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Sunday August 22,
1999 ~ Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text: Matthew 16:13-20
Isaiah 51:1-6 * Romans 12:1-8 * Psalm 138
"Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up"
[For this sermon, you may want to gather a few pictures / portraits of Jesus to have with you in the pulpit. Substitute your pictures and your comments in place of ours.]
I invite you to reflect with me today on a man whose mark is upon all of our lives... About someone whose imprint upon our world is indelible!
I'm talking about a young man from a remote corner of a third rate power, located in a god forsaken part of the Roman Empire that almost no self-respecting Roman leader would want to govern. A young man who by all that is reasonable should have been summarily dismissed from memory upon his death.
But... just when the religious establishment of the day had breathed its collective sigh of relief -- this young man rose to become history's greatest superstar! Even death was not powerful enough to hold him down. He was the greatest breath of fresh air to blow from the heart of God since the human race hit planet earth!
The name of this young man can bring hope to the heartbroken and courage to the fainthearted.
I am talking, of course, about Jesus.
But which Jesus? It isn't such an easy task -- knowing this Jesus. There are something like 6000 groups in this world which claim to have Jesus as their leader. There is a dearth of material from his own time and mountains of conflicting material from every generation since his time.
The question Jesus asks his disciples in our scripture is a question that is very much alive for us today. "Who do you say I am?"
There is the Gothic Jesus, a remote, mysterious kind of figure whose name inspires a twinge of fear. There is the Jesus of some of the televangelists. Jesus comes off as a kind of "snake oil salesman" -- in one case even going so far as to miraculously change dental amalgam fillings into gold. Ministry team members of this church carry flashlights to inspect for silver or gold during services.¹ Some flashy televangelists turn Jesus into a kind of "Grand Ole Opry" Jesus.
I am reminded of an old TV show where the object was to see how well people could lie. As a matter of fact the better one could lie, the better the prizes were. After the allotted time for the telling of lies, the announcer would intone: "Will the real Mr. Jones please stand up!" Those of us at home would pat ourselves on the back or groan as we revealed our perceptive ability to see through the attempt to cover up the real Mr. Jones. What was that show called? (What's My Line)
I have had times when I wanted to say this about Jesus. As I sift through the shadows of history and the hallways of interpretation, I want to say, "Will the real Jesus please stand up!"
That is to ask... Who IS Jesus? Can we honestly know him today? What was he like and could I relate to him?
At the heart of all these questions lies the deeper issue which is -- "Who is Jesus Christ for me?"
I would like for you to reflect on that with me. Who is Jesus Christ for you? How did you happen to come by the concept you have of him? Is he a remote, shadowy figure for you -- or is he real -- close to you?
One interesting way to examine the various interpretations of Jesus is to take a close look at some of the paintings various artists have done of him and see what mood or feeling the artist gives -- what were they trying to say?
The first picture is by Warner Sallman -- you are familiar with Sallman's Head of Christ. If there were such a thing as an "authorized" portrait of Jesus for the American Church -- Sallman's, "Head of Christ" would surely be it! This picture is Sallman's "Jesus the Shepherd" -- Up close you can tell it's the same person as in "Head of Christ." It's a good picture, but Jesus is a bit too removed for me. There's a sense of majesty, but if I saw this man in a crowded room -- I don't know -- he seems a bit distant. I would find it hard to relate to him in my daily life.
Then - there's this picture of the boy Jesus in the temple confounding the scholars. You can see a bit of a halo -- and Jesus looks smart enough -- but not like someone who'd be in my circle of friends. He seems a little "nerdy" - He would probably hang around with Lloyd Johnson and Arty Boright -- and not many of the "guys" wanted to hang around with them.
Now here's an interesting one - It's Jesus stumbling under the cross by Veronese. You probably can't see very well -- but Jesus doesn't seem bothered by the anguish at all. He looks almost tranquil or serene. It is as though the cross was a breeze. That puts him out of my ballpark. My trials and struggles would probably seem trivial to someone who can handle the cross like this Jesus does. Admirable -- but out of reach for me!
Now this picture of Jesus Laughing is important to me. I begin to warm up now because I can not imagine getting close to someone who has no sense of humor. Yet, apart from this picture, I've never seen a laughing Jesus ... I wish someone would work on a really good one!
Finally, there is this very appealing picture of Jesus by Richard Hook. There's an appealing and inviting look of adventure in his eyes that captures my spirit. I think this is a Jesus I would listen to -- and if he asked me to come along with him, I think I might just consider it.
