Most of us have probably encountered people on a street corner, or maybe even in a store trying to convert us to their own particular brand of Christianity. One question these folks ask a lot is: "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"
These people used to catch me by surprise by this question. I was a Christian. I had a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong. And that they knew Him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest I’d hear the question, and run the other way before they could try to convert me.
This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with His disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. Some say Elijah. Others say John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet. After they all give him all of these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”
It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books, and then the teacher asks it again and says, “now I want to hear what YOU think”.
Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”. Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.
I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”...how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put those 4 years of deacon formation classes to good use and come up with the perfect, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right.
I spent a lot of time in formation trying to come up with the right answers. Reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the my notes and books from formation, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A. But, then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.
As good as my essay might be, Jesus doesn’t want me to answer based on what I've read in books. He doesn’t even want me to answer based on what my friends say. He wants me to answer for myself, from my own heart.
There’s no right answer here. You’re not going to get graded. You’re not going to gain or lose the title of Christian based on what you say. But it’s still daunting. How would you answer...Who do you say that Jesus is? It’s such a simple question. One we will feel like we should be able to answer so easily. And yet, it is so hard.
When I think back to those folks asking. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is? I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the looking for, the answer they and their church BELIEVED was true.
I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus... that I don’t believe.
But the good news is Jesus calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him. And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.
We come here each Sunday morning because we are all friends of Jesus, all people who have, or who are trying to have, a relationship with him. All people who are journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”
There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has always bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where He was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning, too.
I wonder if Jesus said that because He wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if He said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of REALLY getting to know him. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us. To be our companion on the road to the answer, and not just our destination.
I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you here at Saint Francis Xavier and All Saints even when it’s rocky, even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead, even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before.
I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together as a community of faith and as individuals. Though, we’ll never get the answer quite right, at least in this lifetime.
But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, we begin to understand who we say that Jesus is. Amen