A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 21, 2011.

Isaiah 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20

I would never presume to tell you what Jesus was thinking at any particular time or place. Who am I to know what was on the mind of Christ? So, it would be a bit presumptuous of me to say something like, “Well, this is what Jesus meant,” or “This is what he was thinking.” Who am I – or anyone else – to think we can speak for Jesus with any real sense of authority?

But having said that, when you read this conversation between Jesus and his disciples, as they make their way from Galilee to Caesarea Philippi, you can’t help but think he’s setting them up. I mean, do you really think Jesus was concerned about what people were thinking of him? If he worried about that, he would never have confronted the religious leaders in the temple. This isn’t a popularity contest he’s running here. Yet, he put the question to his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

It’s a leading question, isn’t it? He’s setting them up.

Oh, it might have been helpful to Jesus, when it came to addressing them in his stories, to know what was on the minds of those who were listening to him. When I preach on Sunday mornings, the sermon I deliver to you might not fit in well at all in another church or a different context. There’s a sense in which my sermons are “geared” to this particular congregation and situation. Perhaps Jesus did something of the same, by virtue of knowing what was going on in the minds of his listeners. The gospels reveal on occasion that Jesus was aware of what others were thinking, especially those who opposed him.

But having said that, I still don’t think Jesus was all that concerned about what others were thinking of him, whether they thought he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. No, the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” was a setup… a setup to the really important question. “But who do you say that I am?”

Now, that’s what Jesus really wants to know. After all, his church will be established through the efforts of his followers, and Jesus needs to know that he can depend on them to get the job done. Much of that dependence will be based on their understanding of his mission and of who he is.

One time a woman walked out of her church after Sunday worship and accidentally bumped into a man she did not know. He sort of looked lost as he stood on the sidewalk looking up at the cross on the top of the church steeple. She politely excused herself and started to walk away, but the man called her back. “Tell me,” he said, pointing through the front doors into the church she had belonged to most of her life, “what is it that you believe in there?” She started to answer him and then realized she couldn’t. Why? Because she didn’t know the answer, or at least did not know how to put it into words. And as she stood there trying to think of a way to answer the man, he said, “Never mind. I’m sorry if I bothered you,” and walked away.

But he did bother her,and I wonder, if the same thing happened to any of us after worship this morning, would it trouble our souls? What is that we believe in here? Is our answer as quick and as sure as the one Simon Peter gave to Jesus that day on their way to Caesarea Philippi?

You get this feeling that when Jesus asks the question, unlike the woman outside her church, Peter doesn’t hesitate for a moment. He’s got the answer and he’s quick to supply it. “You are the Messiah,” he says – “the Christ” – “the Son of the living God.” And Jesus’ affirmation of his quick response is just as sure and just as swift. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

We can understand why Peter was so taken with Jesus. They’re finally taking a break after a long string of miracles performed at the hand of the Nazarene. Jesus has fed the multitudes – not just once but twice – out of meager lunches, no less. He has calmed the stormy sea just by uttering a word, he has cured the Canaanite woman’s daughter from long distance, given a voice to those who could not speak, the ability to walk to those who were maimed, sight to those who were blind. You name the malady, Jesus was able to cure it. It was an impressive run and Jesus is at the height of his abilities and strength. It is no wonder that Simon Peter has come to believe in him as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” In fact, put an exclamation point to it.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!!!” Hallelujah! Amen!

Well, he may be the Messiah, but even the Messiah needs a break every now and then, so they head off to Caesarea Philippi for a little rest and recuperation. Knowing, however, that he has no time to waste, Jesus decides to make the journey into a teachable moment. He begins to probe the disciples, to feel them out and see what is on their minds. Unfortunately, what he finds is that they still haven’t got it. They are still rather clueless about what it all means. How do we know this?

Just before this question-and-answer session, Jesus warns them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” “Yeast, yeast… what does he mean by mentioning yeast?” They’ve become a bit accustomed to Jesus’ little riddles, and this surely is another of them. But they can’t help but think literally, and when he mentions yeast they immediately associate that with bread.

