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What do you say?

One of my favorite all-camp games during my childhood years at church camp was called Romans and Christians. The campers were the “hidden Christians” and the camp staff and other adult leaders were the Roman soldiers—some of the Roman soldiers were also Christians, but they couldn’t be obvious about it, because the job of the Roman soldiers was to throw the Christians in jail. It was a glorified game of hide-and-seek, and the object was to get to a hidden worship site.

The game involved a lot of forming groups, running around and hiding, deciding whether to confess one’s faith to a Roman soldier, feeling the dread of being thrown in jail (even though there were frequent jailbreaks). It was church camp, so the stakes were not life-or-death, but the game was exciting, and it gives a kid a lot to think about.

It was also a lot of kids running around a camp with little supervision, so I think this is one of those games that they don’t play anymore. But I haven’t forgotten the relief of gathering together, once we all found the hidden worship site, singing songs around the camp fire and processing the feelings of experiencing consequences for believing in Jesus.

Jesus asks his disciples: Who do people say that I am? And his disciples give answers likening Jesus to heroes of the faith, leaders and prophets. Jesus has been teaching and healing and multiplying bread for crowds, interacting with all sorts of people apparently inside and outside of the Jewish faith.

And now he has taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, the administrative seat of the government, about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, near important trade routes and near temples built by Herod the Great to honor Rome and Emperor Augustus. In that region there’s also a cave with a spring that fed one of the sources of the Jordan River, and the cave and spring were part of a worship site dedicated to the Greek god, Pan, and Greek inscriptions in the rocks there mention other gods too.[1]

Jesus has brought his disciples to a land of different religions, away from their Jewish community, outside their home territory, maybe beyond their comfort zone, not far from the temple of the Roman emperor who gave himself the title Divi Filius, which means “Son of the Divine.”[2]

Takes a lot of self-confidence for a political leader to relate oneself to divinity—this is nothing new in the world. Jesus was someone without any particular political power, as far as his culture was concerned, but he didn’t hide from it. Imagine Jesus taking his disciples on a field trip to Washington, D.C., on the National Mall surrounded by all the monuments to our United States political heroes, and there, in that setting, asking his disciples, “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

This question, in the words of New Testament scholar Audrey West, “hangs in the air at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. It is a question not simply about Jesus’ identity, as if getting the titles right would earn somebody an ‘A’ on a messianic quiz. It is a question about allegiance.”[3] Who are you going to trust?

Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Son of the living God, and Jesus immediately recognizes that there’s no way Peter could possess that knowledge on his own. Maybe Jesus knew about Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, that explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed:

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

For his confession, Peter is blessed by Jesus, given the name “Peter” which comes from the Greek word for rock: petros. And on this rock, Jesus promises to build the church, the whole community of imperfect people which will stand strong even against “the gates of Hades,” which is one of those strange phrases found only in Matthew’s Gospel—it’s like saying, “the church will stand even when all hell breaks loose.”

I wouldn’t fault you for looking around at the world, with wildfires and wars and weapons and violence and political strife…I couldn’t blame you for wondering if hell hasn’t already indeed broken loose. Is anyone in charge out here?

What kind of church was Jesus intending to build? Well, he didn’t use actual rocks or bricks or wooden beams—the church is built of people, people in relationship to one another, held together by the Holy Spirit. The church is not a place to go to; it’s a way of being in the world, trusting in God that hell cannot break loose and destroy all what God has created, and trusting the Holy Spirit that all these various members of the same body of Christ really will work together.

In the book of Romans, Paul celebrates the diversity of this body—we all have different gifts. Karoline Lewis says the Greek word for gifts is charismata and the word for grace is charis.[4] These gifts like prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, compassion—these are qualities that make us who we are, because God created us with these gifts. We serve God best when we’re doing what we deeply love. As Joy J. Moore said it in this week’s Sermon Brainwave podcast: Without words, our practices should proclaim who Jesus is.[5]

Today this congregation focuses on service with our annual “God’s work. Our hands." Sunday. Many ELCA congregations still keep this tradition, ten years after it was first begun, as a way to engage with their local communities, to be visible outside the doors of the church building, because this is where Jesus is still working. This world is still being healed, and we are called to be part of God’s healing work in the world.

This congregation doesn’t “do service” as a task to check off our list once a year, but we are serving all the time, by caring for one another, by welcoming into the sanctuary and into God’s presence those who aren’t welcome elsewhere.

Will there be consequences for following Jesus? Absolutely. You might be called foolish for believing in Christ. You might be called a bad Christian by other Christians. You might even be persecuted, tortured, or killed, same as the martyrs of the faith throughout history.

But there are other consequences for following Jesus. You might know what healing feels like because you’ve experienced it. You might be encouraged to be who God created you to be. You might find your belonging in a community of people who are all totally unlike you but who are all part of the body of Christ. You might be set free.

Who do you say Jesus is? How do your words and actions and life proclaim God’s love? May God strengthen each of us and strengthen the whole body of Christ to keep proclaiming God’s healing power.


Pastor Cheryl

[1] Audrey West, commentary on Working Preacher, August 23, 2020, [2] Salt Collective commentary, accessed August 26, 2023, [3] Audrey West, commentary on Working Preacher, August 23, 2020, [4] Heard on Working Preacher “Sermon Brainwave” Podcast, #918: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost-August 27, 2023. [5] Ibid.


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