Nick Cominsky is a hard-driving businessman, what we would call a workaholic. An invitation shows up on his desk to have dinner. The envelope has no postmark, no return address. But it’s signed by Jesus Christ. That’s the premise of David Gregory’s book called “Dinner With a Perfect Stranger.”
Nick accepts the invite. The Jesus that shows up for dinner looks a lot different from the Sunday School pictures. This Jesus is an average build His suit: “Not Armani, but not Discount Warehouse either” He is always calm, always collected and in control of himself. Nothing flusters him. Nothing seems to distract him from his task at hand. And that is to help Nick.
Their conversation ranges from the personal to the professional; from the secular to the sacred. This Jesus seems to break every conventional understanding of how he should act, talk and respond. Something that continually surprises Nick. Nick wonders, “Who is this guy?”
Before they finish their dinner, Jesus suggests to Nick the three alternatives that C.S. Lewis posed for identifying who Christ is. Either he is a: Liar, Lunatic Or who he said he was: God Incarnate as a Human Being
This fictional story is a modern-day version of this morning’s Gospel story where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who Do You Say I Am?’ It was the most important question that Jesus asked his disciples. Because how they answered it would affect how they would live the rest of their lives.
Jesus was on retreat with his disciples up at the northern end of Israel at Caesarea Philippi. They were literally on the boundary of Israel and the rest of the world. Herod Philip II named the town in honor of Augustus Caeser and then added his name to distinguish it from the Caeserea on the coast. This city had temples to the Syrian god Baal, the Greek god Pan and the Roman godhead of Caesar. Jesus had set himself up against the backdrop of all the world’s religions and all their grandeur.
There was a cave near the city and a stream flowed out of it. Locals believed that it was the entrance to Hades. So there they are chilling by the stream and Jesus tosses off a question:
Who do men say that the Son of Man is? That’s an easy one because it’s purely objective. Take a survey! And the survey responses would be:
John the Baptist reincarnate– because of the way Jesus focused on repentance and social changes. Others would say Elijah- because of the way Jesus worked miracles like Elijah did. Still others would say Jeremiah – because of how Jesus cared for the lost. Jeremiah was The Weeping Prophet and Jesus wept and warned Israel. Still others thought Jesus One of the Prophets –
The disciples all chime in like a bunch of school kids who want to impress the teacher It was an easy question But it was a set up question to clear the deck for the real question
After a moment’s pause, Jesus now turns and looks them all in the eyes. He hits them with the most important question that he will ever ask them: “But who do YOU say I am?”
I wonder if there some stunned silence at first? You see, what they confess about Jesus would have consequences for their lives. I remember when our local pregnancy crises center was looking for a new director. One of their interview questions was: “Who is Jesus Christ?” What these applicants believed about Jesus Christ would have consequences for their ministry at Helping Hands. And the way they live their lives will reflect what they believe about Jesus Christ.
Throughout history we’ve seen how culture and circumstance shaped how people answered the question. Different periods of history viewed Jesus a little differently. Early Christianity centered on the Mediterranean around Greece. So their thinking was heavily influenced by the Greeks. Monarchs joined in with the leading thinkers of society They asked, “What’s the meaning of Eternal Existence?” So ask Christians of that time: “Who is Jesus?” They would answer, He’s the one sharing perfect being with God He is the mystical, transcendent being who sits enthroned in heaven above.
You see the consequences of that Jesus in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Enter an Orthodox church and you will see an Iconostasis. It’s a big wall between the altar and the congregation. Only the priest may enter through that wall. And the priest himself is dressed resplendently with a crown like a king. The wall symbolically separates heaven and earth. And the priest represents the King of Heaven who moves between the two.
Move forward a few hundred years to the Middle Ages. It’s a time when Europe was desperate for order. There is a sharp division of society. You have Kings & Pope and then you have the people. If you step out of line. swift and certain consequences would follow.
If Jesus were to ask people back then:“Who do you say I am?” Their response would not be the Good Shepherd. It would be the Righteous Judge. So they spent their lives finding ways to square themselves with God. More good works, more pilgrimages, more indulgences. It might be that the Church hierarchy deliberately focused on judgment motifs to describe Christ so that they could maintain control. The Church taught that if you did your very best, God would not deny you heaven. But how do I know when I’ve done my very best?
It’s at this time when we see a preoccupation with Mary and prayers to Mary. Why Mary and not Jesus? Because Mary was fully human. Mary was not judgmental; she was maternal, gentle, understanding. Mary had the ear of Jesus and she would plead our case before the righteous judge.
Then we come to the Reformation and Martin Luther. Early in life for Luther, Jesus had been the righteous judge. So Luther was obsessed with righteousness. His life followed a pattern of confession followed by introspection followed by confession Still, had he done enough to satisfy the Righteous Judge? Luther could never experience that assurance.
Then he read in Romans that : “The Righteous will live by faith.” And he realized that salvation had nothing to do with how perfectly you kept the laws. Salvation was all about what Jesus did, not what mankind does. Jesus conquered sin. It was a different Jesus that Luther began to see.
Were Jesus to ask Martin Luther, “Who do you say I am?” Luther would not answer, “You are the one who will judge me.” Instead, he would answer: “You are the one who conquered sin for me.”
That change sparked the Reformation. God was no longer seen as an angry judge. He is fatherly, with a friendly heart. So you don’t need all those add-ons by the church. You don’t need to make the pilgrimages; you don’t need to pay the indulgences. And to know God, you don’t look to the church hierarchy, you look to the Bible.
The Reformation would be followed by years of religious wars in Europe until we come to 19th century England. It was a bifurcated society: You had two classes: the Aristocracy and the Peasants. The aristocracy had had enough of religious wars and bickering. The purpose of religion should be to provide good morals that kept society in check.
It was the rise of Deism where God is the one who created everything and then turned it all over to us to keep it going. He doesn’t intervene and he doesn’t interfere. Were Jesus to ask one of these deists, “Who do you say I am?” They would respond, You are an historical figure, but you’re not divine. You are the good example to follow. Other than that, you really have no importance to us.
The consequences of that kind of Jesus for the peasants were despair and hopelessness. Because there was no way forward for them. There was no savior for them, no comforter, no sustainer. Meanwhile, the aristocracy could live their lives of decadency free from interference of a meddlesome Jesus.
In England, that view of Jesus changed because of an encounter that an Anglican priest had with the Holy Spirit. John Wesley was brought up in a Christian home and worked hard to be a good Christian. He struggled to methodically order his life in a way that would be pleasing to God. But try as he might, he failed in his efforts. And then one evening at a bible study with some Moravian Christians, Wesley says that he experienced what he called a “strange warming” in his heart.
At that point, he knew that God was not distant. Suddenly, Jesus became more personal for him. Jesus became someone who engaged with him. Someone who affected his everyday life. John Newton captured that moment in the hymn he wrote: ‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear. The hour I first believed.
Not only did Wesley’s life change, but the life of England as well. Wesley went on a campaign to reach out to the peasants living miserable lives. He organized them into societies for change, He brought structure and hope into their downtrodden lives. Because of Wesley, England avoided a revolution like the one in France.
Were Jesus to ask Wesley, “Who do you say I am”, he would’ve replied, Not a stern judge, Not a transcendent one sharing perfect being with God. He would’ve answered, You are the one who can perfect my living faith. You are the one who will perfect my life.”
What about 20th century American culture? The 20th century was the year of the United States. After two world wars, we became a superpower. Our culture dominated the world. We became the most comfortable-living generation in history. We became the best educated
And yet our culture was marked by stress and strain. There was strain between generations and races. There was international uncertainty And there was the culture shift that came in the sixties.
The Baby Boomers were coming of age. Their parents worked hard to foster a better life for them. The culture focused on them because they had the largest disposable income. They would be known as the “Me Generation.” The Hippie movement justified modern day hedonism. It was communes and Kumbaya.
It was about this same time that an Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd published his book, “Are You Running with Me Jesus?” It was a book of prayers for a new generation. Let me read you an excerpt. It’s morning, Jesus. It’s morning, and here’s that light and sound all over again. Where am I running? You know these things I can’t understand. It’s not that I need to have you tell me. What counts most is just that somebody knows, and it’s you. That helps a lot. So I’ll follow along, okay? But lead, Lord. Now I’ve got to run. Are you running with me, Jesus?
Were Jesus to ask the Me Generation, who do you say I am? They would reply: “You are the one who is there for me, who will listen to me, who will support me, who will affirm me. You’re my buddy, right?”
It’s the 21st century and we’re living in a time of change. Not just change, but change turbo-charged by technology. Our society is becoming less communal and more individualistic, more competitive.
In 2002, a megachurch pastor from Southern Californian published a book called “Purpose Driven Life.” He opens the book with these words: “It’s not about you.” That’s a wake-up call for the Baby Boomers. Because Rick Warren proclaims a Jesus that is 180 degrees different from the one proclaimed by Malcom Boyd.
Like Malcom Boyd, Rick Warren calls us to a personal relationship with Christ. But, for Warren, Jesus is not “My Best Friend.” He’s not my personal assistant meeting my every need. Just the opposite. He is the one for whom you were created. He’s the author of your life, created for his good purpose. And you need to discover His purpose for your life. Warren puts it this way: You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Warren doesn’t deny the other elements of the biblical Jesus: Jesus the Righteous Judge, Jesus the Perfecter of our Faith, Jesus the Transcendent Being. But he focuses on a Jesus for this culture and this time.
So which generation got it right? Who is Jesus really? Is he like John the Baptist, the one who calls us to repent and inherit the kingdom? Is he the miracle worker like the Prophet Elijah? Is he the evangelist like Jeremiah? Is he the teacher of eternal truth like the prophet foretold by Moses? Well, Jesus gives us the answer.
He didn’t respond to any of these descriptions of him. But Peter got it right. Peter said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Bingo!” (Well, I’m paraphrasing.)
You see Peter was using the language of an 800 year old prophesy by Isaiah. Let me read you that description. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. And the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
After Peter made his confession, Jesus told him the consequences of that confession. “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go”
Peter performed incredible miracles in his ministry. Indeed, some were ready to worship him as a god. God gave him ground breaking vision for the life of his church. But, tradition tells us that Peter was also crucified head-down for his faith. He gave his all because of who Jesus was to him – the Christ – the Son of the living God. And Peter would gladly do it again.
There are consequences of our confessions. What we believe about Jesus orders our lives.nWhat we believe about Jesus shapes lives. And what we believe about Jesus destines our lives.
Who is Jesus? A righteous judge who monitors your life? A buddy who coaches you to live the best life you can? The author of life who created you for His purpose? Jesus ask each generation, And each generation has answered for their time.
But Jesus asks a question of each one of us individually. Be very thoughtful of how you answer. Because your answer will determine how you live your life. And only you can answer when he asks, But who do YOU say I am?