August 27, 2017

Who do you say I am? Jesus asks disciples. Peter answers: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Great answer.

Although maybe we remember – two weeks and two chapters ago, we overheard the whole boatload of disciples saying, Truly you are the Son of God, when Jesus came walking to them over the water. Jesus made no comment then about what they said. But now Peter says only a little more than what they all said. And now Jesus says Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! You’ve got this insight straight from my Father in heaven.

Why now all the praise? Remembering, earlier in this same chapter we’ve heard Jesus say yet again to disciples, “Oh you of little faith!” – a refrain we hear frequently in Matthew’s gospel…The word we heard him say to Simon Peter that same stormy night on the sea when Peter started walking on water, but gave up…

So why is Jesus now giving Simon Peter such high praise? And why is Jesus giving Peter – the same guy who sank like a stone when he started walking on water – the same Peter who will later deny he even knows Jesus, three times in one night – this commission to bind and let loose on earth and in heaven? (That sounds as risky as my parents lending me the car keys when I was a teenager.) What’s going on? And what do we say about this Jesus, who asks us, still, who do you say I am?

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It’s still a great question. And it can be a great temptation to quote Jesus out of context to come up with any answer we want to hear. We’ve heard people attribute every human opinion imaginable to Jesus over the years. And perhaps to clear the deck of some of the wilder guesses, Jesus first asks disciples Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Speaking of himself in the third person to perhaps make the question sound more objective.) And disciples dutifully recite the list of usual suspects. Some say John the Baptist. (A guess we’ve heard even from governor Herod, who had John murdered – who now apparently thinks Jesus is the spirit of John, come back to haunt him.) Others say Jesus is the prophet Elijah, whom the prophet Malachi says in our first reading will return before the coming of the Messiah to set things right in Israel. (Those who’ve been reading ahead in Matthew know Elijah and Moses will appear together, speaking with Jesus, on the mountain in the next chapter. But we’re not there yet… and…) Others say Jeremiah the weeping prophet, who told the truth, though not many listened, or one of the other prophets of old. And all of these are reasonable guesses if we think of Jesus as the opening act for the Messiah or Christ – the same word in Hebrew and Greek, meaning the anointed one sent from God to rule and restore Israel to right relationship with God. What others say about Jesus may be decent guesses if we think Jesus is just the very best of humans…

A bit like if we ask ‘who do you say Jesus is?’ today – we expect some will say he’s a great man – a great religious leader. Others will say he’s a prophet of peace and justice. Still others will say he’s God’s son, and we’re all God’s children too. And all this is probably partly true… But none of this is the whole truth. And still Jesus asks us – Who do you say I am?

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It’s taken me awhile to be able to give an answer anywhere near as good as Simon Peter’s – and the answers I give now have come with a lot of help from Peter and others who have given good answers through the ages. When I was an atheistic child growing up I had no idea who Jesus was, and I didn’t really want to think much about it. Later, as a teenager, a young adult, a hippy, a Zen Buddhist, etc – I often heard people say Jesus ‘is totally cool’ and a lot of other things that ran the gamut from things Jesus would be glad to hear to some pretty the off-the-wall things also… But the Jesus I gradually began to believe in has always been able to do what we call the miraculous. Always generous, compassionate, and loving. Growing into the Christian faith in my college years I still didn’t want to even think about Jesus dying on the cross… But even with this very partial, incomplete understanding of Jesus, perhaps I was nonetheless somehow falling upwards (so to speak) by grace into a more truthful view of God and Jesus than that of the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day, sworn enemies of Jesus who collaborated with the Roman Empire to put Jesus to death on the cross.

And our gospel reading today begins with Jesus fending off yet-another hostile move by religious leaders, testing him, asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus says ‘no sign will be given you except the sign of Jonah’ – the reluctant prophet sent by God to the pagan city of Nineveh who goes the opposite direction till God turns him around with the help of a big fish and saves Nineveh almost in spite of Jonah. And Jesus reminds us of Jonah again, as he calls Peter (only this one time in the gospels) ‘Simon, son of Jonah.’ (Previewing the role Peter will play later, in the book of Acts, taking the gospel to pagan nations.) But meanwhile, back in the boat again traveling across the lake….

In our next scene we see disciples, again, misunderstanding Jesus – thinking he’s talking about forgetting to bring lunch, when he’s actually saying ‘beware of the lunch the Pharisees and Scribes are trying to serve you.’ ‘O you of little faith! Don’t you know when I’m speaking parables and talking about soul food?’

