It was my first day of driver’s ed in high school. We met in a trailer out behind the school — one of the “annexed classrooms.” It was the early 2000s, but the room had a stale 70’s vibe. Fluorescent lights. Orange-tinted walls. Old uncomfortable desks that took work to get in and out of.
Our teacher, Mr. Cheshire — who was also an assistant football coach — stood up from his desk with a piece of chalk, went to the light brown chalkboard, and scribbled the words “Knowledge is Power” at the very top before underlining it for emphasis and then turning to face the class.
“Knowledge is power,” he said, before waiting a beat and continuing. “…is a lie.” “It’s false. And anyone who tells you that knowledge is power doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Whatever I was expecting on the first day of driver’s ed was not this.
He turned again to the chalkboard and added a word at the very beginning of the phrase and underlining it three times for even more emphasis before turning again back to face the class and pointing to the word he’d just written.
“Applied knowledge is power,” Coach Cheshire said. “Applied knowledge. This is the truth. Knowledge has no power unless you know what to do with it. Unless you know how it applies. You can memorize every rule of the road. Know every safety sign by heart. But unless you know how to apply it, unless you can make sense of those rules and those signs and know their impact when you’re behind the wheel, they won’t do you any good. Knowledge isn’t power. Applied knowledge is power.”
I don’t remember much else about driver’s ed that semester, but I do remember that. It’s a lesson that has clearly stuck with me — one that I think gets to the heart of Jesus’ message in the passage that Jack read for us this morning.
This story takes place halfway through Mark’s gospel — Mark’s narrative retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And to this point, Jesus and his closest friends and followers have been traveling throughout the region embodying the gospel, bringing good news, offering love where they are. Jesus has been feeding the hungry and healing the sick and performing miracles like calming the storm — the story we heard last week from Rajeev. Jesus has been confronting the forces of evil and death in all of the ways they manifest — body, mind, and soul, and the disciples have been there for all of it.
And in this scene, their journey continues to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea. Note that you’ve got “Caesar” in the name which should tell us something. It means they’re heading into Roman territory — settlements that were dedicated to Rome and to the Roman Emperor Augustus — Caesar Augustus — one who self-described as the Son of the Divine. And it’s here in this context that Jesus asks his disciples this question: “Who do people say that I am?”
And you heard how they responded. “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” They’re starting to get it — a realization that Jesus has come to, like those they name, speak out against injustice and bring hope and longed-for salvation in the midst of empirical occupation. He’s come to call for and lead into a new age for the Jewish people just like John the Baptist and Elijah and other prophets had.
But then Jesus turns the question to them. He turns the question to his friends — the ones who’ve been with him step by step, witnessing the healings, the feedings, the miracles. It’s no longer who do others say that I am? Now it’s “But who do you say that I am?”
Let that question linger. Let it hang there. Give it the space it deserves. Who do you say that I am?
And Peter gets the answer right. Mostly. I love Peter. Always quick to speak. Wears his heart on his sleeve. Occasionally puts his foot in his mouth. I relate so much. I have those same tendencies.
“You are the Messiah,” he says. And he’s right. Jesus is the Messiah. The Anointed One — a title often reserved for a king. The one who’s come to deliver Israel and save the people. The one who’s come to end their occupation and restore them to greatness.
Peter has the knowledge, and if knowledge was power, that would be enough.
But then Jesus begins to teach them about what this means — what it means to be the Messiah. And as he starts to teach, it becomes clear that what the disciples think that means is not exactly what Jesus means. Because Jesus starts to teach about how he must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and then after three days, he’d rise again.
And Peter’s like, “Whoa, whoa… back up. Time out.” He takes Jesus aside and is like, “C’mon. That’s not how it’s supposed to go. What about the warhorse? What about the armies? You’ve got the power, man. So what do you mean you’re going to suffer and die? What about the revolution?”
And that’s what leads Jesus to say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
What Peter can’t yet see is that the revolution this Messiah brings is one that is countercultural. It’s subversive. It doesn’t rely on might but on mercy. It doesn’t depend on weaponry or shock and awe but on love, humility, service, and justice. Not on cruelty but on compassion. Not on selfishness and an insatiable hunger for more but on selflessness, on opening oneself up to others in vulnerability, and on generosity.
