Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They reply “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  Jesus then asks them pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”  This question, of “Who is this Jesus?” repeatedly arises throughout Jesus’ ministry.   The disciples ask this question after Jesus calms the seas, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the seas obey him?” (Matthew 8.27).  The Pharisees have questioned Jesus as well, suggested that his power to cast out demons comes by the power of demons rather than God (Matthew 9.34).

John the Baptist even asks about Jesus’ identity from prison:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3).  People in Jesus’ hometown wonder about Jesus as well:  “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?  Is not this the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother called Mary?  And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us?  Where did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13.54-56).  As we saw a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ in encounter with the disciples as he walked on the water has to do with his identity as well.  It is only after Jesus brings Peter back into the boat that they declare that Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 14.33).

Even right before our Scripture lesson for this morning the Pharisees and Sadducees came to ask Jesus for a sign from heaven (Matthew 16.1).  One important thing we can see from this question is that Jesus’ activities that we call “miraculous” must not have been self-evident signs to the religious leaders of who Jesus was.  Sometimes we think, “If I had just been there!” or “If my friend had just been there to see the miracles it wouldn’t be so hard to believe sometimes.”  The truth is that there were a lot of people doing a lot of things that appeared miraculous, so even in Jesus’ time miracles were not enough to convince folks of who Jesus is.  Something more is needed.

There are a lot of possible answers to the question of “Who do you say I am?”  The multitude of answers to this question should suggest to us that Jesus’ identity is not self-evident.  Something more is needed.  Jesus must reveal himself.  Jesus speaks for himself.  As we said a couple of weeks ago, without Jesus’ words, the figure walking on the waters is ambiguous.  In fact, one way to read the Gospels is that as we encounter Jesus in them, Jesus is revealing himself more and more deeply to us as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds.

And yet…even when we know Jesus, when we start to get close to him, we start getting uncomfortable.  We realize how much he demands of us.  And so we back off.  We start to explain some of the tough stuff away, (He couldn’t really mean that!) or we attempt to impose an identity on Jesus.  We remake him in our own image.  We remake him into whatever image with think fits in with our vision of the way the world should be.

Take the unlikely example of the prayer scene in the comedy movie Talladega Nights.  Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby is at the dinner table with his family and his friend, John C. Reilly’s character, Cal Noughton, Jr.  Ricky Bobby begins to say grace over dinner, and he begins to pray to “baby Jesus.”  As Ricky Bobby continues to specifically name the baby Jesus in his prayer, his wife finally interrupts him and says, “Honey, you know Jesus did grow up.”

Ricky Bobby’s response is, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace!”  As they argue at the table about what Jesus to pray to, Ricky’s friend Cal adds to the conversation that he likes to picture Jesus in a Tuxedo T-Shirt, that says, “I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party. I like to party, and I like my Jesus to party, too.”  One of Ricky Bobby’s children quickly jumps into the conversation to suggest that he likes to imagine Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.[1]

Obviously, the conversation at Ricky Bobby’s dinner table is meant to be funny.  However, the reason it is funny is that there is some truth in what is happening at the table.  Rather than dealing with Jesus as he reveals himself in Scripture, each character at the table attempts to re-make Jesus in his or her own image.  Ricky Bobby likes to imagine Jesus as a little innocent baby.  At least in Ricky Bobby’s mind, this is not a baby who will make any demands on his life, nor is this a baby that is destined to die on a cross for his sin.  Cal remakes Jesus in his own image as someone who “likes to party.”  Ricky Bobby’s son is a kid who likes ninjas, so why not make Jesus a ninja while we’re at it?

Ricky Bobby’s wife is mad at him for praying to the baby Jesus not because she thinks he should pray to a more authentic Jesus but rather she wants him to quote “Do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow.”  For her God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God is not the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.   Rather, her god sounds like the god of the nations, who is only as good as what good favor that god can produce for Ricky Bobby and his family.  I bet when you got up to church this morning, you didn’t think Talladega Nights would turn up in the sermon did you?

The Bobby family’s discussion at the dinner table is a funny illustration of something that we encounter regularly in more serious and subtle ways.  Consider the different ways that people claim that Jesus is on their side.  Politicians on the left and right claim that Jesus would be just like them. During wars people invoke God and/or Jesus as supportive of “their side.”  This happens even in the church, as church marketers portray Jesus as a keen salesman of ideas.  Yet, when we really encounter Jesus in the Gospels, and when we allow Jesus to encounter us, that is when we begin to understand what discipleship looks like.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter gets Jesus’ identity correct.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter rightly answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Finally!  Peter gets it!  This is clearly an important moment because it is in that moment that Jesus declares that Peter is the rock upon the church will be built.  The gates of Hades will not prevail upon this church.  Peter has the keys to the kingdom!  Yet, it feels like almost in the next breath, Peter loses focus again.

