Presented by Sklyer Keiter
What does it mean to be human, to live a human life? I am human, you are human,Jesus was human, my dog is not human…we throw around words like humanity and humankind all the time, but what does it actually mean to be human?
Well, the discipline of evolutionary anthropology outlines several traits that can be used to determine whether an individual can be considered human. However, of these only two traits stand out as the pinnacle of biological humanity: bipedalism (the ability to walk upright) and our exceptionally large and complex brains.
More than anything, it is the human brain that sets our species apart from our more primitive cousins on the family tree of life. The brain of homo sapiens is capable of extraordinary things, both terrible and wonderful- just take a look at any history book, wander around any city, or sit and listen to music in any concert hall and you will see thousands of shining examples of human brainpower. But beyond the building and tearing down of empires, beyond the scientific prowess that has allowed humans to travel from the depths of the ocean all the way to the moon, beyond all tings in the physical realm, I find three things particularly fascinating about humans and our incredible brains.
First, the beautiful and sometimes quite annoying habit of asking questions. Second, the capacity to understand the concept of risk. And finally, the idea that every human being has a unique personal identity and the ability to understand individuality. And – surprise! – all three of these miracles of human evolution are on full display in today’s scripture from Matthew’s gospel.
But before we get to that, I want to be clear that these are solely human phenomena. We alone hold these capabilities. Birds have no sense of self, and ants have never experienced an identity crisis. Fish don’t question the ethics of their decisions; they just do what they need to survive. Rabbits don’t sit around and wonder if venturing from the home to get food is worth the risk; all they know is that they need to eat, sleep, reproduce, and hopefully stay away from predators for another day. Our counterparts on this planet don’t question life, they just live it. Humans alone have the capacity for questioning and analyzing everything in existence from the simple – What’s for dinner? – to the vastly complex – Am I a good person? Is there a God? What is my purpose? Or perhaps from today’s story: Who do you say that I am?
It’s a weighted, some might say even dramatic, question of identity and purpose. So let me set the stage. This story takes place at a very pivotal time in Jesus’ ministry. He has already walked on water, fed the five thousand, and given the Sermon on the Mount; the Transfiguration is soon to come. He has been healing and teaching in the region of Galilee for some time now, and he is starting to become well-known in the area. It is a time where the end for Jesus is not yet nigh, but he has begun to turn his eyes towards Jerusalem.
And so it is that on a dusty road in the district of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asks the disciples these two very poignant questions. First, who do people say the Son of Man is? In other words: What’s the gossip on the town about me? This one is easy. Perhaps Jesus is asking out of simple human curiosity, or maybe he’s trying to gauge how the disciples will react and answer when he asks his real question of them, but his motive in this case doesn’t really matter. Either way, the disciples don’t have to worry much about their answer. In this moment, their only job is to repeat the scuttlebutt on the street- no emotional commitment to their answer is necessary.
The second question? Well… not so much. Who do you – you, my friends and followers – say that I am? Woah. This is a risky question. This is a question of extraordinary vulnerability and stunning humanity. Jesus the human is on full display. I can imagine the disciples stopping in their tracks and looking around at each other wide-eyed, frantically wondering “How do I respond to THAT?” Because this is not just a question of personal identity. Jesus might as well be asking the disciples “On what are you willing to stake and risk your life, your future, your whole self? Are you really willing to risk it all on following me?”
Recall for a moment where this story falls in the timeline of Jesus’ ministry. He is becoming well-known, but that fame has angered many of the religious and state authorities. Soon, he will actually be executed by these same authorities. Recall also that Jesus is a living paradox, both fully human and fully divine. On one hand, he has divine knowledge of what is to come. On the other hand, human fear and possibly even wrestling with his identity as the Son of God. And really, who can blame him for having these very human feelings when he is well aware that the road ahead leads to betrayal, denial, and crucifixion? Eventually yes, there will be resurrection and new life, but first there will be a whole lot of pain and suffering.
Divine Jesus knows that the cross is not the end, but human Jesus needs his friends to understand what following the Messiah is really going to mean. Because being Jesus’ followers isn’t going to be easy for the disciples in the long run. Not only will it be hard, but it probably won’t be very safe for them either. After all, in the eyes of the state, the teacher they are following is considered a rebel and a criminal.
Jesus needs to know if his friends are willing to stick with him and give him support through thick and thin. He needs his friends to know who he is and what that means so that he has the courage to meet his fate with grace. It’s a question of identity for sure, but not just about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. Even more importantly it is a question of the disciples’ identities. Our identities.
Who are you, and whom will you follow?
Jesus audaciously opens himself up; he is fully aware that this question could very well lead to judgment, heartbreak, and rejection. It is a huge risk; will the disciples decide to stick with him to the end, or will they turn away?
And what will you choose? Do you choose the path of the disciples even though it’s not necessarily the path of safety? The path of Jesus – to love and be loved – even though it may be painful along the way?
Do you choose the path of justice? Will you work to lift up the voices of people of color, LGBTQ folk, refugees, Muslims, and all who are oppressed? Will you stand up to white supremacy, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and all systems that laud some humans over others?
Do you choose the path of forgiveness? Are you willing to reach out across the chasms that divide our families, our country, and our world to heal all that is broken? Are you ready to love your enemy and give your neighbor a second, third, or hundredth chance?
There is major risk in this choice. There is major risk in being human. There is major risk in Jesus.
As theology professor Karoline Lewis says “Jesus isn’t about safe. Nothing about God becoming human is safe”. Instead, Jesus is about breaking down walls, rebelling against unjust customs, asking tough questions, and being audacious with love. As a human, you have the ability to understand risk. Your brain gives you the power to weigh the pros and cons of decisions and the opportunity to question whether a risk is necessary or not. You, yes you, are uniquely suited to make this choice.
So which path do you choose? I think that choosing to follow Jesus is a risk worth taking. Do you?