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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Pentecost 8/24

          One of the Bibles I have up in my office is one of those that has the words of Jesus printed in red letters.  It’s something of a gimmick and not one that I find particularly useful most of the time but I did find it useful last week because I wanted to see how often Jesus asked questions.  So I skimmed through the gospels in my red letter Bible and what I found was that he asked surprisingly few questions.  He raised plenty of questions and continues to do so with his words and teaching and with the stories he told;  paying attention to what Jesus said can’t help but generate questions.  But according to the gospel accounts he asked very few direct questions. 

         When he does ask questions though, they tend to be good ones; “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?”  They’re good questions, but perhaps no question he raised is more poignant than the one in today’s gospel, “Who do you say that I am?”

          Actually though, that questions is preceded by “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  That too is a good question and there never has been a shortage of answers to it.  In Jesus time, as the text tells us, some thought he was John the Baptist, some thought he was the long awaited Elijah finally returned, some thought he was Jeremiah or a prophet like Jeremiah.

          In our time there are even more possibilities.  While there are a few these days who would question whether Jesus ever existed at all, and while there are many who would question the claim that Jesus was divine, most everyone would agree that he was a great man because while it’s true that there is little historical record of him apart from the Bible he clearly influenced history dramatically.  So at the very least he’s a great teacher of morals and ethics. 

In addition, some view his activity as political so that groups ranging from ultra liberal to ultra conservative, from capitalist to socialist, even to communist would like to claim Jesus as their own.  There is a significant group of scholars who see Jesus primarily as a revolutionary, a challenge and threat to the Roman Empire and the religious establishment, and that perception of him certainly did play a role in his crucifixion.  I could go on and on but you get the idea.  There never has been a shortage of answers to “Who do people say that I am” and most of the answers hold a degree of truth.

          “Who do you say that I am” though, is a different question.  Asking what were others saying about Jesus just required the disciples to report what they were hearing.  For me to pose the question in a sermon means I just have to tell you what I’ve been reading lately.  But when Jesus looks at the disciples or me or you and says, “Who do you say that I am?”  that’s a different question.

My first impulse, and maybe yours too, is to echo Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” because according to the text that clearly was the right answer; Jesus blessed Peter and who of us wouldn’t like to have a piece of that blessing.  Or, rather than Peter’s response maybe we would go to the default position of the creeds.  The Apostles’ Creed mostly repeats Peter’s affirmation; I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, that’s pretty much what Peter said, and then the creed recounts Jesus’ conception, birth, passion, crucifixion, resurrection and promised return; so the Apostles’ Creed would also seem to constitute a correct answer to “Who do you say that I am.”

          Or maybe we’d go to the Nicene Creed which we will use today.  At the council of Nicaea in the year 325, those gathered were wrestling with “Who you do you say that I am” in an effort to bring some uniformity to what was being taught and proclaimed in the churches.  They used the framework of the Apostles’ Creed but added some very profound statements about Jesus as eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father etc., essentially highlighting the divine nature of Jesus making him equal to the Father.

          These statements about Jesus along with the rest of the creed were accepted as orthodox or correct belief and has been accepted as such throughout church history.  When Luther came along he challenged some of what was going on in the church but if you read the Lutheran Confessions much of what they do is to defend Lutheran teaching as being in line with what was already accepted as orthodox.  Luther accepted the traditional doctrinal teachings of the church.  So the second article of the Nicene Creed would also appear to be a correct response to “Who do you say that I am.”

          Or...is that a cop out?   By using these fallback positions, are we avoiding “Who do you say that I am” and  just providing an answer to “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  The church has deemed these answers correct, but is Jesus looking for more than that? 

          As a teacher you learn that there are levels of questions; there are those comprehension questions that just require the students to regurgitate what they’ve read or heard and the kids who get good grades in school learn how to do this real well.  Then there are the questions that ask you not just to regurgitate, but to think about what you’ve read or heard and to analyze or synthesize or evaluate and then provide your own answer.  It’s harder to do; it’s a higher level skill and I remember kids frantically paging through the book or their notes looking for the answer and then the frightened looks on some of their little faces when I’d say, “You’re wasting your time; the answer’s not there;” I loved those moments.

          “Who do people say the Son of Man is” and “Who do you say that I am” are somewhat analogous to comprehension vs. analysis questions.  By that I mean that in order to answer question number 2 we first have to answer question number 1 according to the scriptural and confessional tradition of the church.  In other words, if I were asked “Who do you say that I am” and I couldn’t reference the Bible and the creeds I would look as frightened as those poor middle school students.  I need the witness of those who have come before me.

          So I’m not one who is ready to scrap the creeds as irrelevant to faith today.  I think we need to honor the past and the experience and insights and faith of those who have come before us.  We have to respect the fact that we don’t stand alone as Christians but that we stand on the shoulders of many others whose experiences of faith were legitimate.  We don’t reinvent the faith, we teach the faith; we answer with the church. 

          But then…merely reciting the creeds and accepting the biblical witness is not sufficient either.  At some level we have to address what that means for each of us.  If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, what does that mean to me?  If Jesus is God of God, Light of Light, true God from true God, it Jesus is equal to the Father, what does that mean to me?  Are these just the words of others or do they become my words and your words? 

          By the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives they do become our words so that when we confess our faith in the words of the creed as we’ll do shortly we are in fact answering the “Who do you say that I am” question.  To me that doesn’t mean that we understand all the complicated theology that goes into these statements, because I certainly don’t.  What it means is that in some way we find God revealed in Jesus.  It means that Jesus represents the core nature of God and that nature is loving and compassionate and welcoming and forgiving and demanding as well.  For me it means that because of Jesus, I am accepted and forgiven, that despite my faults and failings, despite my sin, I am a forgiven child of God and so are you, and that is something we all need to know.

          The church’s answer to “Who do you say that I am” can and does become our own, and that in turn calls for a response.  Our belief and trust in what Jesus has done for us in his incarnation, death and resurrection means that we also pay attention to his life; to what he did and what he taught, to what he calls us to do, as we consider how we are to live.  Then, in words and in action, we become a living part of the answer to “Who do you say that I am.”

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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