic human rights. At that time, women did not have the right to vote and Jim Crow laws were suppressing the voting rights of others. “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” How often can we get caught in misplaced passion, where Jesus might have to yell at us as he yelled at Peter?
Jesus then goes on to speak about taking up the cross and following him. We have become too comfortable with the image of the cross. We are so comfortable with it that we forget what it is. I once read that if Jesus had come in our contemporary age instead of the first century we would not be wearing crosses around our necks, but little miniature electric chairs, because the cross was an instrument of execution. I thought about that for many years and I realized that is not it at all. The cross is more than a tool of execution. The cross was in instrument of torture, humiliation, shame, and cruelty. It was a visual threat to anyone and everyone that you do not oppose the will and authority of the ruling class. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus is telling them that they must speak out about the injustice of the state. They must stand up for those that are oppressed. They must sacrifice their reputation, careers, families, and everything that they think is important to them to say, “You cannot treat people like this!” Jesus is telling his disciples to stand up with those that are being oppressed, marginalized, and overlooked and demand justice in their place. He is telling his disciples that if they truly follow him, they would be willing to endure the most brutal form of state sanctioned murder for someone other than themselves.
They wanted Jesus to rush to Jerusalem to conquer. Jesus is telling them that they are going to rush to Jerusalem to participate, in what we would call today, a peaceful protest. Jesus is telling them that if we want to make real change, we do not use force against the oppressor, but bring light to the injustice and we take the blows as they come. I mentioned the ratification of the 18th amendment earlier, which prohibited the manufacturing and sale of alcohol within the United States. I mentioned that it is amazing that the Temperance Union was able to get so much support for that when so much injustice was occurring around them. There is a reason that they were able to get that attention. The temperance union was seeking more than just the prohibition of liquor. The Temperance Union was seeking justice mainly for women and children who were the ones that suffered the most by those that abused strong drink. The 18th amendment was something that many hoped would appease a mob, if we take away alcohol then maybe they will be quiet about women’s suffrage and the other things. In just over a year after the ratification of the 18th amendment occurred the women continued to press and they were given the right to vote in 1920.
Take up the cross, Jesus says. He does not say take up a sword or a gun, but a cross. If we see injustice being perpetrated on those without a voice, we need to stand with them willing to endure whatever cruelty the oppressing agents deem necessary. Jesus came to bring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, to loosen the tongue of the mute. He came to set the captives free, and to bring rest to the weary. Jesus came to restore Israel, but not Israel as a nation in the concepts of men. He came to restore Israel as a light to nations. He came to show us restored humanity where mankind can walk again with God without fear or shame. He came to give life. But what good is our life if what we enjoy comes at the expense and exploitation of others? What good is our life is the things we enjoy are corrupted by injustice. Jesus said blessed are the poor, the ones that mourn, the meek, those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those that are persecuted for him. Jesus calls them blessed because they are the ones that have his attention. They are the ones that need the hand of God. Are we focused on the things of men or the things of God?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 23, 2020
Matthew 16:13–20 (ESV)
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
How many of us have really thought about this question? For those of us who have considered this question, how many of us have considered the implications of the answer to this question?
This question comes to the disciples during a transition period of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus had already made quite a name from himself as he taught and healed those that came to him while he ministered in the Judean countryside. Now he had gone outside of confines of the province of Judea, he had visited the areas around Tyre and Sidon and today we find him in the district of Caesarea Philippi. I have spoken of this place many times over the past few years. This is a city that is in northern regions of Judea, and today it would be in the disputed area between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria called the Golan Heights. The city has historical importance for many reasons, but mainly because it is near base of Mount Hermon. Many scholars believe it was upon this mountain that the transfiguration of Christ took place. This makes this mountain scared to us, but it was considered consecrated or holy by many ancient cultures and religions because this mountain is considered the source of the river Jordan. This river has often been the historic eastern boarder of Israel. It is this river that symbolizes the entrance into the promised land.
