Sermon: Church, Who is Jesus?
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbybterian Church Fort LauderdaleScripture: Matthew 16:13-20
Date: August 23, 2020
Think for a moment: What is your identity? Is it solely your name and address? Is your identity defined by what you do for a living or are retired from? Is your identity expressed by who or what you are “for” or who or by what you are “against”? Perhaps one’s identity is wrapped up in body image or in the display of one’s wealth. What in this life shapes your identity?
You see, today’s text is all about this issue of identity. It’s about who Jesus is. It’s about who Peter is. It is about your identity, my identity, being displayed through who we are as a Church called First Presbyterian Fort Lauderdale.
Earlier in Matthew 16, Jesus is confronted by the religious establishment in order to prove his identity. They were demanding Jesus to perform miraculous signs to legitimate his teaching and works. Jesus didn’t bite at their baiting tactics but he did use the exchange between the religious old guard and himself as a way to teach his disciples about issues of identity. This is where we pick up in Matthew’s Story today at Matthew 16:13-20. Jesus and the disciples are located in the mountainous hinterlands of Jewish territory located some thirty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Hear the Word of God!
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (NRSV)
Identity. Jesus has travelled to the very edge of the boundary of Israel to ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He was as far away from Jerusalem as one could get when he asked his disciples this question of identity. Perhaps he thought it was safe to ask this question away from the prying ears of Jerusalem’s religious authorities. Then again, maybe he took them to the furthest cultural and religious boundary he could find in order to show them the boundaries they would have to break in the future both figuratively and practically.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Is he a reincarnated version of his cousin, John the Baptist, or the great prophet Elijah who was whisked off to heaven in a chariot? Some mused he was one of the ancient revered prophets of Hebrew Scripture fame like Jeremiah who were the speakers of hard truth to a corrupt people and government.
If Jesus posed that question to you and me, what would we tell Jesus about what others think of him today? Sadly, the first thing that comes to my mind is that I’d say is, “Jesus, people are not even thinking of that question today.”
You might disagree with me about that depending on what Christian circles you run in but I still argue that I’ve not seen a lot of evidence that people are asking who Jesus is even within the church itself.
Well, that’s a problem.
You see, what that means is that Western Church has lost its Jesus-bearing identity. Simply look at the declining influence Churches and communities of worship have on the larger culture today. Look at the empty parking lots on the Sabbath and the same tired faces of the people who serve on church teams and committees year in and year out because others will not step up to take their turn.
It’s at this crucial point Jesus asks disciples another question on identity: Who do you all say I am? The “you” Jesus uses is plural; he is speaking to all the disciples both then and now: Who do y’all say that I am?
Bless Peter’s heart. He steps up and speaks for all them and declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” and Jesus beams with delight! Peter highlights and correctly announces Jesus’ identity and then Jesus turns right around and pronounces Peter’s! “You’re blessed, Simon of Jonah! You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of the dead will not prevail against it!”
Peter expresses to Jesus how all of them understand Jesus’ identity to be the long expected Messiah to come and liberate the people. Yet, Peter also adds a twist to it: Not only is Jesus the Messiah, he is also the very presence of God in their midst. Jesus’ identity, his character, is wrapped up in the very character and identity of God that he has been displaying throughout Matthew’s Gospel: An identity wrapped up in the visible, patient, longsuffering, sacrificial love in order to reconcile people and society back to God making them whole once again. Peter nails and sticks the landing! Like gymnast Simone Biles executing a perfect floor routine, Peter scores a 10! The disciples understand who Jesus really is!
When Jesus tells Simon, “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church!”, Jesus is referring to the proclamation and profession Peter made on behalf of his fellow disciples. It’s not so much the church is going to be built upon Peter per se; it’s that the gates of hell and the dead cannot overcome the proclamation that Jesus is Messiah and the Son of the Living God. The rock the church is built upon is the declaration that Jesus’ identity is that he is the very Presence of God in the midst of our swirly world! He is not some reincarnated prophet or some enlightened teacher but rather he is God’s Presence among us! This is Jesus’ identity. This is what Peter and the disciples professed that day in the remote safety of Caesarea Philippi.
Should Jesus pull you and me aside in Caesarea Philippi and ask us about what we thought his identity was, would we get it right? Are we still building on the rock of the church, which is the profound proclamation that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of the Living God, or is the Western Church building on the scattered rocks of discordant social issues trying to define who and what the Church actually is. The Western Church has at times let the issues of the day define Jesus instead of having Jesus define the vital issues; we have let the proverbial tail wag the dog. What Peter gets right is that he put Jesus first and Jesus’ very identity defines who Peter is and what the Church is to be about in its purpose and mission. The Church in America today suffers from an identity crisis!
The vital question for you and me is to ask what our part is in either contributing to the Church’s identity crisis or how we are helping to shape the Church’s healthy identity.
We contribute to the Church’s identity crisis when we withhold our spiritual gifts of leadership, giving, serving that Paul speaks about in Romans 12.
We contribute to the Church’s identity crisis when we hold on to nostalgic ministries of yesterday that do not meet the spiritual needs of the people in our community today.
We contribute to the Church’s identity crisis when we make our personal agendas or wish dreams drive ministry instead of letting Jesus’ identity permeate throughout the whole Body of Christ in a specific places, shaping itself to its community’s hurts and pains.
We contribute to the Church’s identity crises when we overlay cultural values onto the way we approach church business and ministry and raise them above the values Jesus would engender.
Friends, whenever the Church, whenever you and I as individual members of Christ’s Church, replace humility with hubris, sacrificial love with personal convenience, or adoration of God in Jesus with any other idol in the form of money, stuff, power or prestige, we know we have lost our Christian identity.
Who do people at your office, your Bridge game, your Bible study or sports group say Jesus is? Do they know who Jesus is to you? When they look at you and me, do they first see Patrick, Don, Laura, Chris and Margaret or do they first see the face and radiance of Jesus expressing your new identity?
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301