“Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,
‘Who do people say the Human One is?’”
Matthew 16:13 (Common English Bible)
One of the great weaknesses of our spiritual life is the inadequacy of our concept of Jesus Christ. By any standard of measure, Jesus Christ is the most important person who ever lived. Persons of another faith or persons of no faith must grant the veracity of that fact. Each December Christmas is celebrated – or ignored – around the world as the birthday of Jesus. Rarely, if at all, does Christmas come and go unnoticed. For much of the world, the season of Christmas is an economic engine that drives employment, strengthens commerce, and builds financial portfolios. Understanding the person of Christ or belief in him is often of secondary importance. What seems to be of primary importance are the Christmas parties and shopping before the day of Christmas and the exhaustion and debt that follows. Even at this level of engagement, Christ seems to be the great divide of people’s lives – anticipation prior to his birth and fatigue following.
For people of the Christian faith, the question of Jesus’ identity is most urgent for a vibrant religious experience. Some questions are not very important. That great preacher of another generation, Harry Emerson Fosdick is absolutely correct that few Christians concern themselves with the fate of the Jebusites in the Old Testament. Questions of the extraordinary length of life for some biblical characters may provide interesting debate or stir wonder but are really of little importance in the struggle to live faithful lives today. But the question Christ asks, “Who do people say the Human One is?” is important. To simply ignore the question – or not wrestle with it deeply – is to give an answer. It is an answer that something else matters more in your life than Jesus. The question is a dividing line. Either Jesus is acknowledged as central to a life-giving faith or Jesus is dismissed.
One answer to the question that is helpful is “Teacher.” This is a place of common agreement – Jesus was a teacher. Jesus did teach. He taught about the character of God, the nature of men and women, our struggle against pain and brokenness, and our responsibilities to one another. The Bible tells us that Jesus taught in small groups and to thousands. Jesus taught in the plains, upon mountains, and by the Sea of Galilee. He spoke plainly and he spoke in parables. Some of what he taught demonstrated uncommon insight and other lessons he shared had been heard before from other teachers. Though some said he was a gifted teacher, Jesus simply took his place in history among other gifted teachers. But, if Jesus had been a teacher and no more, it is quite reasonable to suspect that there would be no New Testament today or a church. To answer that Jesus was a teacher is inadequate.
A vibrant faith demands a deeper answer to the question, “Who do people say the Human One is?” That answer is provided by the Resurrection – Jesus Christ is the “Living Lord.” All of the New Testament points to the Resurrection or comments on how the course of human history has been altered by it. Those who wish to reduce the person of Jesus to “a good man” or “a gifted teacher” must toss out a good deal of the New Testament. It is the power of the Resurrection and the continuing presence of the risen Christ today that gives power to the Christian faith. We may not be able to explain this event, nor fully grasp its’ claim upon us, but we cannot escape that at the center of our faith is the declaration that Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. Death was no match for Jesus. This is the basic faith of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. And the risen Christ, as yesterday, calls each one of us to follow him. As we follow Jesus – however imperfectly – in the struggles of our own lives it is then that we learn more and more who he is.