In Matt 16:13-20, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” There followed a series of answers – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or any number of other prophets. The common denominator in the answers may or may not be obvious.
They were all people who proclaimed God’s message. Many times that message was difficult to hear, and probably equally as difficult to proclaim. The messages compelled some people to believe and to act, and it turned others away. The messages were harsh, and the responses of those who rejected them even more harsh. But they proclaimed the message of God as best they understood it even in the face of rejection and death.
That’s what they did – each of them proclaimed a message of God. These answers to Jesus’ question, however, were not good enough. Jesus followed with a much more pronounced and difficult question – one which showed that the answers about Jesus simply being a prophet of God’s message were not accurate. Jesus asked, “But, who do YOU say that I am?”
I spent the first 25 years of my adult life as an optician. Yes, I did other things, many of which were self-defeating, self-aggrandizing, self-serving or self-enriching, but I was through all that time an optician – a teaching optician. I taught other opticians, and many times eye doctors, about how we see the world around us, and what to do if someone didn’t see it correctly or clearly.
It is all orderly – a series of optical systems, one of them being the eye itself, that transmit a message to the brain. The system either works in balance, or not. When it doesn’t, there are steps that can be taken to correct the optical system deficiency, as well as many times the pathological problems that can occur between the eyes and the brain. The goal is simply to provide normal vision – to get everyone to see 20/20.
When someone asked, “How do we see the world around us,” I could answer. It is a system of reflecting and refracting surfaces and lenses that bend light to a point focus on the retina. From the retina, electrical impulses travel along the optic nerve to the visual cortex where they are interpreted by the brain into images.
Nice – tidy – quite orderly.
Then, occasionally, a student would ask a more probing question. “Yes, but, how do we perceive the world around us?”
And the answer to that question is humbling for someone who considers themselves, and is considered by others, to be an expert in the field. The answer is, “we don’t know.”
We know how to track the visual message. We know the physics of the optical system and the neurology behind the nervous system and the brain, but we don’t know how perception occurs. Perception is how we understand the message that the brain receives in order to make sense of the reality that surrounds us – and the process of perception is an unknown.
That little step of converting visual impulses into perception and comprehension is not understood. The problem, quite honestly is the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.
“How do we see?”, prompts an objective answer. How we perceive, however, is very, very subjective – people perceive in widely varying ways, even though we experience the same visual stimulus. And so, despite all our science and knowledge, how we get from objectively seeing to subjectively perceiving is a physiological mystery.
The disciples’ answers to Jesus’ first question are objective – they simply report what others are saying. The answers include a list of people that spoke God’s truth – that delivered God’s message.
How would we answer the question of who Jesus Christ is? Most of us would answer with the accumulated theological knowledge we have acquired through various methods – reading, scripture study and preaching being among them. We would generally answer with various Christian claims about Christ, and they would normally be a compilation of what others have said. More often than not, our responses would be objective responses.
In the Gospels, Jesus challenges the disciples to dig deeper – to go beyond the objective recitation of what others say. Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” The answer that is commended by Jesus is the one that says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Now, at first blush, it sounds like Peter answered with a basic doctrinal, Trinitarian response. It sounds like just another objective answer. But it isn’t.
The doctrinal concept of the Trinity did not exist until over 300 years after the death of Jesus. I’m not saying that the concept of the Trinity isn’t Biblical. It is suggested in various places in scripture. But, at the time this Gospel was written, it was not a widely held, orthodox belief.
The answer was not simply a regurgitation of Christian doctrine developed by expert theologians. This answer was subjective – an answer given from the heart. An answer that expressed a subjective understanding of the person of Jesus, and the relationship this Jesus had with God.
OK, let us unpack this answer a little.
The word Christ literally means Messiah – Jesus is the anticipated one of Israel – the savior. This part of the answer is both objective and subjective. Israel had long anticipated the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah, however, would be the incarnation of one of the prophets – a messenger of God coming with earthly power and military might to vanquish the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the rightful place of dominion.