I mention that it has significance in many ancient religions. The source of a river is often held in great esteem by various religions because water is life. Without water we do not have life, so the source of the beginning of a river is often regarded as the place where life began. And there is an interesting tradition that comes from the Book of Enoch, which is not scripture but is interesting historically. In this tradition Mount Hermon is the place where the class of angels called the Watchers descend to the earth.
Caesarea Philippi is a city of religious identity; it was originally known as Paneas. It was a city founded by the Hellenistic Greeks after the conquests of Alexander the Great. They built this city as a cult center devoted to the worship of the Pan. With it being near this sacred mountain it became a center of pagan pilgrimage as people traveled to worship at the sacred headwaters of the Jordan river. When Philip the son of Herod the Great took control of this area, he made this city the capital of his province, and he built a temple in honor of Caesar, and it was then renamed Caesarea Paneas or Philippi to distinguish it from the other Caesareas in the area.
There is a great deal of trivial history that we may not care about. The city devoted to the god of goats, music, desolate places, and victory, the city devoted to Caesar, the mountain the angels descend to, which is the mountain that becomes the source of the Jordan, which defines the boundary of Israel. It is at this weirdly dynamic diverse religious site Jesus asks a question of his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
We live in a culture that is dynamic and diverse. There are not many places in the world the is as diverse as America. That I feel is one of the greatest things about our nation. My ancestors came from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. There are other’s we know that may have a heritage from several European, Asian, African, or any number of cultural nationalities or cultural identities. I love that diversity because it enriches us. I cannot imagine life without pizza, spaghetti, burritos, or general Tso chicken which are all foods that emerged from the blending of cultural palettes. We have a unique culture because we are diverse, but diversity has some limits. Can you define American culture?
Jesus took his disciples on a journey. They had spent their time in Judea, the place that gave them their identity as Jews. They were comfortable in that place, they understood who they were and what was expected of them. Then Jesus did something strange, he took them far to the north, outside their nation to Tyre and Sidon. And when they were in that region, they encountered a woman that was not one of them. They were annoyed and put out by this woman that was attempting to gain an audience with their Messiah. And Jesus gets annoyed at his disciples for their prejudice while commending the faith of the Canaanite woman. Then they leave that area and they go to this religiously diverse city Caesarea Philippi.
I do not know if we fully grasp the tension the disciple might be feeling. Yes, this place has some significance to their own faith, but it is not mainstream. They walk into this city and they see temples and shrines. They have left the comfort of home and are like fish out of water. They have entered the land of diversity, and Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?”
“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Think about those answers for a moment. Do you find them interesting? They are all prophets, people that many regarded as people that spoke with the authority of God. But they are also human beings that have ceased walking on the Earth. We see in this answer diversity of belief. For the son of man to be one of those prophets there would some form of reincarnation occurring. Some might say that the answer was that Jesus was like those prophets, but that is not how it is written, Jesus asks who do people say the he is and the disciples answer that people are saying he is one prophet of old. They are in a city where that idea would not be too far fetched because it is a city of diverse religious beliefs.
People say a great deal about Jesus. Most people have some opinion as to who Jesus is. Some might say he is a prophet, or a teacher. Some may just say he is a wise man that had a lot of good things to say. Some may even say that Jesus was insane. The answers to this question are diverse. People say many things about various topics though.
Jesus looks at the disciples, who are probably uncomfortable as they walk through this city that bears an idolatrous name. The disciples do not really understand why they are there and the question Jesus asked just confuses them more. I imagine that Jesus stop and looks them in the eyes at this point. He waits till they are all looking at him. He waits a bit longer to allow the chaos of the outside world to fade as they focus on him, and asks, “but who do you say that I am?”
People say a great deal. We listen to what they have to say and we build our opinions about any number of things on what we have heard or observed. Our opinions are important, but how we formulate our opinions are also important. Opinions at first are flexible and, at times, can change. Eventually the opinions that we hold evolve and become more ridged. Our opinions become ideologies and beliefs. How we formulate our opinions are important because eventually those opinions become the very things we use to respond and act among those around us.
