Who Do You Say that I Am?
Who Do You Say that I Am?
Where things happen in scripture is often as important as what happens or what is said. Today we are presented with a well known passage from Matthew’s gospel. We know and remember this passage as it is where Peter declares that Jesus is, “The Messiah, the Son of God!” Jesus then names Peter his rock, upon which the church will be built. All of this is important stuff, but where it is said elevates the declaration to new heights.
Who Do You Say that I Am?
There is the expression that goes “Location, location, location!” You might hear it in relation to real estate or business. The location of a house helps determine its value. The location of a business helps determine how many people might enter the shop.
Location matters, and it really matters in our passage today from Matthew. It is really easy for us to gloss over the first sentence where we are told that Jesus and the disciples are near Caesarea Philippi. Much of the geography, the location of towns and cities in the Bible are lost on us. We have a vague notion of where things are. We know where Egypt is as it’s referenced in the Old Testament, we know where Babylon is, we might know where Assyria is. Jerusalem we have a fairly good idea, same with the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. But a city like Caesarea Philippi? Most of us don’t have a clue.
But this city matters. Today it is a ruin, an important archeological site, not only because of its mention in scripture but it’s importance to the Roman Empire. The name sort of gives it away. It’s an important city because it is here that Jesus names Peter as his rock. It’s an important city because it is here that Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
This is a loaded question given the location that Jesus asks it, but much of that significance is lost on us today, because we aren’t familiar with the geography or cities of antiquity. Let’s take a deeper dive into Caesarea Philippi and its history.
Caesarea Philippi is located about 100km from Jerusalem, it was located on a trade route that connect Tyre and Damascus. About the city Prof. Audrey West writes, “A couple of decades before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi had been given over to the auspices of Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory.
“Thus, Jesus’ question—“Who do you say that I am?”—hangs in the air at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. It is a question not simply about Jesus’ identity, as if getting the titles right would earn somebody an “A” on a messianic quiz. It is a question about allegiance.” (Audrey West)
Scott Hoezee from the Center for Excellence in Preaching puts it this way, “You see, to ask that particular question there, in the shadow of power politics and all that goes along with it, transforms the query from an idle question of curiosity into a loaded question bristling with implications. It would have been one thing for Jesus to ask this in some quiet village in Galilee, but it’s quite another matter to ask it in Caesarville. Even today, a question that sounds perfectly natural to ask in Pella, Iowa, would sound very different if it were asked in the well of the Senate.” (Scott Hoezee)
By asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” at the gates of a city honouring the Roman emperor, glorifying trade, creeds and imperial power Jesus makes clear the contrast between the powers of this world and the kingdom of God. His question and Peter’s declaration make it clear that the values of this world and the values of God’s kingdom often stand in stark opposition. That though there is much that is good about the way we order ourselves as a society, much of our ordering is done based on economic value and output. We have forgotten about the least of these and many others that Jesus has spoken about.
As the church we live in a post-Christendom era. What I mean by this is that at some point the church stopped being a dominant cultural and societal presence over the course of the last half century. While elements of religion seem to play a large role in certain segments of politics, many have stopped looking to the church as a voice of reason or for direction on many of life’s most important subjects. Many are saddened or frustrated by this loss of standing within society. However, a church decoupled from secular powers is a church more freely and able to critique those powers and advocate for the change that Jesus preached.
Who do you say that I am?
Jesus makes it clear that abuses of imperial, political and religious power are to be avoided. Enforcing human laws which create oppression for people are contrary to the heart of God. Impoverishing people so others can profit is contrary to the heart of God.
We, as Christians, as followers of Christ, struggle with this. We struggle with it because our own economic survival is tied to the policies of this world and we recognize that things that benefit us, may hinder others. When a government cuts funding for services and provides us with money back on our taxes, we as individuals benefit. However, does the larger society benefit from the reduction of services?
Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?”
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the response of Peter. There is truth and there is freedom in the words of Peter. We are still in the grips of Covid-19, our social circles are strained. We can’t travel or visit as freely as we might like. But there is still freedom in declaring that Christ is the Messiah, but it is a freedom that recognizes that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be. And it isn’t just our current struggle with Covid-19 that makes this so. The words of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven’ still resound and we know that we aren’t there yet.
The question Jesus might have just as easily asked the disciples is: Who do you say that you are?
If Jesus asked us this question, could we answer as Peter? That we are followers of the Messiah, the Son of the living God? And if we did what implications would that have on our lives? What realities and truths about how we live, love and serve one another would that force us to contend with?
When Jesus speaks, when he asks us questions, they are rarely simple and often have deep and lasting implications. As we ponder the question presented today, “Who do you say that I am?” may we have the wisdom, the faith and the will to answer as boldly as Peter did. For then Christ can build his church, using us as the rocks that will be the foundation. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.