"Who Is Jesus Anyway?"
(Matthew 16:13-20)

In today's world we are constantly faced with the threat of identity theft. We are routinely cautioned about how quickly our personal information can be stolen and how someone else can take on our identity, running up thousands of dollars of fraud.

Several months ago this happened to me. But thankfully the attempted fraud was quickly caught and so was the person.

Our personal identity is important to us. We are all unique and gifted in different ways. Unfortunately, who we are can quickly be distorted and used against us. Again, I recently experienced this. Several weeks ago I was asked for some advice by an acquaintance. Since my conversation with this person they have manipulated and twisted what I said to advance their own agenda against another person. Yet another form of identity theft.

People's perception of who we are can also be changed by how we live, act, speak, and appear. Someone can look worn and crusty, and offer a false impression that he or she should be avoided. While in reality the person may actually be very gentle and compassionate.

Regrettably we often allow our perceptions to become reality, and then this "new reality" drives our thoughts and words, and dictates our actions.

As we heard read from the book of Matthew this morning Jesus lifts up the question of his own identity. In other words, he's wondering what the perception of the community is regarding who he really is.

Now by the time Jesus asks this question he's performed a number of miracles and spent many hours teaching the disciples and groups of people who have followed him. But even with all of this activity, apparently there was still much conversation among the people regarding who Jesus really was.

Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say I am," and the disciples respond with the answer common for folks of that day, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

These folks were making assumptions about Jesus based on their perception from what they knew of their religious heritage and what they had seen. They were attempting to discern who Jesus was through their own knowledge and intellect. And the same thing happens today.

Over the past couple of years there have been books and movies about Jesus claiming to reveal who he really was. Often times these attempts have been misguided and have misrepresented the truth. The De Vinci Code is such an example. In the book, claims are made about Jesus being married and so forth, but there is nothing credible to back up these claims.

Because there is such interest in people like Jesus, some folks will go to any length to feed off the desire to know more about Jesus, to the point of producing something that is far more fiction than fact or truth.

Today people love the thought of conspiracy theories, so if someone can promote one, especially around mystery and intrigue, they do. I think it's safe to say that people like this are stealing Jesus' identity to further there own agenda.

So who is Jesus Christ? How do you answer this question? Who do you say Jesus is? I wonder what people here in our community would say if they were asked, "Who is Jesus?"

Well after the declaration of what the people thought, Jesus narrows the question. "Who do you say that I am?" Of the twelve disciples Peter is quick to answer. He recognizes Jesus as "the Christ (which is Greek for Messiah), the Son of the Living God." But there is something unique about his answer. It's far different than the conjecture of the crowd.

How did Peter know that Jesus was the Son of the Living God? Did the other disciples tell him? Did folks on the street tell him? No, Peter knew in his heart that Jesus was the Son of the Living God because God revealed this truth to him.

Peter didn't learn this through head knowledge, by doing research, or investigating theories. Peter knew who Jesus was through divine revelation from the Father in Heaven. And this revelation of Peter comes at a significant juncture in the ministry of Christ, and an important time in the life of the disciples. In other words, God revealed to Peter who Jesus was at just the right time.

John Wesley was persuaded that Jesus was the Son of the Living God while listening to Martin Luther's preface to the book of Roman's being read. God revealed to Wesley who Jesus was at just the right time.

Lee Strobel an atheist journalist with a law degree from Yale in the early 1980's set out to prove or disprove that Jesus is the Son of God. Using his investigative techniques he began a journey that would change his life forever.

His book, "The Case for Christ" records his investigative journey. I commend it to your reading. It's and outstanding book offering biblical and reason-based rationale for the truth of Jesus' identity.

As a result of Strobel's exhaustive 21 month investigation, he was persuaded that Jesus was indeed the Son of the living God. He has since received Christ into his life and now serves on the pastoral staff of Willow Creek Community Church. Again, God revealed to Lee who Jesus was at just the right time.

