Who we say Jesus is Matters

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

12th  Sunday after Pentecost Sermon – 9:00am Chapel of St. John the Divine

Proper 16 RCL Year A 8/27/2017


Scripture Text:

Isaiah 51:1-6

Psalm 138

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20


Sermon Text:

In our gospel today

Jesus brought his young disciples away

From their home environment,

To a pagan city called Caesarea Phillipi.

Perhaps to gain a different perspective,

On who they were following.

While they were there,

He asked them,

“who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And then he asks them more pointedly,

“Who do you say that I am?”

Why does it matter who we think Jesus is,

Who we think God is for that matter?

Some might say,

And I have been inclined to believe,

That God is who God is,

And Jesus is who Jesus is,

And nothing we think about him can change that.

While that’s true regarding the nature of God,

It’s still important what we think of him because belief,

As I mentioned last time I was here,

Is only significant if belief leads to action.

The beliefs on which we base our actions

Can have very different actions

Depending on who it is we believe in.

The kinds of beliefs we have

Invariably affect the ways we act,

And the ways we act invariably affect others.

Our beliefs develop into something,

Through our connection with other people,

Much greater than in our individual lives.


A few years back a couple of sociologists

Conducted a large study of 3,000

American youth, in a similar way

to what Jesus did with just a few disciples,

asking them who they think

God is to others, and who God is to them.

The results of this study showed

That these thousands of American young people

Believed in something very different

From what Christian churches claim to teach.

The authors documented this set of beliefs,

And named it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Among these commonly shared beliefs

Were five major points.


Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.


You can hear the popular elements

In these beliefs,

And you can hear how they are Almost Christian.

How a person who lived by those beliefs,

Could easily pass for a Christian

In most churches in this country.


Kenda Dean,

A Methodist minister

And professor at Princeton,

Looked at this almost Christian

Set of beliefs as creating people

Who almost follow Jesus,

Rather than follow him altogether.


She writes, “The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly,

but that we are doing an exceedingly good job

of teaching youth what we really believe,

namely, that Christianity is not a big deal,

that God requires little,

and the church is a helpful social institution

filled with nice people…”


There is a big difference between believing in a God

Who is generally distant,

but helps you when you need it,

Like therapy, so you can lead a generally happy life

And be nice to everyone,

And following a messiah,

Who is the son of the living God.

As Peter proclaimed at Caesarea Philippi.

It was significant that Jesus said

In response, “On this rock I will build my church.”

Not on the rock of those who believed

Jesus was just a reincarnation of one of the

Prophets of old, but on the rock

Of a living God, against whom the gates of hell

Will not prevail.

By the way, they were standing in a pagan place,

A place any good Jewish man would know

Was full of people who were controlled

By forces other than the living God,

Some might say controlled by the gates of hell.

But even that place would not be able to resist,

The son of the living God,

When the church founded on the rock of belief

In him was set against it.


What use would a young person have,

Of a church community,

If they held onto the beliefs described

As moralistic, therapeutic deism?

Not much I would think.

If the common belief is generally self-serving,

There is no real use of working with others

On a shared mission,

Then there’s no real mission to follow anyway.

Life is just a series of self-help books,

To achieve happiness and learn how to be nice.


Dean also writes:

“Jesus asks not for our membership in a club

or our attendance on Sunday mornings,

but for our very lives.

Following Christ to the point

that it shapes our identity is an “altogether” thing.

The more intentionally we pattern our lives after Christ,

the more we genuinely extend ourselves

for people who are different from us.

That is what the New Testament church was all about, which I take to be the prototype for churches even today.”


The altogether Christian,

Rather than the Almost Christian,

Is what Paul was calling us to,

By the mercies of God,

In other words because God,

The living God is so good to us,

So merciful even though so great,

So able to help us, but not just so that we will

Feel good about ourselves,

But so that we can be of service to others.

We are asked to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice,

holy and acceptable to God,

which is your spiritual worship.”

Furthermore, rather than go along

With what everyone else says,

Paul urges us:


“Do not be conformed to this world,

but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,

so that you may discern what is the will of God—

what is good and acceptable and perfect.”


The son of the living God is active

All the time, inviting and transforming us,

Renewing our minds.

He is trying to build his church,

Not on self-serving, feel good goals,

But on what is Good, Acceptable and perfect

In God’s eyes.


Who we believe Jesus is matters

For we are the church on which he is building

His kingdom.

The next generation, whether we like it or not,

Whether we intend it or not,

Will gather what we believe about Jesus

Even if it differs from what we teach them,

And base their notions of God on our belief.

So consider today,

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Is that belief the kind of idea

That is a rock on which a person could base their life.

If one young person you care about

Wanted to be altogether Christian,

Rather than almost Christian,

Could they become that based on your belief about Jesus?

Is your God a living God,

Very much a part of every aspect of life

Who asks for your whole life,

To be dedicated to serving God and others,

Or something less?

That is what we are being asked

Of by Jesus today.

Who do you say that he is?



The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Father Rob goes by Father so that he remembers his duty to the people of God whom he serves. He’s been ordained since 2006, serving in Florida and Tennessee and before that served as a youth minister in Long Island, NY. More details