Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular and long running musical asks a question more usually the concern of the theologian than the producer of a stage show – “Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Whatever the view or verdict circulating about the position of Jesus, there was never any doubt (maybe a couple of blips) in his mind about his identity; knowing who he was and all that it involved. He knew Himself to be Messiah. And, of greater significance, He knew Himself to be, in a unique, unprecedented and lonely way – the Son of God. As God’s Son, He made some stupendous, staggering, controversial claims: we name a few only. He is, as God’s Son, the sole revealer of his unseen Father in heaven – “The Father and I are one. He that has seen me has seen the Father.” He says, “If you love your father and mother more than me, you are not worthy of me” and “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words remain for ever.” When at his trial the High Priest asks him, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed God?” He is unhesitating, resolute in reply, courageous, with every semblance of a one hundred per cent conviction and absolute sincerity – “I AM!” He is “the way, the truth, the life” and “No one can get to the Father except by me.” This latter, in particular, generates an understandable and lively debate in Inter-Faith circles. “Who am I?” – Jesus was the subject of widespread gossip and speculation. The authorities denounced him as an imposter, a quack and a law-breaker. An interesting observation (referred to by James S. Stewart in The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ) that those tremendous claims of Jesus are either the ramblings of a deluded madman, or they come from one who is what he claims to be – the Christ, the Messiah.
The first sermon I ever preached asked the same question as did Jesus Christ Superstar, although from a different angle. In the Gospel record it is Jesus who is asking the questions: “Who do people say I am?” (the easy one) and the demanding, heart searching critical one, “As for you, who do you say I am?” He asks the disciples, whereas in Superstar He is the One to whom the question is put, “Who do you think you are?” At first sight we might be excused for thinking there is a hint of uncertainty about his position – else why the questions?
The setting is a get-together at a place called Caesarea Philippi, a remote and secluded spot, providing the quiet and privacy Jesus needed to bring the disciples face to face with the certainty that the end of his Galilean ministry, given Him by the Father, was shortly to culminate in his death at Calvary and that the work of the Kingdom undertaken by Him in obedience to God’s Will would be Jesus’ legacy to them. There was a danger that the disciples, hopefully to inherit our Lord’s “portfolio” for mission, might not be sufficiently convinced that they should do anything other than declare themselves redundant and make a hasty retreat back to the fishing. On the contrary, it was vitally important and urgent that Jesus could confidently hand over to them, that they should see themselves not as conscripts but as “called and sent.” The episode at Caesarea Philippi has been described as “the watershed of the Gospel”. Certainly it was a critical and crucial moment. The whole thing, right from His birth, could blow up in his face. What if he’d failed to hold the disciples with him? What of the Kingdom?
A well-known story, and somewhat hackneyed, tells of Jesus at the gates of Heaven being interviewed by Heaven’s immigration officer. Jesus is asked what plans he has made for his work to continue on earth. “Well, there are Peter & John & Andrew & James & the other disciples.” “But if they fail you,” Jesus is asked, “what other plans have you made?” “I have no other plans,” Jesus replied, “I’m counting on them!” A question – are you to be counted with the reliable? Will I convince heaven’s immigration officer? It could depend on how we answer His probing question, “Who do you think I am?”
One feature of what was involved, Jesus may have teased out with the disciples during their Caesarea Philippi retreat – the unwrapping of his promise (remember the Cross) that what the opposition did to him, they would do to the disciples likewise. How right he was! There is the great roll of the martyrs recorded in “the Lamb’s book of life.” We may not feel any threat of violence or persecution – as our brothers and sisters do in India and Nigeria, for example. Nonetheless we are under a form of threat. It is a matter of concern to me that the leadership, if not the membership, of the British Humanist Society takes every opportunity to denigrate all things Christian (other Faiths too) and are intent on removing the influence of religious legitimacy in society. Could they; have they gone so far as to attach to Christ the reputation of the deluded madman? Whatever, we would certainly not expect Richard Dawkins or, in his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens, if Jesus’ question, “Who am I?” was put to them, to respond in other than unfriendly, unsympathetic, derisory, critical terms. In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make emotional sense (worth a read), he writes in response to the Dawkins’ controversy, “When I see one of those passionate denunciations of religion which treat Christianity as the great gratuitous cause of all our sorrows, I mainly think: read more history, mate.” Another worthwhile and excellent read, whether or not we agree on all points, is NT Wright’s Who was Jesus? and the extended volume Simply Jesus.
One thing to remember, knowing Jesus for ourselves matters more than knowing about Jesus! The big question is not “who do people say I am?’ The big question is “what about you; who do YOU say I am?”
To read: Matthew 16: 13 – 21