Then we’re on the other shore, again deep in pagan territory. Last week Jesus took us to pagan Tyre and Sidon where we heard him give strong praise for a Canaanite woman’s faith. Now he’s brought us to a district that’s a center of pagan worship and regional headquarters for Roman governor Philip, Caesar’s guy, who’s named the city Caesarea Philippi. Here, away from familiar landmarks that might remind us of our default answers, Jesus asks disciples – who do people say I am? – and – who do you say I am?

And who do we say Jesus is – is still the question. We can quote Peter and recycle his good, though incomplete answer. But Jesus isn’t asking us what Peter says – or what others say. Jesus is asking us who we say he is. And Jesus seems to expect us to be able to speak about who he is, from personal experience.

Although, since we’re all members of the one body of Christ (as Romans tells us today) – yes, we need to speak about our personal experience of Jesus – but as members of the one body we can also properly own each others’ words. We can share in the testimony of others, if we truly share in the same faith. Peter and other disciples often speak in fact for the whole band of disciples. They don’t all have to say again what one has spoken well on behalf of all. But there will also be situations where we are the only ones able to speak. And whether we come up with words entirely our own or whether we share words spoken by others, the main thing is that we speak the truth of Jesus in love, from the heart, with transformed minds engaged. (As Romans says again.) So…

We do need to practice being able to say something about who Jesus is, and what he means to us. Our testimony about Jesus really matters. Personal testimony is still usually the most convincing way of sharing the good news. We don’t need to be eloquent or to have answers for every question. It can be enough to say God loves you, and God is love, and Jesus is Son of the Living God. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Jesus is the Son of God who shows us what God looks like in human flesh.

Most of which is more than Peter understands at the time. Next week we’ll be glaringly reminded of how much Peter still has to learn about Jesus… But here and now Peter understands enough to win strong praise from Jesus. Who probably sees this is a time when Peter needs some praise… to be able to keep learning to live into the leadership role Jesus calls him into. Peter needs words of encouragement to remember in days to come, when his faith will be tested.

Which I hear as the general pattern of scripture. God supports every step we take in faith. God gives support to everyone seeking to know God, know Jesus…As long as we remember to walk humbly and know what we don’t know.

Our Thought For the Day quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it well: “While it is good that we seek to know the Holy One, it is probably not so good to presume we ever complete the task.”  (Bonhoeffer notably was one of the few Christian pastors who spoke out clearly, consistently against Hitler and fascism in Nazi Germany, while most church leaders remained silent or spoke in favor of Hitler’s racist, ultra-nationalist policies. Bonhoeffer resisted – and also remembered – he himself didn’t always get it right. As a young pastor he refused to preside at his own sister’s wedding to a Jewish man. A decision he soon deeply regretted. Overall, Bonhoeffer probably did more for the Jewish people and the Christian church in Germany than any other Christian of the time. But Bonhoeffer knew he himself was a work in progress…Like St Peter… And like all of us…)

My understanding of Jesus and who he is absolutely needs to keep growing. I know I’m a slow learner. My learning seldom comes by leaps and bounds. More often it comes through bumps and tumbles and life situations that knock me to my knees. Situations that have caused me over the years to change my lifestyle. Sometimes grudgingly at first, resisting changes, I know I should be making…

Though as I’ve formed new habits…spending more time in study, prayer, worship, and learning to serve God… I’ve grown into deepening peace, and joy, and childlike delight… in the presence of Jesus…

And today when I hear Jesus asking “Who do you say I am?” it can actually be hard to know where to stop… I like to talk (you may have noticed…) And I can really get into telling Jesus all about some of what I’ve been learning. Like all the times, dear Lord, that you’ve  rescued me… forgiven me… and taught me how to live. Thank you Jesus, for all the people I’ve met and gotten to know through you… Thank you for all the people who have prayed for me, loved me, and taught me about you… Thank you that the old hymn is telling the truth when it talks about Jesus, Lover of My Soul…

Thank you for reminding us again and again that the keys to your kingdom given to our Great-great-great-grand-uncle-in-faith Simon Peter, son of Jonah – are now given to all of us by grace… And thank you for all the ways you are teaching us – that the keys to your kingdom are faith, and hope, and prayer and  above all love… And thank you again for reminding us – never to go out without our keys to your kingdom… And there’s never enough time in the day to ever come to the end of things we can say about who you are for us and for all… But please dear God, never let us ever forget to give you all our thanks and praise…

Saying often throughout the day –

Thanks be to God.

Thank you Jesus.

Amen.