Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who Do You Say That I Am?

My heartfelt thanks go out to the Reverend Candasu Vernon of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama, both for her friendship and for allowing me access to the excellent sermon she delivered at a recent Presbytery meeting, and to the Reverend Gene Anderson, who continues to provide inspiration, education, and direction through his "Rucksack Revolution" blog. I also received help on this sermon from Wayne Brouwer and Schuyler Rhodes of "Sermon Suite." Thanks also to Chad Estes for the story behind his hilarious, and too often painfully true, "Jesus or Squirrel" blog.

Before the sermon, let me ask a favor. My dear friend (and apparent twin brother) Pastor Nar Martinez is in need of transportation. He is a constant force for restoration and community in Struthers, Ohio, as well as in the online community of Outlaw Preachers. His car is literally on its last legs, being held together by the expertise (and possible necromancy) of skilled mechanics, but the car's demise is inevitable.

A PayPal account,, has been set up, and I would deeply appreciate you prayerfully considering making a donation to help Pastor Nar get a reliable vehicle. Donations are (at this point in time) not tax-deductible, but they are needed and deserved. Thank you for whatever you are able to do.

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites.and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It was an interesting place for a stroll, this Caesarea Philippi, especially if you were a devout Jew, and more especially if you were a first-century Jew living under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire and its power-hungry minions – people like the Herods, for example. Yes, there was more than one, and yes, it was a family, and yes, they were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, greedy, everything that comes to mind when the name “Herod” is mentioned.

Philip the Tetrarch, one of three Herod brothers that, with the backing of Rome, ruled Palestine during the time of Christ, had not many years before established a city here, at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon, named it after his patron, the Emperor of Rome, and added his own name to keep it from being confused with the other Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Thus “Caesarea Philippi.”

And what an area this was! Because the waters bubbled and gurgled up from caves at the base of the mountain, area residents had long believed this to be the doorway into the underworld. Here, they thought, the spirits of the deep tried to communicate with creatures on the surface. Sometimes sulfuric gases were emitted, and these only confirmed the presence of other-worldly voices and the breath of Hades.

Over the centuries a variety of religious sects had used the place as a cultic shrine. They cut niches in the rock walls of the mountain just above the burbling caves and set up statues of gods they thought might be resident there. They even gave the place a spiritual name. They called it "The Gates of Hades." Here, they believed, was the doorway between the realm of the living and the abode of the dead. Those with keen faculties would be able to hear the whispers of the departed and the voice of the underworld gods. It was considered to be a very holy place. Over there was a temple to Caesar, and over there was an older temple to the pagan god Pan.

There on the road outside the city, Jesus struck up a conversation. “Hey guys, give me the skinny: What’s the word on the street? Who are folks saying that the Son of Man is?”

This is, by the way, a phrase from the Book of Ezekiel, and signified a human being who is a conduit or messenger of the Divine.

I imagine the disciples glanced at one another, looking to see who wanted to go first. But the responses would have been fairly quick, because it was a subject they were intimately familiar with. They heard, and participated in, these kinds of discussions all the time.

“Well, some folks say you’re John the Baptist,” one said. Another voice, “Yeah, or Elijah, even.” Someone else says “I’ve heard Jeremiah, or one of those kind of prophets.” Any or all of these comments might have gotten a laugh from the group.

Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins, after all. They bore a family resemblance, probably spoke with a similar accent, and as word of Jesus made its way back to Philip the Tetrarch, it no doubt gave that particular Herod the creeps, because he’d seen John the Baptist’s head served up on a platter like a roast pig. In his nightmares, John the Baptist had come back for a public and painful revenge. The laughter would have been soft, because no doubt John’s execution was still heavy on their hearts, but they had seen Jesus and John together; the idea that Jesus was some kind of Zombie John the Baptist was patently ridiculous.

As for Elijah, the Prophet Malachi had written that God would send a messenger before the coming of the Messiah, Elijah, the first of the great prophets, and he would make things ready. Elijah would appear with stern speeches and mighty miracles. The people should get ready, for when Elijah came, God would follow quickly on his heels. Since Jesus spoke with divine authority, and performed miraculous healings, just like Elijah had done, it made sense that Jesus was Elijah, right? Only the disciples had heard Jesus state plainly that it was his cousin John, and not him, who had been the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Another silly idea they could chuckle at, just like all the other things they’d heard; this or that prophet come back from the dead.

This was an easy conversation, this talk about what everyone else was saying. No pressure, you could make a joke and go off on tangents, just the kind of stuff for a stroll though the countryside.

But then Jesus turned the question on its head. “But who do you say that I am?”

And things got real quiet, and real tense. Jesus was, after all, their rabbi, their teacher, and you can imagine the fear of piping up in class with the wrong answer. That would be humiliating! But what was the right answer?

It’s a lot like the story my friend Chad Estes tells about this pastor who was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children’s sermon. He started, “I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees… and eats nuts...” No hands went up. “And it is gray… and has a long bushy tail...” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch… and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited...”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be ‘Jesus’ ... but it sure sounds like a squirrel!”

I think that the fact we know the answer, we know who said it, and we know how the rest of the Gospel plays out kind of works against us in a lot of ways.

But there in that moment, surrounded by the temples and trappings of a culture that had too many gods for too many things, these men who had been immersed in a tradition where the answers were finite and fixed and immovable, they were confronted with the most important question that had ever and would ever be asked.

