Bethesda-Khankho Foundation

Who do you that say I am? - Asking the old question in a new context

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?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

I have been led (I believed by the Lord) to chose this passage for our morning reflection and coined the theme, 'Who do you say that I am? - Asking the old question in a new context.'

Peter’s confession has been such an encouraging and challenging testimony in my life and commitment to follow Christ. The more I read, the more I like this testimony.

Three are three reasons why, I feel, Peter’s confession is important for us and I am going to share them with you this morning.

One, the context in which Peter made his confession or the circumstances that led Peter to make his confession. Two, the nature of the question and the risk and courage involved in answering that question. And three, the implication of this confession.

I. The context - For a better understanding of the context of Peter’s confession, I would like to do a contextual reading of the Bible here. Because, often we push God out into a far distance in worship services like this when we elevate testimonies that have happened in other countries or in a distant past, forgetting God’s active work right here in our midst.

So, here’s the contextual reading: Having successfully completed the tests conducted by Satan (that is, the temptation of Jesus in Matthew Chapter 4), Jesus decided to begin his ministry by starting a discipleship training school - He had no building, no classroom nor a particular postal address for the school. It was a mobile training school!

He admitted the first two students for his school, they were bothers - Simon Peter and Andrew - while they were fishing Mat 4:18ff. He said to them, ‘Follow me, I will make you fishers of men’ (Vs 19). He went further and saw another prospective students James and John mending their nets and he admitted them also. In a same manner, Jesus went on admitting students until they reach a batch of 12 students/disciples.

Jesus did not conduct strict Entrance tests like we do at UBS [may be it was for this reason that He happened to admit Juda Iscariot, I do not know!] but his training was thorough and rigorous/tough.

At the initial stage, when his disciples were still young in their understanding and experience, his teaching was mainly theoretical - Beatitudes, Salt and Light, concerning Law and prophet etc in (Mt 5); Almsgiving and others (Mt 6); concerning judging others (Mt 7).

At the next level in his Andragogy, Jesus uses visual aids and practical demonstrations - Jesus cleanses a Leper, Jesus healed the Centurion’s servant, Jesus calms the storm (Mt 8), Jesus heals a Paralytic, a girl restored to life, Jesus healed two blind men (Mt 9). The students were brought to a step higher in terms of their knowledge and experience of him.

At the third level, like here at UBS, Jesus sent his students/disciples for internship with authority to perform miracles. In other words, by now the disciples have learned about Jesus through hearing and seeing and now need to experiment those knowledge in mission fields - Mt 10: the 12 disciples were sent out to proclaim the good news and saying, “see, I am sending you like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as dove.” (vs16),

After the internship, things have changed - while many people began to know and continue to benefit from the ministry of the discipleship training school, there were also an increasing opposition against them. For example, Mat 12 - The Pharisees complained that the disciples of Jesus plucked grain on Sabbath, Mat 16 After Peter made his confession, Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah. Some other translations say, ‘Jesus strictly ordered or sternly warned.’ That indicate that by now there was a danger in speaking the truth. There was a Jewish version of Hindutva ideology saying we are Jews if you want to be part of us you must follow our Jewish culture. Judea my matrubhumi, my pitrubhuimi and my punyabhumi - Judea my motherland, my fatherland and my holy land and if you are not part of us you are against us. A Jewish version of Hindutva ideology!

Now this is the context in which the disciples were asked to make their confessions about Christ. They were asked to make a public declaration where they put their loyalty in life. It is important to note that unlike our entrance tests at UBS, Jesus did not ask this question at the time of admissions but during their final year. He asked this question after the disciples have completed their internships and had enough time to know and experience who Christ was personally in their own lives. In other words, He is saying, ‘Now my dear students, you have completed your course, but do you still believe that I am the Messiah?’ Also, the question was asked when there was an increasing danger in confessing that Jesus was the Messiah. How relevant it is for us as a theological community to ask ourselves this question ‘Who do we say Christ is’ no matter which year we are in. Asking this question is relevant and important whether you are in the first year, second year, third year, a faculty, staff or anywhere. We are being asked to answer this question from our own situations.