That’s quite a revolution. This is what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.
And Jesus knows that this sort of revolution entails suffering and sometimes even death. A life of discipleship — of following Jesus — is costly because it disrupts the status quo and de-centers the powerful. It adds harmony to the dominant melody which can bring dissonance. Different perspectives and new voices to the dominant narrative which can threaten the powers and principalities and all they hold dear.
And so when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am,” it’s about more than mere knowledge. He’s not just looking for the right answer. Any of us could rattle off any number of answers to that question. And like Peter, we wouldn’t be wrong. Mostly. It’s not a pop quiz. It’s not about just making sure you’ve memorized all the right things or have the study guide down pat.
Instead, this question, “Who do you say that I am” is an invitation. There’s something personal about it, you know? Something real. It’s an invitation to move from merely knowing about Jesus to knowing him. And the way we do that is by following him. Joining his work. Going where he goes. Loving who he loves. Living as he lives. And along the way, Jesus invites us to let that knowledge of him move from our minds to our hands and feet and hearts and voices — so we see how it applies.
Because Coach Cheshire was right. Knowledge isn’t power. Applied knowledge is power.
But here’s the thing. When we begin to apply it, we discover that this isn’t just a question about who Jesus is. It’s a question about who we are, too. We who are made in the image of God. We who have the breath of the divine filling our lungs. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am,” he’s also asking, “Who do you say that you are?”
In other words, are you content to simply know about Jesus, or do you want to apply that knowledge and take it into your homes, your communities, and this world? Am I an abstract idea, or am I a tangible and real part of your life? Am I a prop on a shelf collecting dust with little claim or impact on your life, or am I in it with you, stirring things within you, disrupting your normal, and moving you to openness, solidarity, and risk-taking love?
Jesus is asking the same question of us that he asked his disciples.
Who do you say that I am?
Who do you say that you are?
What does it look like to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus? What does it look like to apply that knowledge of Jesus as Messiah?
I’ve seen it this week. I wonder if you have, too.
I’ve seen it this week in meals delivered to people who could use a little extra love.
I’ve seen it in our Solidarity Team this week coming together to provide baby items for a family in need in our community.
I’ve seen it in those who give up some sleep to help us prepare this time and space for worship — so you can see and hear and connect with the divine.
I’ve seen it in how this church without a home has shown up and mobilized to help two Afghan refugee families embrace new homes of their own in the next few weeks.
And I was especially reminded of it yesterday — on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Like many of you, I spent much of the day reading and reflecting on where I was, thinking about how I’ve changed — how those events changed us. And yesterday morning, my mom sent me a story I hadn’t heard and didn’t remember. It was about Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest and chaplain for the New York City Fire Department who was the first declared death — the first official casualty — of the 9/11 attacks.
After the plane hit the first tower, Father Judge didn’t flee for safety. He didn’t try to preserve his own life. Instead, he instead ran toward those in need, entering the North Tower with the firefighters and others working to rescue those trapped inside. When the South Tower collapsed, it sent debris flying into the adjacent building where it struck him and killed him. There’s an iconic picture from the day of Father Judge being carried from the tower.
I want to play a part of the story for you from NPR which includes the homily from Father Judge’s funeral. As you listen, consider Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Find the story here. Here’s an excerpt:
He loved to bless people — and I mean physically — even if they didn't ask.
A little old lady would come up to him, and he would put his big thick Irish hands and press the head 'til I think the poor woman would be crushed.
He would say to me once and a while, 'Michael Duffy' — he always called me by my full name — 'Michael Duffy, you know what I need?'
And I would get excited, because it was hard to buy him a present or anything. I said, 'No, what?'
'You know what I really need?'
'No. What, Mike?'
'Absolutely nothing. I don't need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth. Why am I so blessed? I don't deserve it.'
And so, this morning we come to bury Myke Judge's body, but not his spirit. We come to bury his voice, but not his message. We come to bury his hands, but not his good works. We come to bury his heart, but not his love. Never his love.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Who do you say that I am?