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Who is this Guy?

Thomas J Parlette

“Who is this guy?”

Matthew 16: 13-20

8/27/17

 

Every once in awhile a story pops up on the news about someone who claims to be the Messiah. It happened in Knoxville, Tennessee not too long ago. A man claiming to be Jesus Christ was arrested after he assaulted his wife.

The arrest report stated that he assaulted his wife, shoved her into a chair and threatened her if she left them. He also ripped a telephone off the wall and smashed a car windshield. The report went on to say that the arresting officer heard the man repeatedly yelling, “You can’t arrest me. I’m Jesus.” At the Knox County Jail, when an officer questioned him about his religion, the man stuck to his story – “I’m Jesus.” He also told jail officials that he wanted John, Paul and Moses on his visitor’s list.

Psychologist Milton Rokeach once wrote a book called “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.” He described his attempts to treat three patients at a psychiatric hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who suffered from delusions of grandeur. Each believed he was unique among humankind – each believed he had been called to save the world – each believed they were the messiah.

Rokeach found it difficult to break through, to help the patients accept the truth about their identity. So he decided to put the three of them into a little community, to see if rubbing against people who also claimed to be the Messiah might dent their delusion – a kind of messianic 12 step program.

This led to some interesting conversations. One would claim, “I’m the Messiah, the Son of God. I was sent here to save the world.”

How do you know this, Rokeach would ask.

“God told me” one would answer.

“I never said any such thing,” another patient would argue.

Every once in awhile, one would get a glimmer of reality – never deep and never for long – just a small little inkling. Their messiah complex was deeply ingrained. But what progress Rokeach made came about by putting them together in the same room.(1)

In first century Palestine it was not unusual for people to come along and claim to be the Messiah. After all, the Jewish people had been looking for a messiah for hundreds of years – one who would come to deliver the Jews from their enemies. It was not unusual for a person – either out of an irrational spirit of grandiosity, or as a cynical means of acquiring wealth and power – to claim to be the one whom the people had been waiting for.

So the question was – how do you tell? How were you supposed to tell who the real Messiah was? Even John the Baptist wanted to know.

Even though John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, and he knew Jesus very well – John wasn’t totally sure about Jesus. Even though he was the one who performed Jesus baptism, the Gospel of Matthew is not clear whether John heard the voice of God say “This is my Son…” The text just tells us that the heavens were opened to Jesus – we don’t know for sure what John saw or heard.

Afterwards, during his public ministry, Jesus never really acted like a Messiah. The people of his day, including his own disciples expected the Messiah to be someone who would lead a revolt against the Romans. They expected a military leader, a great fighter and warrior – someone like David. But Jesus was not like that. Jesus taught about being humble, meek and compassionate, encouraging his followers to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Jesus talked about taking care of the poor, the widows and the children and that we should give to those in need, not try to turn a quick profit. Jesus spent his time healing the sick, not encouraging revolt.

And yet, at times, Jesus exhibited great power – power over the forces of evil and power over the forces of nature. Even his own disciples asked – Who is this guy?

When John found himself in prison near the end of his days, he sent some friends to ask Jesus directly – “Are you the one, or should we look for someone else?” Even his own cousin, John the Baptist, was wondering – Who is this guy? I thought I knew him, but now, I’m not so sure. Who is this guy Jesus?

Even when asked directly, Jesus still doesn’t claim the title of Messiah for himself. Instead, he sends word back to John – “tell him what you see me doing,” but he doesn’t actually say “Yes – I’m the Messiah.”

No, Jesus waits for this moment at Caesarea Phillipi. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

The answers vary. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, some think you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets…

The Jesus fine tunes the question – “But who do YOU say I am?”

And Peter is the one who confers the title of Messiah on Jesus. Peter is the first one to call Jesus by that name. Peter puts it all together – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

And Jesus is thrilled by the answer – “Good for you Peter, you are my rock, and on this rock I will build my church, which not even the gates of Hades will be able to defeat.”

If you’re like me, you have probably been raised to believe that Jesus was testing his disciples, to see if they were getting the message. However, there may be other dynamics involved here. Jesus may have had another reason for asking “Who do you say that I am?”

The African concept of Ubuntu has its origins in the Bantu languages of southern Africa. While modern European culture identifies with Rene Descartes’ 17th century statement – “I think, therefore I am.” – Ubuntu represents an ancient understanding encapsulated by the statement, “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.”

In his book African Proverbs: Wisdom of the Ages, David Abdulai writes, “In traditional African life, the individual does not and can not exist alone. He owes his existence to other people, including those of past generations and his contemporaries. He is part of the whole. The community must therefore make, create, or produce the individual – the individual depends on the group.”(2)

In this story, perhaps Jesus is turning to his community of disciples to help make him in this way. After all, it’s hard to be the Messiah if no one believes in you. Someone in his group of disciples needed to say it, one of his closest followers needed to identify him as the Messiah, the Son of God without any help and without being prompted. Interestingly, of the 20 times in Matthew that the word “Messiah” is used, Jesus never refers to himself as Messiah until after Peter’s declaration. Perhaps that is why Jesus is happy with Peter’s confession.  Now Jesus knows he has something to work with – now he will be able to build a church that will last – because Peter and his disciples recognize that he is the Messiah. Perhaps Jesus meant something along the lines of, “because we are – I am.”

From here on out, the disciples will see what being the Messiah really means. They will experience what God is really like through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

As Saint Bonaventure once said, “Christ is the one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”(3)

Or, in less philosophical terms, consider what a young boy said when asked to describe who Jesus was. He thought for a moment and said, “Jesus is the best picture God ever had taken.”(4) I like that.

Author and former Divinity School professor John Killinger had another way of explaining who Jesus was. He said “Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation.”(5)

Left to our own devices, human beings came up with all sorts of ways to think about God. Some of the images were not too appealing:

A vengeful God, eager to wage war on humanity…

A judgemental God, waiting for us to do something wrong, anxious to send us to eternal punishment…

Or worse, a blood-thristy God who demands human sacrifice.

All of these bad images gave God a bad reputation. So God sent his own son to show us what God was really like. As John Killinger said – “Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation.” That’s who this guy Jesus is.

Since we could not climb up to heaven to experience God, God reached down to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the revelation of what God is really like.

I’m reminded of the final scene from the movie Shrek. In case you haven’t seen it, Shrek is the story of an ogre – a big, fat, green ogre who rescues the Princess Fiona. Fiona is a beautiful creature who bears a striking resemblance to Cameron Diaz with red hair. However, Princess Fiona is under a curse. Every night, she becomes an ogre, every bit as green and fat as Shrek. During the day, she becomes a beautiful princess, but at night – back to an ogre. The cycle will repeat itself until she finds true love.

At the end of the movie, Shrek finally sees Fiona as an ogre for the first time – but her loves her anyway and gives her true love’s kiss. And then something quite unexpected happens. Rather than being transformed back into a beautiful princess, Fiona is permanently transformed into a big, fat green ogre, just like Shrek. She loves Shrek so much that she gives up her former beauty and becomes like him.

And that, of course, is what God does for us in Jesus Christ. Out of God’s great love for us, God becomes as we are.(6)

So, who is this guy Jesus? He is the best representation for what God is like. As the little boy said, Jesus is the best picture God ever had taken.

Who do you say that the Son of Man is?, asked Jesus. And Peter got it right. You are the Messiah, the Son if the Living God.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, p45.

2.    Paul Roberts Sr., Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, p52, 54.

3.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 4, p73.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, p48.

5.    Ibid… p48.

6.    Ibid… p48