Jesus had achieved celebrity status and couldn’t go out in the marketplace without somebody recognizing him as the newest folk rabbi who had captured the imagination of the entire countryside. He had created a public relations firestorm and now he wanted to check out his closest aides to see how they were experiencing his work and image. If you want to know, all you have to do is ask.
So, Jesus asked them directly, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus wanted to know what others were saying about him in the streets. What he couldn’t obtain because no one would tell him honestly, he asked those around him to report what they were hearing among the common folk.
And the disciples gave him at least a sanitized version of what they were hearing. (You don’t think they told him everything, do you?) Some were saying he was John the Baptist, others called him Elijah or Jeremiah or any of the other prophets from their Hebrew scriptures.
But that wasn’t really what Jesus was asking. It was only his way of asking them the deeper question, the more personal response: “Who do you say that I am? Forget what the crowds are saying. They only follow for what they can get out of me,” he seemed to be implying. More importantly, Jesus wanted to know what his own followers thought of him. At first, there was no answer. Nothing from the disciples until Peter blurted it out.
Eberhard Bethge, the friend and biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, preached on this passage and called it “one of the top texts of the church.” He identified this text as the one that has consoled the church during tough times. In this encounter and the identification of Jesus by Peter, we cling to Jesus who is the long-awaited Messiah, the very Son of God.
But Bethge also went on to note that this passage has also been used by the confessing church as the authorization for persecuting non-Christians who do not relinquish their so-called pagan beliefs and who do not join us in confessing Jesus as Lord. People of faith who do not rest their ultimate faith in God through Christ have been severely persecuted because they do not recognize Jesus as the only way to salvation. The history of the Christian church is a bloody tale that somehow has taken the confession of Jesus’ identity and used it as a blessing to go out and maim and kill others who do not join us in our faith.
We live in a multi-religious America today. More specifically, we live in an interfaith neighborhood. Look out one window and you can see Temple Israel; look out another window and you can see the American Muslim Institute. We live in proximity in this neighborhood of Abraham’s many children. Open your eyes and you can see the World Religion Zoo, right here in the middle of the Great American Plains.
As a counselor, I once counseled with someone of the Eckankar faith. Another counseling client was a blended New Ager, accepting many different, newly formed religious practices. I’ve been colleagues with a Unitarian minister. At one time, I had a collegial relationship with the Bishop of the Egyptian Coptic church who maintained an office in San Antonio while supervising all the Coptic churches from Phoenix to Florida. While our basic Christian beliefs were more alike than different, he was an Orthodox Christian, more similar to the Greek Orthodox believers than to our western Christian groups. What would these Christians claim about Jesus?
Locally, there’s the Rainbow Mennonite group holding the historic peace church tradition. There are the Bible churches, “teaching the Bible verse by verse.”
That’s not all. There are Buddhists and Bahais here. Anglicans and Assemblies and Quakers abide among us. There are the Religious Science Church, the Christian Scientists, the Salvation Army, and the Foursquares. There are the Reformed Churches and the Seventh Day Adventists. Irony of ironies, there are Unity Churches all over! There’s the metaphysical Church of Today Divine Science. There’s even the None But Christ Church promising “Good Old Time Religion, Old Time Hymns, and Old Time Fellowship!”
There are enough different kinds of Baptists to make your head hurt. Landmark Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Free Will Baptists, General Baptists, Independent Baptists, Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, Missionary Baptists, National Baptists, American Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Regular Baptists, Southern Baptists, and Sovereign Grace Baptists. “Lions & tigers & bears,” oh my …
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us throughout the ages. Even in the confessing church, we’re a mess. Name your doctrinal fancy and, more than likely, there’s a group already meeting somewhere staking claim to faith based on that idea.
When Peter made this stunning confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “Great! Now that you’ve gotten the point, go out and arm wrestle everyone else into seeing things the way you see them now.” Jesus said to him instead, “Blessed are you, Simon! Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
In other words, you believe in me, not as a personal intellectual achievement, but rather as a gift. It’s grace that’s revealed it to you. You have been given a gift of revelation whereby you have encountered the Jesus of history and have come to the same point of recognition that Peter achieved in his time.
For those who have made feeble attempts to melt all the religious traditions down into one “we’re all really headed to the same place” is to miss the point. There are decided differences between us. We are not “really saying the same thing” when we describe our religious beliefs. That’s the discovery of respectful inter-religious dialogue as we learn we are saying very different things.
But what I say about Christ is the point. What does it mean to you and me when we confess our faith in Jesus? Does it make any difference at all? The question is not to be deferred as we ponder what others say they mean. More important, is what do you mean? Our confession in Jesus is not a symbolic, lip service that blesses us to go out and to live any which way we choose. It is the prelude to a hard life of putting our hands to the plow in very real and significant ways. It is the life that is lived after our confession that proves whether we have said anything at all. “Who do you say Jesus is?”
© Keith D. Herron 2023