Jesus doesn’t compare well with the anticipated Messiah. Jesus wasn’t about earthly power, and an army of twelve bent on healing, teaching, empowering and comforting wasn’t quite what the Jewish tradition had in mind. To admit that Jesus was the Messiah represented a seismic shift from conventional Jewish thought. That part of the answer showed a willingness to trust in the mystery of God – to accept that this gentle, caring Jesus would bring a different kind of salvation.
The phrase “Son of the Living God” is even more telling. For us, we hear it as the link with the second person of the Trinity. Although we know the writers of the Gospels didn’t get all of this at that time, thanks to our evolving tradition, we now understand what this means.
Or do we?
What is wrapped up in the declaration that Jesus is the Son of the Living God?
The word we hear as “son” is “Uios” – a word with a lot more meaning than simply a “male child.” Actually, it doesn’t mean “boy child” at all. Uios means “the heir, the descendent, the first born.” To quote the most traditional lexicons or dictionaries of ancient Greek, the word “denotes a person who has a special relationship or likeness to someone.” Subsequent translation and tradition gave us the concept of Jesus being the “Son of God”, but what was meant by the original Greek was that Jesus was “the likeness of God.”
Which God? Not the “living God”, which is what we hear in the traditional translations, but the “God who is life.” The complete answer, then, that Jesus acknowledged was: “You are the Savior – the likeness of God who is life.”
Jesus is not just a messenger from God – the bearer of a communication – the deliverer of another set of rules and regulations. Jesus is the likeness of God – the message of God personified.
How do we know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Or to use the language of John, chapter 1 – Jesus is the Logos; Jesus is the Word; the Eternal Word made flesh. In the same way that words reveal thoughts, so Jesus is the revealer of the thoughts of God.
In Christian theology the primary Word of God is a life. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the Word that we are exhorted to imitate – in words and deeds (as the author at the start of Luke/Acts puts it). If we are asked what God is like, we can look at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
How do we know that God identifies with the poor and excluded? Because in the ministry of Jesus we see a life that connected with the poor and excluded.
How do we know that God wants to turn moments of despair into moments of hope? Because in Jesus, we see a Good Friday followed by Resurrection Sunday.
How do we know that God calls us to live whole, transformed lives? Because in Jesus we see the touching of countless lives and making them whole and transformed.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the Word. It is the life, death, and resurrection that shows us God. It is the revealing of God to the world. It is the Likeness of God sent to disclose the hope of God for us.
But these answers are still objective – still recitations of what others have said. We are called to answer Jesus in more deeply personal ways – to probe the depths of our faith and respond likewise.
How do I know that God identifies with the poor and excluded?
Because when I was on a mission trip to the poorest of the poor in Southern Mexico, I experienced God. I went to “help” – to serve in Christian compassion – to show the love of God to the poor. I was, however, loved and served in the most profound ways. I was one of twenty people who, when our van broke down, were fed a feast of chicken, rice and beans by a small village of Mayan Indians. To feed the twenty of us, these people used several weeks’ worth of stored crops. They fed us their chickens – chickens they didn’t raise to eat, but to give them eggs – their only source of animal protein.
How do I know that God identifies with the poor and excluded? Because in the eyes and actions of the poor and excluded, I have seen the face of Christ many times. Because whenever I have deigned myself capable of changing the lives of others, I have been the one who comes away changed.
How do I know that God wants to turn moments of despair into moments of hope?
Not because of Easter, but because of the times in my life in which I have been hopeless. I experienced resurrection of my spirit even as I contemplated ending my life.
How do I know that God wants us to live whole, transformed lives?
Because God has changed and transformed me from living a life of emptiness aimed at securing wealth, power and prestige, to living a life of wholeness being able to love myself for who I am – and in the process being able to love others just as much.
We are being challenged just like the disciples. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are being shown precisely what the creator expects and requires of us.
The God of the cosmos is calling us to discover love. To discover the capacity to live in conversation with God and each other. To organize our life priorities so that we live with a focus on what really matters.
The joy of this moment is that we are not simply being challenged, but resourced. For God in Christ seeks to take our lives and enable them as vehicles of the love of God – and we are empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit.
Because of this, we can be different and make a difference – we can be and live in ways that God always intended. By the manner in which we live, we can profess who we say Christ is.