II. The second important thing in this passage is the nature of the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ The question has two parts - the first part asks to reproduce what other people say who Jesus was and the second to confess one’s own personal knowledge of Jesus. In verse 13 Jesus asks his disciples, ‘who do people say I am?’ and they replied “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” It was easy for the disciples to reproduce what other people say who Jesus was and that is reflected in the fact that there were many answers to the first part of the question.

What is crucial for us is the second part of the question. Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” The focus here is ‘You’ the second person. In the first part of the question, the focus was on the ‘third person’ - who do people say that I am - and the responsibility of the disciples was only to pass on the information. In that case, they cannot be held responsible for any mistakes in the answer. Whereas, here, Jesus asked them to give him their own personal experiences of him. Here, they will be held responsible for their answers. That demands a sincere answers from the heart based on their knowledge and experiences of him. That involves the total being of their lives. Moreover, the answer also involves risking one’s own life because of the increasing threat coming from the Jews. It was a tough and risky question to be answered and no wonder why only Peter answered the question. The disciples must have struggled in their minds when this question was put to them. They must have tried to recall what Jesus had taught and did before their eyes and debated in their minds whether or not to confess that he was the Messiah. They must thought in their minds - Well, I heard him teaching me about Beatitude but Buddha also said the same thing; off course, He healed the sick but Satya Sai Ba Ba also healed many sick people. Moreover, if I say that he is the Messiah the Jews might kill me. So, there was a big silence! Imagine how Judas Iscariot might have felt at that time!

Now, if the question ‘Who do you say I am?’ is relevant to all of us, it demands of us an honest, experiential and sincere answer to the question. In other words, we cannot answer this question through a head knowledge or by reproducing what other people have said. It demands a personal answer with integrity.

The second part of the question is answered by Simon Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” I am not going to talk about the meaning of Messiah or the Son of the living God because other preachers have dealt with it before me. But I want to say one thing that this is a profound theological statement made based on one’s own life experience. This confession involved the whole being of a person. Peter knew and experienced personally that Jesus was the Christ.

III. The third and final important point in this passage is the implication of the confession. Peter made this confession and that caused him his life when the same question was put to him many years later by Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar, according to Christian tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to pay his own life when Hitler asked him the same question. Graham Staines and his two sons gave their lives for the same cause at the hands of the Hindu fanatic groups in Orissa. To confess that Jesus is risky and expensive.

It is also important to remember that our confession is not once for all. In other words, my ability to confess Christ in one situation cannot automatically make me do the same at all time. Peter was unable to stay faithful to his confession all of his life. After this confession, he denied Christ three times before the crucifixion when the same question was put to him by an expected woman, he denied and went back to his fishing profession when the same question was put to him by the situation fear and hopelessness after the death of Jesus. Situation will differ from place to place, from time to time and from person to person. The question may come in different forms, from different persons and at different contexts. Sometime, it will come from non human beings, invisible things, in thoughts and desires, asking you to choose your priority between Christ and other important things in life. We must be ready to answer this question at all times.

Finally, confessing Christ is nothing but a public witness for Christ. It is telling others through all your beings - words and deeds - that Christ is the Lord. In other words, we cannot say that Jesus is Lord without witnessing for Him. To confess that Jesus is the Lord must result in witnessing for him or doing mission. You cannot be a student of theology or a teacher of theology without witnessing for Christ. These two are not different things but one! And to witness for Christ is an awesome privilege and at the same time it is a risk taking. It was Bonhoeffer who said, ‘When Christ calls us, he calls us to die.’

Dear friends, today, many people are asking us this old question but in a new context. Our Hindu brothers and sisters are asking us, our Muslim brothers and sisters are asking us, the postmodern theory of relativism is asking us and Jesus himself is asking us this old question, They are also saying, ‘If you say that He is the Messiah, then show us, proof it to us?’ The same old question is being asked in a new context with different ways and tones. So, are you in a position to answer or are you ready to answer? Can we live a lifestyle that confirms that Jesus is the Lord of all? Can we sing without any reservation Stuart Townend’s song, ‘In Christ alone my hope is found?’

A reflection shared at UBS Chapel Service July 7, 2014.