Think about it. So often, and this is especially true in the “Western World,” too many Christians are in fact “practical atheists.” We speak of God, go to church, say our prayers… and then too many of us live our lives as though we don't believe any of it. There’s no real danger in answering that question, it’s as simple as reciting a creed or singing a hymn. As a culture, American Christianity has ceased to be a Kingdom movement – a powerful new covenant which replaces empire with a Kingdom of God which erases barriers and overthrows dominions of power and privilege with love and grace. We are instead, far too often, the protector of the status quo, a symbol of good citizenship and a political catchphrase.

But take away the safety of freedom of religion. Remove the comfort of the pew. Erase the familiarity of family tradition.

Instead, you are a first-century Jewish man, barely out of your teens, if that old. Your whole world can be mapped out on a table napkin – there’s the synagogue in your little town, and the coastline where your fishing boat is moored. You push off from the shore each evening as the sun sets, and spend the night throwing the net into the Sea of Galilee, hoping to catch enough fish to help feed the family and pay the bills.

Then one day an amazing man comes along, with words of life and hope that you’ve never heard before, and your life is forever changed. You leave this familiar life behind, and strike off across the countryside, hanging on his every word, amazed at the miracles, astounded by the teaching, terrified by the challenges, your mind is stretched in new and exciting ways.

You have heard, since birth, that this life you’ve lived under Roman rule, where the taxes are heavy and the freedoms nonexistent, is not the life God intended for his people Israel. That there would be a new King – God’s Messiah – who would utterly destroy the power of Caesar, erase the corrupt Temple system, and restore the Throne of David, establishing God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus’ words give you hope that, at last, the time had come.

But power structures like Caesar’s, like the Herods’, like the Sadducees and the Great Sanhedrin which controlled the Temple do not take kindly to talk of revolution. To proclaim what they all, to one degree or another, were thinking was to face death, unless they were right, and this amazing man was indeed here to overthrow Rome, destroy the Herods, and restore Israel to its former glory.

And Simon spoke up. I don’t think this was a matter, though, of simply saying what everyone was thinking. “Messiah,” or “Christ,” after all, means something, but it only goes so far. With “Messiah,” you have an anointed vessel of God, a divinely appointed person who would bring about God’s ultimate will for Israel, and, by extension, all of humankind. “Son of Man” goes quite far enough as a description.

No, there was more to it. In that moment, Simon no longer heard the sound of the other disciples’ voices. He couldn’t see the Temple of Pan off in the distance, or smell the incense burning in Caesar’s Temple somewhere behind him. He looked at Jesus, and their eyes locked for one of those moments that lasts forever.

And I am not saying that Simon, in that instant, knew everything. But God spoke to him, and he heard. He knew. He knew there was more to the story, more to this rabbi than merely being a prophet or even being God’s specially chosen vessel. From this moment on, everything would change. “You are the Messiah… the son of the living God.”

“Who do you say that I am?”

If a stranger stopped us on the street and asked “What do you believe?” how would we respond? Reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed is nice, but it isn’t an answer, it’s something we’ve memorized. “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Are we satisfied to let those around us think that they know what we believe simply because they’ve seen Christian portrayed on TV or in the movies, or they’ve seen a TV preacher or been confronted by a guy with a Gospel tract?

And what if the act of recognizing and proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God was more than a creedal confession, more than responding as we are expected to respond? How would our prayers change? How would our actions in the world around us be changed? Would our prayers be conversations seeking the will of God, or would they be the usual requests and reminders of things that God needs to give some attention? Would our primary concern shift from arguing over political and human rights issues to really – really – loving our neighbor?

If we answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” in the way, and with the spirit, that Simon Peter did, then we must acknowledge that everything Jesus said is, in fact, true. The way he told us to live, the way he told us he will be with us always, the way he died for our sins, is all true. It’s true, and it’s frightening.

Because if we admit that Jesus Christ is God – if he is Lord, Savior, and Friend, then our lives have to start to change. If we as individuals, and as a church, and as a Presbytery confess that Jesus is the Messiah, really and truly is the Son of the living God, then we have to be ready to change everything, must be willing to do anything in whatever direction God leads.

And, like Simon, we don’t know everything. But we know this: Jesus is the son of the living God, truly is Lord, and every bit of his life, every bit of his death, and every bit of his resurrection are still in force, still active, still in the business of transformation and restoration and healing and salvation. He still calls us to identify with the poor and excluded. He still wants to turn moments of despair into moments of hope. He still wants to transform lives and make us whole again.

“Who do you say that I am?” Though Simon answered with words, he ultimately answered with his entire life. I hope and pray that we, too, are ready to answer that question with more than words. I hope that we will answer with our lives, our money, our decisions, our kindness and our humility. I hope that we will answer by our actions, loving instead of just talking about love.

“Who do you say that I am?”

1 comment:

  1. If we truly confess along with Peter that Jesus is the Son of God, THE Messiah, The Christ, then it we should be radically transformed. We should be radically loving, radically forgiving extending Grace to all-no matter who they are or were, whether we agree or disagree with them or how they live their lives. We will no longer see political ideas, no longer see religious affiliation, no longer see gender, gender roles, or sexual orientation. We will no longer see native or foreigner, black, brown, yellow, white, red. We will not see sin. We will no longer see any of these things that divide us. We WILL see people, the very same imperfect people that God loves and we will love them, love all of them.

    Great sermon.