22 August 2011

Who do you say I am? A question with consequences

Romans 12 1-8 Matthew 16 13-20

When I can, I rather like to watch the BBC TV programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” You probably know that it’s a programme where well-known people are helped to look into their family history. It often has surprises in it, not least that people you don’t know, or aren’t specially interested in, can turn out to have the most fascinating stories. How often do we find that in life? – There’s more to someone than meets the eye?

I knew I would be interested in this week’s subject, J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. But last series, I found a quite unexpected interest in the gardener, Monty Don. Well, you probably know that I have no interest at all in gardening!

It turned out that Monty Don was related to someone who had been Vicar of our home church – someone whose portrait we had seen countless times in the church. And there was our friend, the current Vicar, on TV talking about it all! Who would have thought it?! (Actually, it came as quite a surprise to Monty Don too!)

Of course, when Jesus questions his disciples in our passage from Matthew’s gospel, he turns the question around: not “Who do you think you are?”, but

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16 13b GNB)

The disciples come back with a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet. People differ on exactly who Jesus is, but the general opinion is clear – he is in the tradition of the prophets of old; those who have interpreted God to his people, and, on occasion, pleaded with God on their behalf.

But Jesus is interested in more than just the consensus view. Away from the public gaze, he probes his followers still further:

“What about you? … Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16 15)

And Peter, never backwards in coming forwards, has the answer:

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16 16)

We have reached a turning point.

It may not yet be for general consumption, but the disciples now know beyond doubt who Jesus is. They are soon to begin to discover what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. And things are different – radically different – from what they expected when the Messiah came.

That question: “What about you? … Who do you say I am?” is the point around which everything turns: the key question.

• It was so for the disciples;
• it has been for every generation since –
• and it is for us today.

Jesus asks us

“What about you? … Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16 15)

Are we admirers of Jesus or are we followers?”

It’s possible to respect and admire Jesus, and that’s a perfectly appropriate reaction – but it doesn’t quite fit in with who Jesus is.

Once we begin to understand just who Jesus is – the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one who is both God and human, come to reconcile us to our Heavenly Father – then mere admiration is not enough. Our lives are changed.

Saint Paul saw this plainly. He realised Jesus is exactly who Peter said he is.

And the implications of this amazing fact were quite clear.

Paul was not just an admirer, he was a follower of Jesus.

The answer to Jesus’ question – the realisation of who Jesus is – changed Paul’s life utterly. He dedicated his life to helping others to understand who Jesus is, and helping them to take on board the implications of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

As we heard, he wrote to the Romans

“So then, my brothers and sisters, because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you: offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.” (Romans 12 v1)

Those words are very familiar to us. We often use them towards the end of a Communion service, appropriately enough as a response to our sharing in the Eucharist. It’s good to be reminded of them regularly, because recognising Jesus, dedicating ourselves to serve God in this way, is not just a sudden realisation, not just a one-off decision – it is the work of a lifetime.

Moments after Peter made his wonderful declaration about Jesus, he was “in the doghouse” – showing by his reaction to Jesus’ words about his suffering and death that he still had a lot to learn about the Messiah and his mission. And so it is for each one of us.

We respond with joy to the realisation of who Jesus is, but our understanding and our faithful response develop over time – over a lifetime.

It’s telling that the original Greek verbs in the next verse of Romans 12 reflect this. The instructions are in the continuous imperative – go on being transformed . Paul says

“Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.” (Romans 12 v2)

This transformation is a process of growth – continuous growth brought about by God. We are none of us the finished article. In the jargon I used to hear in Further Education, we are all “Lifelong Learners”!

So, if we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then we have to make a response. Recognising our Lord, our lives are changed,

• as day by day we offer ourselves in service to God,
• and as we allow God to transform us into the people he calls us to be.

We serve God in humility – how could it be otherwise? – but we serve him, too, trusting in his grace and love for us.

We serve as part of the body of Christ, using our God-given gifts, in the church and in the wider world.

And as we serve together, then God’s will and purpose is revealed, is fulfilled – that which “is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.”

Maybe that sounds like a tall order? I’m sure it did to those who first heard Paul’s words, living at the very heart of the Roman Empire which cruelly oppressed the fledgling Church.

• But the miracle is that, in us, just as much as he was in them, God is at work.

• God has promised to transform us, and to transform his world.

• And all this flows from the answer to one question:

“What about you?” [Jesus] asked … “Who do you say I am?”

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