After it is clear that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus goes on to describe what that identity looks like.  It is going to Jerusalem.  It is suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes.  It is being killed.  It is being raised on the third day.  Peter, who has just gotten it right says, “God forbid it, Lord!”  Peter was right that Jesus was the Messiah.  But now Peter is upset because Jesus is not the kind of Messiah he was hoping for.

Instead of riding in on a war horse to conquer the Romans, Jesus will ride in on a donkey and die on a cross.  This one upon whom the church will be built is suddenly guilty of doing the same thing we are constantly in danger of doing:  trying to remake Jesus in an image that is more digestible.  Suddenly Ricky Bobby and Peter do not seem so far away from one another.

Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that Peter was hoping for.  And when we come down to it, often we find that Jesus isn’t the kind of Messiah we were hoping for.  When we come face to face with this Jesus, we run into the claims he makes on us.  When we run into the demands he makes on our life, it is a sobering moment.  We find out Jesus wants us to be just like him.  And what does that mean?  He tells us later in chapter 16.  He wants us to pick up our cross and follow him.  He wants us to lose our lives.  He wants us to deny ourselves.  This is not the kind of Messiah we were hoping for.

When we encounter the Christ headed for the cross, just like Peter, we find ourselves crying out, “God forbid it, Lord!”  Except that our cry is not so much about our concern for Jesus.  It is a cry for ourselves because we know Jesus expects us to follow him there if necessary.  So we start the work of creating a Jesus in our own image.  A Jesus that just doesn’t ask so much of us.  We want a Jesus whose identity is easier to take.  A Jesus who looks a lot more like us.

In fact, when scholars go back and try to find the “historical Jesus,” the Jesus they find ends up looking a lot like the ones doing the searching. They assume they can “go around” the Gospels to get to the “real Jesus.”  But when we encounter Jesus in this Gospel, we get a real sense of who Jesus is as the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts and minds.  We get a sense of who he expects us to be.  It’s just that sometimes we just don’t like it very much.

To find out the answer to “Who do you say that I am?” is hard work.  It doesn’t just come naturally.  It’s not just about “learning about Jesus,” it’s about our lives being transformed.  About them looking like his. The only way that happens is through the grace that Christ makes available.  The grace we find in baptism.  The grace that we receive when we come to this table and share his body and blood.  That is the only way that we make progress.  Left to our own devices, we would just keep remaking Jesus in our own image, idols made by human hands to which we can bow down.  We just end up making up Jesuses who like to party like we do.

It’s hard work to learn who Jesus is.  If you look at the history of the church, we’ve spent a lot of our history trying to figure out who this Jesus is.  Some of the best work came in the councils of the early church.  There were a lot of people saying an awful lot of things about who Jesus was.  Was he just a man that God chose as a prophet?  Was he a god that looked like a man and only seemed to die?  Was he fully human and fully divine?  Who was this Jesus?

When we get together each Sunday and we hear the proclamation in the scripture and the sermon, and then after the sermon we affirm our faith in the creeds, we are reminding ourselves of who Jesus is.  We are collectively answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  The Apostle’s Creed reminds us of who Jesus is.  It doesn’t let us get away with taking out the difficult things.  Today, when we affirm our faith, we’ll be using the Nicene Creed, which was developed in the 4th century.  It came in the midst of a huge discussion of the church about who Jesus was and is.  They realized that they needed to get more specific.

There were still all these people saying Jesus just seemed like he was human.  It just seemed like he died.  Except that if he wasn’t really a human who died, then where does that leave us?  If he didn’t become like us, how did he save us?  Other people were suggesting he was just a man.  However, if he was just a man, was he really able to accomplish his work?  His work was something that only God could accomplish.

And so we find ourselves in the surprising situation of a God who takes, as we said last week, our dirty selves onto God’s self.  The Nicene Creed that we will say together is the fruit of the Church’s work of discerning a little bit more clearly, more precisely, who Jesus is.  Each article has a specific reason.  For example, when we say, “true God from true God,” there is a reason.  There were some who doubted that.  Some thought that just maybe Jesus wasn’t truly God.  This creed is not just a wrote document that we get together and say each week.

When we walk out of these doors, we are still going to encounter a lot of people saying a lot of different things about who Jesus is and who we are a supposed to be.  The creeds help protect us because the creeds are a summary of our story.  It is not a story we chose for ourselves, but is a story that we were caught up in by water and the Spirit.  The creeds help us make sure we remember who Jesus is.  It is a prayer that we won’t forget Jesus’ identity, so that we won’t forget ours.  It is the way for us to be able to truthfully answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen. 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


[1] Will Ferrel and Adam McKay, Tallagedga Nights:  The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Sony Pictures:  2004).

Advertisements