Who do you say that I am? This question comes down to us from over two thousand years and it is still just as relevant now as it was when Peter answered it on a dusty road in ancient Palestine. Who is Jesus Christ? Peter gave us a first answer. “You are the Christ—the Son of the Living God.” But what does that mean?
Peter wasn’t even sure. Later in the passage, Jesus tells Peter he really didn’t understand at all. Peter wants a king, a leader who will take political power, who will make friends with the religious leaders of his day. Jesus tells him that, instead, he will take a stand against the powerful religious leaders of Jerusalem and he will die for it.
“Who do you say that I am?” Christians all over the world ask themselves this question. A Korean poet, Chi Ha Kim, wrote a play in answer to this question.
There was once a cement statue of Jesus outside of a church. This Jesus wore a gold crown, but under the statue, beggars slept. In the morning, rich men and priests would walk past these beggars asking for help. But they were always ignored. Finally, one morning, one of these poor men was filled with despair. “I have nowhere to live! I cannot bear this cold and misery anymore.” Then he looks up at the statue of Jesus. “This Jesus might be the savior of those who have enough to eat and have a home. But he has nothing to say to me!” The beggar begins to cry and as he does, he feels gentle drops fall onto his own head. He looks up, and lo and behold, the statue is weeping.
Suddenly, the beggar notices that Jesus is wearing a golden crown and he reaches for it. At this very moment he hears a voice: “Take it, please! For too long a time I have been imprisoned in this cement. Feeling choked in this dark and lonely prison of cement. I wish to talk with poor people like you share your suffering . How eagerly I’ve been waiting for this day to come. Finally you have come and made me open my mouth. It is you who saved me.” These are the words spoken by the gold crowned Jesus.
“Who put Jesus in prison?” the startled and frightened beggar asks. “Who were they?” The Jesus made of cement answers: “People like the Pharisees did it, because they wanted to separate him from the poor in order to possess him exclusively.” Then the beggar asks: “Lord, what is it that has to be done for you to be released, for you to live again and stay with us?” Jesus answers: “If people like you, that means the poor, the miserable, the persecuted, and kind-hearted people are not going to liberate me, I will never become free again. Only kindhearted people will be able to do it. You opened my mouth! Right at that moment when you took the crown off my head, my mouth opened. It is you who liberated me! Remove the golden crown. For my head, a crown of thorns will just be enough. I do not need gold. You need it much more. Take the gold and share it with your friends.”
Just then, the priest of this rich church comes by and sees the beggar take the crown. He raises an uproar and the poor man is arrested and the crown is replaced. The statue becomes cold cement once again.
Just like Peter in the gospel, the priest in the story gets Jesus all wrong. Peter wanted a King Jesus and so did the priest. They wanted a powerful Jesus, a Jesus that would take the side of those in power. But Jesus wasn’t interested. Jesus took the side of the poor and the outcast. And, as in the story, it is in ordinary people that Jesus lives again.
In the story, only one person knows the answer to the question: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus tells only the beggar. The priest, the person who thinks he has all the power, is one of the ones who has imprisoned the Gold Crowned Jesus. He thought he knew who Jesus was, but he did not. He thought Jesus was something that he could use to gain power.
Christianity has a lot of power in our country. Religious leaders lobby the government, religious leaders on TV promise glittery and expensive entertainment. In many places, only the priest, only the seminary educated, only those in power are given the right to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?” Religious leaders in our own country sometimes think they have the exclusive right to say who Jesus is. We have our own gold crowned Jesus.
But the Jesus of the gospels was interested in what ordinary folks had to say. He was interested in being the savior of the poor. Like the gold crowned Jesus, he wants to talk with the poor and the outcast and ordinary folks.
You, then, every one of us, are also called to liberate Jesus from the stone statue. Jesus comes to life in us, just as the statue comes alive in the story.
Today, we are going to dedicate changes made to the church. For example, our altar is moved closer to the congregation because we believe that the congregation, every single one of us, proclaims who Jesus is every Sunday at Eucharist.
This is a Total Common Ministry church—a church that believes that every single member can answer this question: “Who do you say that I am?” The priest, the church hierarchy, and those in power do not have exclusive claim to Jesus. Just because I am going to seminary does not mean that I can answer this question any better. Actually, it will be easier for me to get it all wrong. It will be easier for me to fall for the trap that says that Jesus can be put in a box, made into a statue, and used to gain power. It is ordinary people, it is the poor, it is the immigrants, it is the beggars who must take the crown off of our gold crowned Jesus. It is ordinary people who must tell us who Jesus really is.
About fifty years ago, across Latin America, people started to form groups called Christian Base Communities. They would meet and talk about their faith and what it meant to them. They would ask the question: “Who do you say that I am?” What did Jesus mean to them during terrible wars when whole villages were being killed? What did Jesus mean to them as they lost their jobs and their land and watched their children suffer? One person explained what Jesus meant like this; “There is the very human Jesucristo suffering on the cross who touches out hearts and who understands our suffering because he too has suffered. This is the Jesucristo we turn to.”
This is the Jesus that really matters. Not the Jesus of great big books and scholars in universities, not the Jesus of rich preachers and fancy entertainment. It is the Jesus of everyday people that matters. It is in everyday people that Jesus lives again. The Jesus who cared for the outcasts of ancient Palestine when he was a prophet in Galilee still cares. The Jesus who asked the beggar to free him from his golden crown still needs people, ordinary people, to tell the world who he really is. You, here, are part of that mission. You, me, every one of us, every single member of the baptized community, are called to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?“
When I was working in the hospital this summer, so many people taught me who Jesus was. Jesus came alive to some of them when they talked about walking the hills and forests and feeling his presence. Others say Jesus as the one who suffered just like they were suffering.
Who is Jesus to us, now, in small towns in Grays Harbor in the 21st century? What does Jesus mean for us, here and now? Here and now, as we face economic recession and so many are losing jobs. Here and now as we gather for good old fashioned country meals. Here and now as we live and work in our communities.
Who is Jesus to you? Why is Jesus important to you?
These are questions we all must answer. We are a part of two thousand years of history, where this question is asked again and again. There will never be only one good answer. We must all ask it again and again, so that Jesus is reborn in us and in our communities.
But it is a question always worth answering. And you are answering it. You are living lives of love in your communities. You are becoming the hands and feet of Jesus in this place. Keep asking the question and keep telling people what you have found. In you, Jesus lives again.