Somehow the picture that has come to us over the ages is of a Jesus trapped in the stained glass down at the church. A delicate, somewhat unmanly figure -- an elusive, unreal Jesus. Not very much a Jesus who could lead me into the next millenium. His voice has become archaic in translation and there is too much pastel and glitter in some of the paintings. The pungency has been sweetened and the fire banked -- the salt and light have been exchanged for sugar and spice.
We are hungry and thirsty for the authentic Jesus -- so "Will the real Jesus please stand up!" As we go back to the source and examine once again the gospel accounts of His life, I can see the vitality and the power. I can see the fully alive, challenging, powerful One Peter called "The Christ, the Son of the Living God." The Jesus who brought about this confession from the lips of Peter and a life changing transformation in the lives of fishermen, tax collectors and outcasts is a Jesus you and I can follow today!
There are three dimensions of the Jesus of the New Testament I would like to point you to today. Three things that can still speak to us and call us to follow him into the next century -- the next millenium.
First of all, there is his physical stamina
The Real Jesus... the Jesus who can capture my heart and soul -- my mind and commitment is a Jesus who never seemed to wear out. He endured tremendous physical exertion. He was strong -- always in action. When he did rest, it was late at night, a day and evening's work done and the crowd at last sent home and in bed. Then he was up and gone early in the morning before the disciples awoke. Off he went into the hills to be in touch with God.
And there was his secret. Being with God was his renewing power.
The fire of energy shone around him. He would still be awake praying when his tough fishermen friends had dozed off. Our picture of a stale and stuffy Christ has no basis in reality. Jesus was lean, weathered and strong like a paratrooper after a long campaign. His life was more spartan than the average marine's. He traveled light, vigilant, tireless, always moving on... surviving only through his close contact with God.
Secondly, there was his emotional vitality
Christian faith makes sense precisely because of this Jesus who lived and laughed and loved and gave of himself to the extreme. It makes perfect sense that God would want to come to us to share in the suffering, grieving, loving and enjoying that make up the fabric of our lives.
It is clear as you follow Jesus through the gospels -- he knew anger, grief, joy and personal anguish. When he gave his life for those he loved (which includes you!) -- it was, by God, a life worthy of the commitment and devotion of anyone who wants life to be a great adventure.
Finally, you can know the real Jesus by his spiritual passion:
Who is the real Jesus? He's a Jesus you rarely meet, but he is the same young, robust character you can read about for yourself in the gospels. He is a Jesus whose spirit was -- and is -- filled with passion.
He is the Jesus who came and started a fire in this world. The Jesus who fired up his followers to turn the world upside down. His fire consumed all the superstition and bondage of a religion that would enslave. His band of followers, despised by the world, finally overcame the might of the Roman Empire with the passion he gave to them.
Little did Peter know the incredible impact his words would have on our world. "You are the Christ -- the Son of the Living God." Nothing like this has ever happened before and will never happen again. He called them, they responded, and the world is no longer the same. Because of Jesus. The real Jesus who stood up for you and for me almost two millennia ago.
Now the question is -- Will you stand up for him? I personally would like to see him start another fire! I would like to see him start a fire in our hearts. I would like to see him start a fire in our church that will spread across this area.
In order for that to happen, I need to preach for a verdict today! I have to ask you for a "yea" or "nay" -- just like we do when we present a motion in a congregational meeting and ask you to respond with a "yea" or "nay".
I ask you to listen carefully for his voice today. "Who do YOU say that I am?" I ask you to join me in "calling the question" -- "urging the vote" -- "Will the real Jesus please stand up? Will the real Jesus become the Commander in Chief of my life -- and the leader of this fellowship?"
¹ Christianity Today: 5/24/99 - North America News p.17
Discussion and Reflection on the Texts
Connections in the Texts
Each of the texts in some way speaks to the "other worldly" nature of our relationship with God. In other words the Judeo-Christian tradition is a "revelatory" religion. This "present" world, and human reasoning "flesh and blood" can not point us to the saving work of God.