Strobel records his acceptance of Christ this way: "Every other faith system I studied during my investigation was based on the "do" plan. In other words it was necessary for people to do something…to somehow earn their way back to God. Despite their best efforts, lots of sincere people just wouldn't make it.

Christianity is unique. It's based on the "done" plan - Jesus has done for us on the cross what we cannot do for ourselves: he has paid the death penalty that we deserve for our rebellion and wrongdoing, so we can become reconciled with God.

I didn't have to struggle and strive to try to do the impossible of making myself worthy. Over and over the Bible says that Jesus offers forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift that cannot be earned. It's called grace - amazing grace, unmerited favor.

Yes, I had to take a step of faith, as we do in every decision we make in life. But here's the crucial distinction: I was no longer trying to swim upstream against the strong current of evidence; instead I was choosing to go in the same direction that the torrent of facts was flowing. That was reasonable, that was rational, that was logical.

What's more, in an inner and inexplicable way, it was also what I sensed God's Spirit was nudging me to do.

So on November 8, 1981, I talked with God in a heartfelt and unedited prayer, admitting and turning from my wrongdoing, and receiving the gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus. I told God that with his help I wanted to follow him and his ways from here on out.

There were no lightening bolts, no audible replies, no timely sensations. I know that some people feel a rush of emotion at such a moment; as for me, however, there was something else that was equally exhilarating: there was the rush of reason."

And I'm sure many of you can tell stories of the time, or perhaps times, you were absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Son of God. Because God revealed the truth to you at a time in your life when you were ready to receive it. The experience may have come during worship, Bible Study, sitting on the porch, lying in bed, walking in the garden, sitting in a hospital room, during a funeral, a wedding, a baptism, and so on. The examples are endless, because God is limitless.

In the verses that follow our pericope, Christ goes on to predict his death to the disciples and then experiences the transfiguration. So it's important for the disciples to recognize Jesus came to do more than teach and heal. Without this understanding Jesus prediction of his death and his transfiguration on Mt. Tabor with Moses and Elijah would have been less significant.

Jesus came to change the very essence of who the disciples were and the scriptures that follow our reading today affirm this assertion.

Following Christ is not about simply gaining head knowledge it's about being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Knowledge is the means to the end, not the end itself.

Yes, knowledge of the Bible, knowledge about church history, and knowing our United Methodist tradition are important, nothing can replace a solid Christian Education. But again, these are tools to help us better understand and experience the Living God. These are tools that help prepare us to receive God's transforming revelation.

Knowledge enhances our awareness, experiences and understanding, but knowledge by itself doesn't transform us, only God through the power of the Holy Spirit can transform us.

Our reading concludes with Simon Peter receiving a new name, Peter, signifying the blessing of Christ upon his life. Peter had just declared the very essence of the Kingdom of God. He had identified the foundation stone as Jesus himself.

Just as the disciples needed to recognize that there was more to this journey than teaching and healing, we too must learn Jesus wants to be all of that and more to us.

Millions of people down through the ages have experienced the living Christ. They consist of people of every color, race, tribe, continent, and nationality. They come from different economic, social, and intellectual backgrounds.

Yet they all unite in a common experience of the living Christ. Wilson Carlile, who was head of the Church Army in England, was preaching at Hyde park Corner. He was saying, "Jesus Christ is alive today." One of the hecklers shouted out to him, "How do you know?" Wilson Carlile replied, "Because I was speaking to him for half an hour this morning!"

Millions of Christians all over the world today are experiencing a relationship with the living Christ. They have experienced his love, his power, and a reality of a relationship that persuades them that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God.

There comes a time in each of our lives where we must answer this same question. At this point it becomes very personal. It's a one-on-one with Jesus. We must make the personal confession that Jesus is our own Messiah, our own Christ, the Son of the Living God!

We can either assume, with the crowd, that Jesus is a great teacher or even a prophet. Or we can listen to the Holy Spirit as he reveals Christ to us, understanding that Jesus is so much more, that he is the light of the world, and is indeed the Son of the Living God.


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