Jesus looks at his disciples and he asks, “but who do you say that I am?” How do we respond to this? The answer that we give to this question will affect every aspect of our opinions and beliefs and will be how we respond and act with those around us. Who is Jesus?
Simon boldly responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Simon in his own mind processes everything that he has heard about Jesus, and he decides Jesus is not merely a prophet, he is beyond that. He considers the things that he observed Jesus doing, and the words that he heard Jesus speak. In his mind Jesus is more than anything he has observed in humanity. Jesus is greater than the prophets, he is greater than the priests of the temple, he has seen Jesus do things that defy everything he has observed in the natural world. The conclusion Simon comes up with is that Jesus must be the anointed Messiah or Christ, and that Christ is of something different than humanity so Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
This is a bold step to take. To say that Jesus is the son of God is not something that would be said lightly. A son is of the same substance of the father, meaning that they hold equal authority.
Jesus looks at Simon and says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 
With that answer Simon became Peter. That one opinion changed the very course of this individual’s life to such a degree that it would change not only that person’s actions, but how people would know and interact with him. Simon son of John would no longer be known as Simon, but the Rock. That is a dramatic shift. Yet Peter was not the only one whose opinion of Jesus prompted a change in a name or how people refer to them.
James, the brother of Jesus, was once urged Jesus to shut up and go home. He opposed Jesus’s teaching because it was too radical and was going to get him killed, like his cousin. After the resurrection Jesus paid a visit to his brother James, and that visit changed something within James. The community began to refer to James as James the Just, and when some ancient historians wrote of the events of Jerusalem but did not know about Jesus, they actually spoke of Jesus as James’ brother instead of James as Jesus’ brother, because they saw something remarkable in how James lived his life.
We see this also with the author of the fourth gospel. We know of this as John’s gospel, but the author of this gospel does not call himself John, but the disciple Jesus loved. That is a pretty bold title to write about yourself, yet tradition tells us that the church has no problem with John holding this title, because as far as they were concerned it was true. But to be able to hold that title something profound would have to be shown through their life, mainly that they reflected the personality of Christ to those around them to such degree that the love of Christ is all that people could see.
The answer to one question changed the course of history. “But who do you say I [Jesus] am?” It changes the course of history because the answer affects every aspect of our lives. If we answer like the people saying Jesus is a prophet his words are important, but if he is God his words are life. If Jesus is just a teacher, then we can add them to all the other teachers we have had, but if Jesus is God the teaching, he provided in scripture is the true direction. If Jesus is just a good guy among many good guys, then we could look at his lifestyle and add some of what we like to ours to give us a bit of culture. But if our answer to Jesus’s question is that He is the Christ the Son of the living God, the lifestyle that Jesus exhibited in scripture is life he is calling us to live.
Who do you say Jesus is? I have asked myself this question many times over the course of my life. Looking back I made my first profession of faith when I was five years old, it was shortly after my Great-Great grandmother passed away, and my mom said that she was in heaven with Jesus and if I believed and put my faith in Jesus I would be able to see her again when I die. A great deal happened since I was five. When my oldest son, James, was born I answered that question again. I looked into the eyes of my child and I realized that I was not enough, and if that kid was going to have a chance, I would need God’s help. Then I became a pastor and every day I seem to be asking and answering this same question. I ask because I cannot share what I do not have.
Jesus looked at Peter and said that on that rock he will build the church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Jesus told Peter that he will give the key of the kingdom will be given to him and whatever bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what even is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. And Peter looked at Jesus in utter confusion. He did not know who he was anymore. He had lived his life as Simon up to this point and now he was Peter, who is Peter? Peter is the one that can answer the ultimate question. Peter is the one who does not rely of flesh and blood to formulate his answer but is willing to listen to the Father in heaven.
We look at our diverse culture and we can often get lost. Who are we? Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (3:8-14). We can get lost in the diversity, but there is one that can speak to our condition. Who do you say Jesus is? Our answer to that question will lead us to the prize and open the gates to the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.