There are defining moments in the life of every nation; a moment that shapes the life of a people for generations to come. When I think of this county, I think of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the struggle for civil rights, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the war in Viet Nam.
Sometimes those defining moments took place over many years; sometimes in the space of a few short minutes. Many of you here tonight will remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on the November day when you heard of the death of President Kennedy. You will remember the shock. You will remember how that one event shaped a nation for years to come.
Today we have shared in another of those defining moments. Years from now you will remember where you where and what you were doing as you watched the election of the first person of African descent to be elected, and then sworn in as the President of the United States. Your children and grandchildren will want to know why you did, or did not, vote for him. They will want to know what his election meant for you and your sense of hope and the expectation that it created in you and the nation. This one event, though it happened in a few short moments, has taken years to come about, and its affect will be felt for life times to come.
Some defining moments are national or universal, or even cosmic in scale. Whether they happened in an instant or over many years, there significance is undoubted. Other defining moments are much more personal. Those moments change, not nations, but individuals. They are less grand, but no less significant in lives changed and worlds tuned upside down.
Today we remember one such event that is at the same time, deeply personal and yet cosmically significant. It is an event that changed lives, and continues to change lives nearly two thousand years later. It is an event that is both quite individual and incredibly cosmic, and it all took place between friends as they walked the roads of ancient Palestine.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The question should not surprise us then or now. Since his appearance on the banks of the Jordan where John the Baptizer was baptizing, Jesus had attracted attention. Even at his birth, there had been those strange travelers from the east who came bearing gifts. Now as he traveled throughout Judea, Galilee and north toward Syria and Lebanon people flocked to hear him. Many came to be healed. Others came to be inspired, still others simply to see for themselves. Some even came to question him, to debate with him, to oppose him. It is no wonder that people were talking about him, trying to answer for themselves the question: “Who is he?”
Like now, many had different ideas about who this Jesus was. Some claimed he was John the Baptist come back to life, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. When the question is asked today, our answers are not much different. For many Jesus is a mystic teacher or divine healer; he is a prophet of non violence or a herald of God’s reign of justice for the poor.
For Jesus’ disciples then and now these answers are all true, and more. He is both teacher and healer; he is both prophet and herald. But he is also more.
But you, Jesus asks, looking at both his disciples then as he looks at us now, “who do you say that I am?”
The question Jesus asked that day nearly two thousand years ago, he asks us today: who do you say that he is?
Peter, good old impetuous Peter blurts out an answer that is at once shocking and profound. Peter blurts out an answer that is both deeply personal and wildly cosmic. He blurts out an answer that defined that rag tag band of fishermen and tax collectors and assorted women followers and continues to define this rag tag band of disciples hundreds of years later. “You are the Messiah”, says Peter, “the Son of the living God.” Here in an instant is one of the defining moments of Jesus’ life and ministry for all time.
“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The answer not only defines, but it also shocks. It defined and shocked then. It continues to define and shock today.
What Matthew’s gospel does not tell us is just how shocking Peter’s answer was for not only did Jesus clearly NOT look like the messiah so many were looking for, he clearly also was NOT the son of god, at least not the son of god people were familiar with in Caesarea Philippi.
For us Caesarea Philippi is just a name of a town somewhere in the ancient world, but for the ancients, Caesarea Philippi was where the Temple of Pan was located, the temple, coincidentally dedicated to the “son of god.” In the ancient myths, the god Pan was the son of either Hermes or Zeus, and when the Greeks built a temple sometime after 200 BC in what was to become Caesarea Philippi they dedicated it to Pan “the son of god.” It was there, perhaps even wandering within sight of the temple of the “son of god”, that Peter made his shocking declaration: You Jesus, and not Pan, are the true son of the real living God.
Just as the Greeks would have been shocked by Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the true “son of god”, so would the Jews have been outraged by his assertion that Jesus was the messiah of God for Jesus looked no more like the messiah than he did the son of god. The messiah for whom the Jews longed was to be a direct descendant of David, he was to unite the disparate and dispersed people of Israel and form them into a unified kingdom which would replace the occupying Roman authorities. The true messiah would usher in the reign of God. This itinerant preacher, teacher and healer who wandered the roads of Palestine speaking to Jew and gentile alike could be no more the messiah for them, than he could be the son of god for the Greeks. Clearly Jesus was neither what the Greeks knew about in gods or the Jews hoped for in a messiah, yet this is exactly what Peter professed: You are the messiah, the son of the living God.
Like the ancient world, our world continues to look for gods and messiahs who will save us; from ourselves, from one another, from the cares and woes of the world. Like the ancients our world longs for that time when the reign of justice and peace will come. What sets us apart then as Christians is not that we believe in God, for many people also believe in God; what sets us apart then as Christians is not that we long for a messiah, for many people also long for a messiah; what sets us apart then as Christians is not that we look for the day when God’s reign of justice and peace will come on the earth, for many people also long for that reign of God, no, what sets us apart as Christians is that with Simon Peter we too say of Jesus, that he is the messiah, the son of the living God.
What sets us apart as Christians is that we believe with Peter that Jesus is not simply an itinerant preacher and miracle worker or even a prophet but that he is himself the Messiah who will usher in God’s reign mercy, justice and peace. Like Peter, we believe that Jesus is the promised one of God who will make real and present for us the mystery of God’s reign. What sets us apart as Christians is that we believe with Peter that Jesus is not simply an itinerant preacher and miracle worker or even a prophet but that he is himself “Emmanuel” – “God with us”. Like Peter, we believe that in Jesus we see the icon, the image of the invisible God, the one who makes real and present for us the mystery and person of the Father.
As Christians this is what defines us, not our hope for a messiah, but that Jesus is the Messiah of God. As Christians, this is what defines us, not our belief in God, but that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Two thousand years ago Greek and Jew were shocked by Peter’s declaration, but none the less he knew it to be true. Today people continue to be shocked and bewildered by such an affirmation, and yet many, indeed many here tonight know this to be true. For like Peter we have come to know Jesus as both the Messiah of God and God’s son and our faith in Him defines us, as individuals and as disciples.
There are many things which define a nation, or a people, or even a person. For us as Christians, our defining moment came when we said with Simon Peter: “you, Jesus, are the messiah, the son of the living God.” That proclamation set that rag tag band of fishermen and tax collectors and assorted women followers apart from Jew and gentile alike and helped turn them into disciples of Christ. It sets us apart as well. That proclamation sets us apart from those who long for a messiah, and those who don’t. It sets us apart from some who believe in God and from others who don’t. It defines us as individuals and also as believers. For some of us we came to that moment when with Peter we could proclaim “you, Jesus, are the messiah, the son of the living God” in an instant and knew it to be true. For others of us we have struggled for years and are still not quite sure what it all means, and yet we know there to be truth in them. We know that somehow, those words define us, even if we cannot yet define them.
One day, some day, someone will ask you “where were you when Barak Obama became President”. What will you say? How will you describe this defining moment in your life and the life of this nation?
One day, some day, someone will ask you “who do you say that Jesus is?” What will you say? How will you describe the defining moment in your life when you said with Simon Peter “he is the messiah, the son of the living God.”
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