Who brought the bread? Did anybody remember to bring the bread? Nobody thought to bring the bread. And then Jesus reminds them that he has just fed the multitudes, first five thousand and then four. And how many baskets of food were left over? Twelve baskets the first time and seven the next. Don’t they know by now that if Jesus had bread on his mind he could have produced it all by himself? This isn’t about bread. Jesus is thinking of the danger posed by the Pharisees and Sadducees to his mission.

The disciples still have a long way to go in understanding Jesus and what he is about. So let’s try it again. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Now that’s an easier question! They’ve just rubbed elbows with multitudes of people, they’ve all witnessed the feedings, the healings, the teaching. That kind of activity generates a lot of talk. What is the talk, the buzz, about? “Who are the people saying that I am?”

And you can see the disciples’ minds just spinning as they try to come up with the appropriate answer. Is this another of his trick questions? If so, they’re not clever enough to figure it out, so they might as well give him a straightforward response and see how he reacts. “Well, some say…”

“But who do you say…?” And quick as a flash, Peter saves the day. God bless you, Simon Bar-jonah! He is like the student in the Quiz Bowl who comes up with the answer just before the buzzer, saving his team from certain defeat.

At least that’s the way it seems.

When it comes to the Bible, we don’t have the luxury of knowing exactly how such a conversation really went down. The Bible doesn’t give us the pauses, the looks on the faces, the uhs and ers and hesitations. This isn’t like a screen play that fills everything in. We have to imagine it ourselves. How do you see it?

I see it like this… There is relief on the faces of the disciples because this is a fairly simple question to answer and doesn’t appear to carry any secret or hidden meaning to it. Sounds straightforward enough. And since they had spent a lot of time rubbing elbows and having conversations with the people who had come out to see and hear Jesus, to receive his mercy and healing and grace, they were able to provide Jesus with a fairly immediate and accurate answer… or should we say answers? “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

What they didn’t know, you see, was that the question was a setup for the real question, “But who do you say that I am?”

Maybe Peter sensed that this is where Jesus was going, or maybe the answer came to him in one of his better moments. Again, we don’t know if there was a long and uncomfortable silence, or if he answered Jesus immediately. We just know that when he spoke, he was spot on.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Evidently, Jesus hadn’t said a lot about that. He didn’t go around telling people, “I’m the Messiah, I’m the Messiah. Believe in me, I’m the Messiah.” Because, when Peter said that –  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – Jesus didn’t say to him, “Good, Simon Peter, you have learned well from all that I have taught you.” It wasn’t like Peter had memorized his multiplication tables or anything like that. Go ahead. Study the gospels. Nowhere will you find that Jesus refers to himself as the Messiah. But Jesus did say to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

“You didn’t get it from me, Simon. You received this insight from a higher source.” You’re catching on, Simon. You’re catching on. Having been with Jesus all this time, finally, finally, it is beginning to sink into Simon’s mind and heart as to who this Man really is. “But who do you say that I am?”  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” His answer came from pure, unadulterated inspiration.

And when he hears this confession, Jesus gives Simon the responsibility of being the standard bearer for the Kingdom.  “You are the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom and heaven…”

This is no setup… for Simon Peter or for you and me. We can go through life knowing what others think of Jesus (in fact, I have a library filled with books, written by those who tell me what they think of Jesus), but when it comes time for us to make our way to our own Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus turns to ask us the question he put to his disciples, no one – not even Peter the Rock – can answer for us. It is a response we all must give to Jesus, and we must be prepared to answer when the time comes. 

That answer is found, however, not so much in what we say, but in how we live. The truth of the matter is, we live – out there – in a world that needs the reconciliation that only Christ can give. Apparently, he is depending on us to be his instruments in doing so. Is Jesus standing now before us, waiting for us to answer his question? If so, how will we respond?

Understand that this is no setup. Indeed, Jesus needs to know your response… and he needs to know it now.

Lord, when Jesus asks us who we believe him to be, may we answer not so much with our words but with our willingness to follow him. We need help to do that, and we ask for it… now… in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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