There is a kind of progression in the texts that could become the basis of a message on the saving work of the Lord. There is: The Rock, The Revelation and The Redemption. I would find this particularly helpful in a congregation where the issue of Christianity as a "revealed" religion needed some strengthening. The Rock: Isaiah calls the people of God to their beginnings -- the rock from which they were taken. The Lord alone is their deliverance. The Revelation: When Peter identifies Jesus as the "Messiah of God", Jesus tells him that this insight / revelation has come from God and not from human reasoning. We may receive the revelation, but we can not deduce it. The Redemption: As the prophet called the people of God to their beginnings and as Matthew identifies Jesus as the Christ -- the bearer of salvation, so Paul speaks about the life of the one who has received the salvation work of Christ. We are to be transformed and not conformed to this world. As Isaiah says we are taken "from" God, Paul now speaks about the fact that we are given shape "by" God. There is the sense of community in both. We are the "people" of God and not simply individual "persons" of God. This is a particularly important theme in the Western Church and most especially in the church of a culture that worships "rugged individualism."
The "Confession at Caesarea Philippi" is one of the great texts of the gospels. This passage has been discussed and interpreted with vigor for ages. One of the keys to understanding it is to take note of the very strong affirmation of human instrumentality in bringing the good news of the kingdom to the world.
Verses 18 and 19 have been the subject of heated debate, but except for historical disagreement over the person and place of Peter, the language makes it clear that the "rock" upon which Jesus will build his church is Peter and that the keys to the kingdom are given to him. What that means is another question. In a post-resurrection appearance in the gospel of John, Jesus visits the disciples and breathes the Spirit upon them all saying, "If you (plural) forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." [John 20:23] The central thought is that it is through all these frail, faltering disciples that the kingdom will be preached. That ministry extends to our own time when those who recognize who Jesus is are commissioned to take this "revelation" to the world.
The "loosing and binding" is what takes place through kingdom ministry. Demons are bound and God's people are set loose from infirmity. In other words, "The ministry you have here on earth is accomplished with the power and authority of heaven." All the authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ and he will empower his disciples with this power at the end of Matthew's gospel.
The "Messianic Secret" has also been widely debated. Why did Jesus tell his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah. Interpretations have run the range of:  Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, so when the disciples began to proclaim him as Messiah, they had to explain why Jesus never made the claim. This view depends on the unlikely premise that Jesus makes no claims for himself in the gospels.  If the disciples go about at this juncture proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, a crisis will be precipitated and Jesus' ministry will be prematurely cut off.  Evidence is quite clear that even Jesus' disciples did not adequately understand the nature of Messiah -- to announce this to the public would make matters worse. This is supported by the events of John 6. "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.' When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself." [vv.14-15]
There is a strong call enjoined in Isaiah 51 for the people of God who are exiled in Babylon to renew their identity as children of the covenant with Abraham. "Remember where you came from -- remember your roots." The salvation of God will yet be accomplished and the message of salvation will go out from Israel to the nations.
The plans of God are good for time and eternity. Justice and righteousness will finally rule. God's promises to Abraham are enduring. Verse 6 -- "...the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out..." calls to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:35, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."
Whenever I read the first verse of this text, I think of the song / dance -- "Hokey Pokey" where everyone is gathered in a large circle. If you're not familiar with it, there is a line that goes, "You put your whole self in, you put your whole self out..." Until this point, you put your left foot in --- Left arm in etc. etc. Finally, it is the whole self and everyone jumps, as it were, into the circle.
Paul says that in terms of serving God, we put our whole selves in. The idea goes back to the cultic sacrifice of the Old Testament. In this case, the sacrifice is a "living" sacrifice. Authentic worship of God means the giving of our whole selves to God. As, we belong to God "body and soul", so also our minds belong to God and we are to be "transformed." (Literally "metamorphosis")
Once given to the Lord, we become a part of the Body of Christ, energized and empowered by the Holy Spirit for service in and through the body. There are no superstars or "franchise players" on this team. Together, the body accomplishes the will of God.
A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 138)
Leader: With all of our hearts, we give
thanks, O Lord.
People: For you are Lord of all and our praise belongs to you alone.
Leader: We worship you today for all that you are to us.
People: Your love is forever, your faithfulness absolute.
Leader: Throughout our lives we have called upon you,
People: You have always heard us and given us strength.
Leader: We will praise you forever, O God,
People: And sing of the wonder of your ways for all time. Amen.
A Prayer of Dedication
We who bring these gifts to you, O Lord, also
present ourselves as
an offering to you. We would be transformed by the power of your
word, and we pray that the gifts we bring will help to bring about a
transformation of our world. Amen.