Who do you say that Jesus is?

I seldom write extensions for the Sunday sermon, but this time, the topic is too important. Matthew’s gospel this Sunday has Jesus taking the disciples to Caesarea Philippi where he poses the question to them, “Some say that I am John the Baptist… others, Elijah … but who do you say that I am?” To which Peter blurts out the answer and what will become Christianity is started right there.
It is human nature to form like-minded tribes, clubs, and associations. Such social bonds give us comfort and familiarity. Ideas can circulate in such groups in a kind of shorthand which gives identity to the insiders and makes outsiders readily visible. But like-minded groups can be dangerous. When it is a political party, group think leads to self-righteousness and exclusion of new ideas. When it is a church, the open embrace of Jesus to all people gets subsumed under an insider club-like atmosphere.
Most people who identify as Christians have their own ideas about who Jesus is and what Christianity is about. For some, Jesus is white, while for others, Jesus is black or brown. Some think that Christianity is all about “saving” souls so that people can go to heaven. Others think it is about what we do here and now, and why we do things. It is often pointed out in seminaries that academic theologians, having spent a lifetime studying Jesus, often portray the Jesus they have studied for decades to look just like themselves. In other words, we tend to fashion Jesus and God in our own image.
Reading the bible in a certain way leads many people to make exclusive claims about Jesus – that he is the only way, that he is the way the truth and the life … But how can we be certain that a different son of God may have appeared to other groups of people in their own social-historical context? How can we be absolutely sure that the Jesus we have fashioned in our hearts and minds is the only valid representation of Jesus and Christian belief? How do we know that a tribe of “primitive” peoples living in the jungle somewhere were not visited by the living Christ and they follow her/his teachings?
The short answer is, we cannot be certain. To use the bible as “proof” of our exclusive claims is to engage in circular logic, that is, using something to prove itself. To use the bible in this way is to set up infallibility as a kind of idol to be worshipped. And we all know what the bible says about idol worship.
Another question we might ask is Why would God favor only white people of European background and not Native Americans or Cambodians or Kenyans? If we can rid ourselves of each group’s tendency to define and defend Jesus in their own terms by making exclusive claims, maybe we can learn to get along better with each other.

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