The Sunday school teacher said, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.
“This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)...” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)...” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)...”
Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The teacher quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be ‘Jesus’ ... but it sure sounds like a squirrel!”
The old joke is a revealing commentary on the pitfalls of Christian education. I laughed hard when I first heard it; it was so spot-on. You have seen the billboards, declaring in 10-foot letters, Jesus is the answer. There are Sunday school classrooms like that. Jesus is the answer, regardless of what the question might be. The little boy had been in that classroom long enough to get it, almost to the point of no longer trusting his own imagination and thinking. Apparently he’s not supposed to think; he’s supposed to know the answer.
We don’t teach like that; I think it’s because Jesus didn’t teach like that. He and the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi when he asked them two questions. The first was, “Who do people say that I am?”
Oh, yes, if you put it that way, there’s an abundance of answers: everyone has an opinion. From the tv preacher who sweats through his suit in under three minutes and the plumber with a fish sticker on his truck, to the scholar at the Divinity School, the blogger at the Huffington Post, and your neighbor from across the street — everyone has an opinion. Who do people say that Jesus is? Thumb through the gospels, and you’ll notice that people say a lot of things about Jesus. He is Mary’s boy. He is the light of the world. A friend of sinners. The son of Joseph. The King of the Jews. Jesus is the one who can heal your child, cast out your demons, forgive your sins, and raise your hopes. He is a prophet, a rabbi, a healer, a builder, and a pain in the neck. He is alive, he is dead, he is risen, he is on his way. People say Jesus is a lot of things. And they say it standing on soap boxes, sitting at kitchen tables, and kneeling by hospital beds. They say it in pulpits and classrooms, on talk radio and twitter, on the street and in the locker room. In just about any context you can imagine, people say all kinds of things about Jesus, because everybody has an opinion, and those of you who remember the Doobie Brothers can hum another famous answer with them, Jesus is just alright…
Who do people say that the Son of Man is? That’s the safe question, a question for journalists and pollsters; you do a quick survey, make a few phone calls, and list your results: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” People say all kinds of things, you report. You could spend the rest of your life collecting all those statements, sorting them into categories, tracking changes over time, and become the world expert on what people say about Jesus. You can fill entire libraries with that kind of knowledge.
But then Jesus asks the disciples the second question: “Who do you say that I am?” Which is another way of asking, “Why are you here?”
Do you tell him what your grandma taught you? Do you tell him what you learned in Sunday school? Do you tell him all that you learned in seminary? Do you tell him what you think he wants to hear, or do you know him better than that? How do you get from what people say to who Jesus is to you?
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Blessed are you, because that’s no textbook answer; that’s a different kind of knowledge, a gift from God.
We all begin with what people say. We all begin by listening to parents and grandparents, teachers and preachers, by carefully observing the people who seem to know Jesus very well, by reading the scriptures and a thousand little things we pick up along the way, articles, interviews, biographies – until the moment when you respond no longer by repeating what people say, but by adding your voice to the confession of the church and letting your whole life be your answer. Until the moment when, in the company of Jesus and his disciples, your life feels different, because you can tell you’re moving toward a future he has opened, and you don’t know whether it was you who discovered the truth about him, or him who found you and revealed himself to you.
Knowing who Jesus is is no academic matter, but it is also not about the need to find your own answer, your own personal Jesus, a personalized accessory to fit your lifestyle and your political and spiritual sensibilities. Knowing who Jesus is cannot be separated from letting him make you part of the community he calls his church.
They were in Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful spot at the foot of Mt. Hermon, about twenty miles north of Lake Galilee, when Peter confessed that Jesus was God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the Son of the living God. There’s a prominent rock outcropping at the site, and a cave with an abundant spring creating one of the tributaries of the Jordan river. Perhaps Jesus was looking at that huge rock when he said to Peter, “Simon son of Jonah, you are ‘rock’, and on this rock I will build my church.”
But there was more in Caesarea Philippi than an impressive rock and abundant water. Caesar’s name hovers over this scene. Herod the Great – the infamous Herod who, with murder on his mind, questioned the magi who had come to pay homage to the newborn king – Herod the Great had built a temple to Caesar Augustus there, and his son Philipp enlarged it to a regional capital, calling it Caesarea Philippi, Philipp’s Caesarville, in honor ofCaesar Tiberius.
Jesus raised the question, “Who do you say that I am?” in the shadow of Rome’s powerful presence, and Peter gave the politically charged answer, “You are the Messiah.” Caesar enjoyed being honored as the ‘son of god,’ and Peter called Jesus ‘Son of the living God,’ countering the imperial claim to global rule with the prophetic proclamation of the kingdom of God. Caesarea Philippi was a lush and leafy resort for Rome’s generals during the Jewish War, and when the gospel of Matthew was written, they had celebrated their victory there, after the destruction of Jerusalem. Peter called Jesus God’s Messiah in the deep shadow of idolatry’s oppressive power. And it was there, with the temple to Caesar in the background, that Jesus promised to build his church, the community of God’s kingdom, and that the gates of Hades, nor anything they could unleash, would prevail against it. And it was there that Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21).
When we confess with Peter and the whole church that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world, we declare that the gates of Hades are no match for the faithfulness of God. And with Peter and the whole church which Jesus continues to build we make our confession in the shadow of powerful, idolatrous counter claims. In the darkness of hopelessness, we point to his light. Amid the hideous noise of hate speech in our streets and on our screens, we speak of his grace and truth. In the tangle of injustice, inequality and abuse, we seek to embody his compassion and pursue his justice. We call Jesus God’s Messiah in a threatened world, and we let ourselves be built into his church and make ourselves available for the saving purposes of God. Christian education cannot be about learning to give the right answers; it must be about preparing ourselves to let Christ claim us for God’s redemptive mission.
The churches we have built don’t always resemble the church Jesus is building, but he has promised to be with us until the end of the age, building his church with love and great patience; and that’s why sometimes the messy church we know is brave and beautiful, and it shines like a city on the hill: In those moments when men and women crippled by guilt hear the word of forgiveness and raise their heads. And when refugees find welcome and the courage to start over far away from home. And when victims of abuse discover hope and begin to trust again. And when a young couple don’t have to spend the night on the street because the manager of a motel is a generous woman. Every day, in ten thousand places, people are lifted up, fed, clothed, sheltered, healed, given another chance, forgiven, because Jesus is building his church. Every day, in ten thousand places, the peace of the kingdom disrupts and dismantles the deadly routines of the world. And we, you and I, get to live toward the fullness of God’s reign.