“Who do you think you are?” This used to be an aggressive question designed to take someone who was taking liberties down a peg or two. Nowadays it’s more commonly associated with the television programme of the same name, in which celebrities investigate their family trees to uncover interesting links between their lives and the lives of their ancestors. There are many stories of self-important individuals trying to get their way spluttering, “Do you know who I am?”
In this morning’s Bible reading from Luke’s carefully constructed historical account of Jesus life, we hear Jesus asking his closest friends a similar question, but not from any sense of self-importance. Jesus wasn’t trying to make a point, or get something, he really wanted to know how people saw him, and what they believed about him.
So, he asked his disciples, “Who do the crowd say that I am?”
His followers respond with a selection of answers. Some think that Jesus is John the Baptist, returned to life. We can read more about who John the Baptist was in Luke 3- he was Jesus’ cousin, who had prepared the way for Jesus, and baptised him in the Jordan. Jesus couldn’t possibly have been John the Baptist – they were seen together at least once – but that didn’t stop some people thinking it. Others thought that he was Elijah. Elijah was one of God’s messengers, prophets in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings chapter 2 we read that Elijah didn’t die but was carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire. It was widely believed that Elijah would return to herald the Messiah. Other people thought that Jesus was a prophet, a messenger of God.
I wonder how the disciples knew these answers. There can only be one way, they listened. We read in the accounts of Jesus life many times when crowds gather, and Jesus is teaching them. But just imagine all the milling around and waiting, and travelling by foot, and bits of life that go on between the teaching sessions.
People would have sat round and talked with each other about what they thought, and the disciples would have been out and about, listening, hearing what people were saying.
Earlier this year a group of Christian organisations commissioned a piece of research called “Talking Jesus” This was, if you like, an organised way of doing exactly the same thing, of listening to the crowd. One of the key things that this research was designed to do was find out what people think about Jesus.
They found out that 54% of the UK population believe that Jesus was a real human being, with 28% thinking that he is a mythical or fictional character.
1 in 5 people think that Jesus is God in human form who lived among people in the 1st Century. 1 in 4 think that he was a normal human being, and 1 in 3 people think that he was a prophet or spiritual leader, but not God.
As well as asking about what they thought about who Jesus was, the survey also asked people what they thought Jesus was like. The top characteristics that people use to describe Jesus were all positive: spiritual, peaceful, leader, and loving.
I wonder what our friends and families think about Jesus. I wonder who they would say that he is. Maybe we could ask them? What would it be like to listen out for their thoughts on Jesus?
Jesus has a follow up question. He asks his friends.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responds, “You are the Christ of God”.
We don’t yet know the details of King Charles coronation, but if it follows traditional practices, it will include anointing – in which oil is poured on the head, hands, and heart of the new monarch. This idea of pouring oil onto somebody as a sign and symbol of them being chosen by God, and blessed for a special purpose, goes back into the Old Testament. All the way back in Exodus, following the rescue of God’s people from Egypt, we read of the setting aside of Aaron and his descendants to be priests. And how was this signified? They were anointed with oil.
Later on in the history of God’s people, when they have asked God to give them kings to reign over them, how does God make the choice of King known? God sends the prophets to anoint them with oil, first Saul, and then David in his time.
Being anointed was the way in which God set people apart to be Kings and Priests for God’s people. Now, we don’t read of Jesus being anointed physically with oil at the beginning of his ministry, though there are a couple of occasions that he is anointed during his ministry, but this declaration of Peter identifies him as the Anointed One. This is what the word Christ means, it means the one chosen and set apart by God to be the King and Priest of God’s people.
The equivalent word in Hebrew is Messiah. Over the centuries since the ancient kings and priests, the idea of the Messiah had come to include the idea of someone God would send to rescue God’s people from the oppression and occupation of foreign forces, who would restore the Kingdom of Israel and the worship of the Temple. All these ideas are bound up together in those few simple words that Peter spoke, “You are the Christ of God.”
You might expect party poppers to go off at this point. Jesus has spent nearly three years with his friends and followers and they’ve finally got it. They’ve understood what all the teaching and the miracles and the signs are pointing to. Jesus is the one. The one sent by God to sort it all out. Hooray.
Well, not so much. Because Jesus has some unwinding to do. A lot of the expectations that went along with the idea of Messiah were misguided, and although Peter had used the word, it’s quite clear from what happens over the coming months that he didn’t mean by that word the same thing that Jesus meant. And it’s time for Jesus to start addressing those misconceptions.
By the way, this is, for me, the most likely reason that Jesus told his followers not to tell anyone else that he was the Messiah. Because they didn’t understand yet what it really meant for Jesus to be Messiah, if they went round telling others that Jesus was the Messiah, it would just cause confusion. First Jesus had to get their understanding of what it meant right, so that when they did tell others, they could also tell people what it really meant.
And what does it mean? Yes, Jesus was chosen by God to be King and Priest, and to free people from the captivity of sin and death. But the way that he was going to do that was completely unexpected. He wasn’t going to raise an army, or lead an armed rebellion. He wasn’t going to restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. He was going to die on a cross, a completely shameful, traitor’s death. And then he was going to prove God’s power and authority over sin and death by being raised to life. This was the path that he was going to walk to bring in the Kingdom of God, the kingdom that encompasses the whole of creation, and the whole of time.
I wonder how we would answer that question ourselves. If someone were to ask us, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
One of the interesting things that came out of the research I was talking about before was that Christians were far more likely to describe Jesus as loving than non-Christians. This was the top characteristic chosen by practising Christians, as the researchers write, “This shows very clearly the difference that knowing Jesus personally makes in someone’s life – Christians know they are loved; their understanding of Jesus is personal.”
If we were to ask our friends what they think about Jesus, would we be ready with an answer if they asked us the question back? Not to put down or be negative about their answer, but to give an answer that says something positive about our faith and relationship with Jesus, something that is attractive and hopeful.
Whatever our answer to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?”, the really big question comes next. Jesus doesn’t actually ask it explicitly, but it seems to me that it is underneath all that he goes on to say. That question is.
“What are you going to do about it?”
If Jesus really is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s chosen one sent to rescue the world, then so what? What does it mean for the way we are to live? It means doing what Jesus did. It means dying to self, taking up our cross and following him. I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost the impact of this statement. Just imagine yourselves in the sandals of those disciples. They haven’t seen Jesus die on the cross yet, they haven’t experienced the resurrection. They have no idea, not even the faintest glimpse of a possibility that the cross can have any hint of redemption or positivity about it. For them it is nothing but a cruel instrument of tortuous death. And their friend and teacher, the one that Peter has just named “The anointed one”, the one that they’ve invested all their hope in is telling them that that is where he is going, and they are to follow him.
This is the call that Jesus made to his disciples then, and this is the call that Jesus makes to his disciples now. This is the call that Jesus makes to us today. These are the questions he asks. Who do the people say that I am? Who do you say I am? What are you going to do about it?