“The Question That Matters”

Scripture – Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, August 27, 2023


True confession. Bear with me. I felt God nudging me toward the ordained ministry when I was in high school, so after graduating from college, I went directly to seminary. When I was in seminary – about 125 years ago – you had to attend an accredited seminary for three years, pass four ordination exams, and a Bible content test. You also had to pass a slew of required courses: Hebrew, Greek, Old Testament, New Testament, worship, pastoral care, you get the idea.

However – and this is the kicker – you could devote three years of your life to studying and pass your classes and exams with flying colors, but still not be ordained. That’s because after you passed all the academic work, your Presbytery had to approve you for ordination. You had to stand before the members of the Presbytery and read your statement of faith. They could ask you any question they desired, and they held your fate in their hands.

When my crucial moment arrived, I could have read a statement of faith that sounded a good deal like the Apostles’ Creed or some other traditional statement of faith that included such things such as Jesus being born of a virgin. However, I was too young and stubborn for that. I was determined to make my statement as honest and authentic as I could. Needless to say, that did not go down well with those who clung to pre-Enlightenment theology.

To give you the full picture of what happened the day I stood before the Presbytery, I need to back up and fill in a few details.

During your three years in seminary, you are under the care of your Presbytery. A committee of the Presbytery is supposed to serve as your guide and support group. They are expected to touch base with you occasionally to see how you are doing and to make any suggestions they think will help you on your path. My home Presbytery was in Kansas, and I attended seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The chair of my committee was a jerk. I know I shouldn’t use that word from the pulpit but let me explain.

During my first two years of seminary, I never heard a peep from him or anyone else on the committee. There was no “How’s it going?” Or “How are you?” Nothing.

Then, in my final year, halfway through the first semester, he flew out from Kansas. He suggested we go out to dinner and then to the seminary where we could have a private room to chat.

He said he wanted Chinese food, so we went to a Chinese restaurant. When it came time for the bill, he asked the waitress for separate checks. Then, as each of us pulled out our wallets, he informed me that the Presbytery was picking up his tab.

We went to the seminary where we sat in a private room. He perused my transcript and then proceeded to lecture me on all of the classes I should have taken, but had not. Raise your hand if you agree this guy was a jerk.

Fast forward six months. I’ve graduated from seminary and I am standing on the floor of Presbytery back in Kansas, sharing my statement of faith and hoping to be approved for ordination. After reading my statement of faith, an older pastor – who was probably a contemporary of John Calvin – came marching down the center aisle toward the floor microphone waving his hand in the air, saying, “I have three questions for this candidate!”

His questioning was intense, I answered his questions respectfully, but honestly. At one point he tried to put words in my mouth, and I said, “No, sir, I did not say that.” At which point a number of people broke into applause. The tension in the room was palpable. As my inquisitor retreated to his seat, three other people stepped into the aisle and began walking toward the microphone, and I’m thinking “Here it comes; I’m about to be crucified.” But a pastor sitting next to the mike, quickly leaned over and made a motion that the examination cease. The moderator was thus obligated to call for a vote on whether to end my examination. The moderator said, “All in favor say ‘aye.’ A good number of people voted yes. Then the moderator said, “All opposed to ending the examination say ‘No.’” At which point, the chair of my committee – a.k.a. jerk – leaned into the microphone in front of me and shouted, “No!”

It sounded like half of the people said, “Aye” and half said, “No,” so the moderator called for a standing vote. You know that sinking feeling when disaster looms on the horizon? That’s what I was feeling.

It seemed like the count took an hour, but the clerk finally reported the vote. More voted “Aye” than “No” and so my examination was finished. Then came the crucial vote – whether to approve or disapprove me for ordination. The moderator asked me to leave the room and opened the floor for discussion prior to the vote.

I was not out of the room very long, but the entire time I was wondering what Plan B would be if I did not become a minister. Then, the door swung open, they invited me back into the meeting, where they announced that I was approved for the ministry.

The reason I share my personal story with you this morning is this: In today’s passage, Jesus asked the disciples two questions. Do you remember the first one? Who do people say that [I] am? That is a safe question. It is simply, tell me what you have heard from others.

Jesus’ second question is far more demanding. He says, “Who do you say that I am?”

I was at odds with the chair of my committee and the older inquisitor because they wanted me to answer the first question. They wanted me to tell them what Augustine and Aquinas and Calvin said about Jesus. They wanted me to tell them what the ancient creeds said about Jesus.

But I was trying to answer the second question. Who is Jesus in my life? You see, with his second question, Jesus moved from the academic to the personal; from the head to the heart; from a matter of curiosity to what is absolutely critical: “Who do you say that Jesus is?”

