Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16)

Text: Matthew 16:13-16
Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" "Some say John the Baptist," they answered. "Others say Elijah, while others say Jeremiah or some other prophet."  "What about you?" he asked them. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 

A matter of relationships

Without a doubt, the person who has been depicted in art the most down through the centuries is Jesus. We have seen pictures of Jesus in Bibles and Bible storybooks, all of them radically different in how they depict him.

Rembrandt’s Jesus is very human, gentle and kind-looking. Typical of Rembrandt a lot of light and shadow is associated with Jesus.
El Greco’s Jesus is a striking, lean somewhat wild and demanding Jesus. He is portrayed here as the judge and ruler of the world – severe, starring as if he can see straight through you.
Angelico portrays Jesus as sweet, soft and angelic.
Raphael paints Jesus with innocent boyish features

There is Jesus the Good Shepherd, loving, smiling, caring protecting, gentle, and kind.



There is Jesus the comforter lovingly carrying a child in his arms and caring for the least.

In literature Jesus has been viewed in a wide variety of ways.
There have been those who have contended that Jesus wasn't divine but a Jewish revolutionary figure who died a disappointed failure. His disciples stole his body and made up a story about him being the redeemer. Paul spread the lie which was swallowed by a gullible world (H.S. Reimarus in the early 1700s).

In both art and literature there are so many images of Jesus and so many ideas about what kind of person Jesus was. Who is right?
What Jesus’ physical appearance was like is anyone’s guess. Of all those who have painted portraits of Jesus maybe one of them has come close but we will never know (not in this lifetime anyway).
So far as who Jesus is regarding his divinity, his work as saviour, his ministry, life, death and resurrection, these are well attested in scripture.

In our text today, Jesus casually asks the disciples "Who do people say I am?" The reply came, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah (because it was believed Elijah would return) while others say Jeremiah (the prophet of gloom and doom) or some other prophet."
People who had witnessed Jesus work miracles,
listened carefully when he taught about the Kingdom of God,
heard him speak harshly to a Canaanite woman
and observed his extraordinary care and compassion,
were trying to work out who this man from Nazareth really was and came up with all kinds of suggestions.

Jesus wasn’t interested in conducting a popularity poll about what the crowds thought of him. He was more interested in helping his close circle of friends to be quite clear about who he is. He asks the disciples straight out, "What about you? Who do you think I am?"

This question is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

A student went to a university chaplain and asked him to explain what the differences were between Christianity and Judaism. She was in love with a Jewish student and they were thinking about getting married. They talked about worship, rituals, festivals, customs, traditions, prayer and even God himself. Finally, she asked, "When it comes down to it, what is the one thing that makes Christians, Christian?"

The reply came, "The thing that makes us who we are is who Jesus is. Jesus Christ is Christianity. Other faiths have love; have beliefs about the good and the true. Only Christianity has Jesus." Perhaps it should be added that Christianity is the only religion where the God of the universe will do anything to reach out to every person on this planet with love, compassion and forgiveness. Through his son Jesus, God has come down to our level, walked the earth, experienced what it is really like to be caught up in sin and the havoc it causes in our lives, and was even willing to suffer and die to make things right again between God and us.
Along with Peter, we confess,
"You are the Messiah, the son of the living God."

Christianity is about relationships – first and foremost the relationship between God and us and then how the relationship between God and us affects everything in our lives.

Maybe your experience was similar to mine. When I did my preparation classes for confirmation I gained so much knowledge about God, the Trinity, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was almost a mini theological degree. We memorised Bible verses that supported every section of the catechism and in the end had an exam. I don’t regret any of this and it certainly formed a solid foundation for the future but at the end of the confirmation course it hadn’t really dawned on me that everything that I had learnt was about God establishing and maintaining his relationship with me and how this new connection with God makes a difference to everyday life. The Bible stories we had read and the texts we had learnt and studied all pointed to God's grace and tireless reaching out to close the gap between him and his people. God coming to earth in Jesus and then in the Holy Spirit are all part of God's reconciling love for each individual person on this planet.

Over the years people have related to me how what they had learnt as a child began to take on new meaning and they became aware of how important Jesus was to them. In some cases this realisation was sudden, and in others, the penny dropped more slowly. For many it wasn’t that they were searching for meaning in their lives and suddenly found Jesus. Rather they were minding their own business and from out of nowhere, God found them. The Holy Spirit finally got through to them and they could see in full technicolor detail that being a Christian is not simply knowing a whole lot of stuff about God but it is all about relationships – a relationship between God and them and how this relationship now changes everything. Jesus is no longer just a person in history but he is intimately and personally connected with them, and his love for them is so powerful. Jesus changes their attitudes, the way they treat others and how they regard the people whom God has placed in their lives. They realise that their minds and hearts are at one with Jesus in the same way that they became one with Christ in the water of baptism. They want to serve, forgive, help, pray for, love and care for others in the same way that Jesus did.

A man tells how boring going to church was. He counted how many bricks there were in a certain section of the church building in order to keep himself awake during the sermon. He didn’t really know what the preacher was rattling on about. In the middle of his boredom, he heard just one sentence. That one sentence grabbed him and he began to see Jesus and faith in a totally different light. He claimed that it was as if God reached down from heaven and tapped him on the shoulder, woke him up and opened his ears to hear that one sentence. Through that encounter things were never the same again. God had established a relationship with him.

When Peter made his confession, "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God" Jesus makes a point of telling him that this truth isn’t something that Peter had worked out for himself. Jesus said, "This truth did not come to you from any human being, but it was given to you directly by my Father in heaven".

It’s our sin-stained humanity that gets in the way and clouds our understanding of God. How can we have a relationship with God when we constantly hurt him, forget that he even exists, ignore his power and presence, can’t make any time to pray or praise him in worship, deny any connection with him through what we say and do? We are downright awful and horrible to him. If we were like that to any of our human friends, they would soon exit any relationship with us. Just as well God doesn’t behave like this because we need his help.

God planned from the days of Adam and Eve to send Jesus to make things right again between himself and us. God closed the gap between us and him;
has made us members of his family at our baptism;
and reaffirms his relationship with us every time we go to Holy Communion.
Whether we speak of God as we know him in the Old Testament, or see him stretched on a Roman cross in the Gospels, his attitude toward his people is always the same. His commitment and love are the same, and he is determined to establish a relationship with people who are unwilling even to have anything to do with him.

He sends the Holy Spirit again and again to those people who are so hardened against God. He reaches out to them and gives them every opportunity to respond to God's love with faith and commitment. His greatest desire is that all people acknowledge their sin, repent, accept the hand of reconciliation and hope that is being held to them, and in faith let their hearts and minds be filled with the heart and mind of Christ.

Christianity is not the adherence to a set of rules, nor is it a set of ideas, a philosophy that leads to peace, harmony, inner peace, and good karma. It is a way of life, a way of walking with Jesus, a relationship. Christians are often looked at with a degree of scepticism when we talk about this relationship and say,
"I believe that
Jesus rose from the dead and is present with me now;
that he walks with me every day,
that he helps me in my relationships with others,
and that he is the kind of friend who will do anything for me.
He knows me better than I know myself".

Christianity is about relationships – God and us and us with one another. It follows that a key part of our faith is how we relate to other people. Do we allow the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control – characterise the way we deal with others or do we prefer to prickly, hard to get on with, impatient, gruff and resentful?
How concerned are we with the people who for whatever reason have fallen away from a close walk with Jesus?
Do we take the time to encourage, comfort, support and pray for those who so much need uplifting?
Do we make opportunities to share what Jesus relationship with us means with those who are looking or meaning and purpose?

Before we can do any of these there needs to be a relationship of love and respect between people and then within that relationship God can have an impact on the lives of others through us.

Jesus was very good at holding in high regard everyone who came to him. People went away feeling as though they had been understood, listened to, dealt with compassionately, and helped.

 Going back to the way Jesus is portrayed in art. I believe an artist who is able to capture that moment when a person realises that the relationship Jesus has with them is something special and unique, will paint a picture that gives us an insight as to who Jesus is and what he is all about. You can see the wonder, awe, amazement, and surprise on Thomas’ face as he praises Jesus for the special way his need had been dealt with.

In our relationships with others may they also see in us Jesus’ love and care to the point that they too may confess with Thomas "My Lord and my God" and with Peter, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God". 


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
24th August 2008

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