Preached (via Zoom) Sunday, August 23, 2020, the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost, at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for this Sunday: Exodus 1.8 – 2.10; Psalm 138.1-8; Romans 12.1-8; Mathew 16.13-20
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16.15)
“What do people think about Jesus today? Who is he?”
“Some say a major historical figure of the first century who started one of the great world religions.”
“Some say a good, wise man, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who gave us some great words to live by.”
“Some say a subversive. A political revolutionary.”
“OK, so what about you. Who do you say that I am? Who do you say that I, Jesus, am?”
This is the question that our identities as Christians revolve around. Whenever it was in our lives that we consciously decided to call ourselves as Christians, or disciples, or even Anglicans, then we must have formulated some answer to that question. We must have decided who Jesus was for us.
For some of us, your answer as to who Jesus is may be a bedrock certainty, but for others, it may have been, it may still be, a harder question to answer than we might care to admit to our church friends, and that’s okay. Perhaps we had different answers depending on when and where we were in our faith lives depending on whether we were busy, or in crisis, or feeling in control of things, or strong or weak, young or old.
Peter’s confident answer (“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”) may come easily for some of us, while others might say, “well, Peter, that was easy for you, you knew Jesus, you saw him feed all those people with just a few scraps of bread, and hey, he actually grabbed your hand and pulled you out of the water when you were drowning!” Well, perhaps, though Peter in the remainder of the gospel is not a superman of faith, and even after the resurrection, Matthew says of the rest of the disciples as a whole, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28.17).
Possibly some of these disciples had a foot in both camps, worshipping and simultaneously doubting. If so, that doesn’t sound like a hedging of bets to me as much as it sounds like our human condition. I have known good, solid Anglicans, pillars of their parishes, reliable, hard working, dependable, who have quietly admit to me that they don’t’ always feel that they can check all the boxes of their faith, or say every item of the creeds with equal conviction. Barabara Brown Taylor, an American preacher, noted somewhere that the reason we say the creeds together in church is so that others can speak for us when we have trouble saying them, because on another day, under other circumstances, we might be called to say the creeds for others, when they might struggle. Sometimes we depend on the faith of others.
That’s why we are the people of God. We are church, the body of Christ. It’s not up to us to believe as atomized individuals. As Paul notes in our reading from Romans, we all have different gifts, Our belief may depend one day on the teaching we receive from someone, on another day it may depend on the encouragement we receive from someone else, and on yet another day our belief may be buttressed by the cheerfulness of someone who has also suffered their share of adversity. Belief is not something that we have to manufacture within us. As Jesus tells Peter, and as the sheep in today’s cartoon wisely remind us, belief is grace, given to us by God, and often the avenue of that belief, the way in which that grace is incarnated, is in the life and faith and witness of another believer. Not being church is in part why the separation of pandemic has been so hard on so many of us, because we have deprived of the company of those whose belief inspires us.
Because we are church, our faith entails on us the ministry of witness, the responsibility that we are called to explain what it means to be the body of Christ. We are church because we all have some answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”. As church, we have a duty, a responsibility, to tell the world who Jesus is. In fact, and this is the big idea of my ministry that I will keep returning to in the time that I have with you, if we are a church that can say something true and compelling about who Jesus, then we will be a church that will grow. Conversely, a church that doesn’t have anything to say about Jesus is a church that is doomed to irrelevance and decline.
So what is something true that we can say about Jesus? Can we join with Peter in calling him “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”? It would be desirable if we could, but perhaps that language, theological and abstract, might not convince someone who doesn’t really know Jesus, or who is suspicious of church language. It might seem too abstract, too pat. So what if we were to find ways of speaking about Jesus that connect things he does to things that we have known in our lives? What if we could say something about Jesus that was true for us and compelling to others?
Was there a time when you were hungry, starving for meaning and hope, perhaps out of a job, and someone fed you, either spiritually or physically? If so, then you can talk about Jesus as the bread of life. Was there a time where you hurt someone, either inadvertently or in some petty moment, and they forgave you? Then you’ve lived the parable of the prodigal son and you get Jesus’ message of fogiveness. Have you had someone stand with you when others abandoned you? They you’ve lived the parable of the Good Samaritan and you understand Jesus’ message of love. Have you come through a profound loss or bereavement, and found hope on the other side? Then you know something about Jesus, the resurrection and the life. If you have experienced any of these things, than you have something good to say about Jesus and your life will reflect your faith in a real and attractive way.
This is what I meant about “true for us and compelling to others”. My hunch is that we all have times in our life stories when have experienced something of Christ’s love and life. Those moments are what make our faith real and compelling. A church that knows who Jesus is can show a living faith that makes a difference in real lives, that shows in joyfulness, compassion, and hope. A church that knows Jesus is a church that can worship with meaning and passion – even when wearing a mask! If a church can show Jesus to others in the lived lives of its members, then the theology will follow. The theology doesn’t have to come first.
Here’s a final thought about why this is all important. For a long time we the church assumed that the Christian story would be carried on and perpetuated in the institutions and living memory of our society. We grew up in a Christian culture, it was the sea that we swam in. But stories are forgotten. Think about our first lesson, at the start of the book of Exodus: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex 8.1). Joseph and all that he did for Egypt was forgotten by the new rulers, but faith in God and in his promises remained strong in the hearts of the women who entrusted Moses to the river, and their faith was rewarded.
Our Christian story is only as real as those who remember it and live it. Without them, it will be forgotten. It matters. It’s the best story that there is, it’s the best answer to what people need to hear. That story lives in our hearts and in our lives. Who do we say that Jesus is? We say that he is light, and love, and hope, and life. We say with Peter that he is Son of God. We say that for one another when we need to hear it. We say it to a world that needs to hear it.