Theologian Dan Clendenin notes that a particular painting of Jesus by Warner Sallman called “The Head of Christ” has been reproduced 500 million times. I suspect many of you have seen it because for decades it hung in countless Sunday school rooms and still appears on some funeral home note cards. Jesus has sandy colored hair, blue eyes (and soft skin. He does not look Semitic) …He is clean, safe, and passive…(However), it’s hard to imagine why such a harmless person would be arrested by Rome, beaten to a pulp, and crucified as a criminal.”1

The more you discover about the views of New Testament scholars, the more you realize the diversity of opinions regarding the identity of Jesus. He is a Messianic Jew, an apocalyptic prophet, an economic egalitarian, a hippie healer, a political liberator.2

The New Testament itself, gives Jesus an array of titles, each one suggesting who Jesus is: the Light of the World, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the Son of Man, the Good Shepherd, the Word made Flesh, and the Son of God to name a few.

In 19th century North America, slaves who lived in a rickety shack saw Jesus very differently than the master who lived in the big house on the plantation. To the slave, Jesus was the new Moses who would one day liberate them from life under Pharaoh. To the master, Jesus was the king who brought order and maintained the status quo.

Professor Tom Long wrote, “Every age is tempted to transform Jesus into its own image. Jesus has been described as a great teacher of wisdom, a social reformer, a champion of individual freedom, a gentle nature lover, a mystic, or a street wise revolutionary. There are grains of truth in all of these depiction’s, but, in each case, people have pounded a peg labeled ‘Jesus’ into a hole drilled to fit their own religious preconceptions.”3

Many believe that Jesus was an amazing teacher but have difficulty swallowing some of the outrageous things he said, such as: “If you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

He said that we must forgive someone who wronged us not seven times but 70 times seven.

He said, “Do not resist evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also.” He said to love and pray for those who persecute you.

He said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am” and we can rattle off a list of titles and descriptions. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He asks each one of us: Who do YOU say I am?

And we answer our examination not simply with words, but chiefly with our lives. How we interact with others, who we choose as friends, and what we do with our time demonstrates our answer to his question.

We say who Jesus is when we worship together and wrestle with his teachings. We say who Jesus is when we set aside time every day to express our gratitude to God for the blessings of life. We say who Jesus is when we resist our culture’s pressure to build our identity on what we possess. We say who Jesus is when we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.

Desmond Tutu, who experienced the injustice of apartheid, and the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile from his native land were supremely qualified to write a book on suffering. They know it firsthand. Instead, they joined together to author The Book of Joy. In it, Tutu wrote, “Discovering more joy does not…save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive.”4

Isn’t that what happens to us as we answer the question Jesus poses? We become more alive.



  1. Dan Clendenin, “But What About You?” journeywithjesus.net, posted August 20, 2023.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Thomas G. Long, Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 184.
  4. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy, (New York: Random House, 2016), p. 12.


Prayers of the People

Sudie Niesen Thompson


Living God —
long ago you sent your beloved Son
that we might know the breadth and length
and height and depth of your love for us.
Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor,
and release to the captives;
he offered rest to the weary,
and welcome to the stranger.
Jesus dined with sinners,
healed the sick,
fed the hungry,
and blessed the humble.
With grace unbounded,
he beckoned all people
into the Commonwealth of Heaven.

And, still, Christ calls –
inviting us into his tender care.
So, we gather in his presence,
bringing all our sorrow
and all our joy
to the one who bids us, “Come.”

God, we call your Son, “Teacher,”
for Jesus came to open the Scriptures to us
and to illumine your holy way.
As we reflect on your word read and proclaimed,
open our minds to new understanding,
stir our hearts to respond with thanksgiving,
and set our feet on paths of righteousness.

God, we call your Son, “Healer,”
for Jesus received suffering souls with compassion
and helped those who came to him.
As we remember dear ones
whose bodies are aching,
whose minds are ailing,
whose spirits are flagging,
whose souls are despairing,
we pray that you would draw near to those who suffer,
and sustain those who offer care,
that both might know your healing presence.

God, we call Jesus “the Good Shepherd,”
for he summons us each by name,
and promises to lead us toward abundant life
When we traverse shadowed valleys –
a landscape of loneliness,
the wilderness of grief –
guide us toward horizons where hope dawns.
Shepherd all who navigate unfamiliar terrain
and surround them with your steadfast love
that they might know the peace of your presence.

God, we call Jesus “Liberator,”
for he delivers us from bondage to freedom,
from death to life.
We pray for those who struggle
under the yoke of injustice —
those who have been stripped of dignity and opportunity,
those who lack food or shelter or security,
those who feel discarded or devalued.
Sustain them in hope
and give your people the courage and will
to work for a world in which all your children flourish.

Living God,
help us who profess Jesus as Messiah and Lord
to embody his grace in word and deed.
Come among us, we pray, and open our hearts,
so that we might recognize your presence,
discern your will, and walk in your way.
Unite us in faith and send us out
to be your hands and feet in this world.

We pray in the name of your Son, our Lord,
and offer the words he taught us:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen