"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Friday, August 19, 2011
Sunday Sermon. "But you: Who do you say that I am?" Mat.16.13-20
I’ve been an Anglican for most of my adult life but before I joined the congregation here I’d spent the last few years worshipping with the Lutheran Church. Through them I was sponsored to go to Vicar School and I graduated a couple of years ago. But the Lutheran church wasn’t for me in the end – or perhaps, more to the point, I wasn’t for them (far too Anglican I was told) and so here I am, a returner to the Anglican fold.
Now, I suspect most of you have little experience of Lutherans, but you may have come across the American Author Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone stories set in deepest Minnesota. Keillor’s Lutherans, mainly of Scandinavian origin, were a morose lot who flourished in a cold climate, believing that adversity and suffering were given as moral instruction. Their religion was primarily Christianity but made room for the ancient Nordic precept that the gods were waiting to smack you one if you were having too good a time. So they believed in the inevitability of suffering - far better to anticipate disaster: if life was not miserable now it would be eventually, so you might as well get a head start on the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the here and now.
Their big theological debate was over the issue “Will we recognise each other in Heaven?” One Lutheran might say: “My sainted Grandmother is waiting for me beyond the pearly gates, free from suffering and care, and if you are saying I won’t know her, you are ignorant of scripture and you’re going to Hell you heretic!” Another Lutheran might reply: “It’s not important to me one way or the other but if you think your face is something God will allow in a place of perfect bliss, maybe you ought to take another look.”
They were also theologically divided on the best way to make coleslaw.
Pastor Inqvist was the Lutheran Pastor of Lake Wobgone. His congregation hoped for a sermon with a storming start and a storming finish….and as short a space as possible between the two. So here we go:
Peter's confession in Matthew’s Gospel. These verses are among the most studied, debated, and disputed verses in the New Testament because historically, they’ve been central to issues of authority in the church, especially the authority of Popes as successors to Peter.
You may remember a couple of weeks ago, Fr. Derek reminded us about one of the key things we need to bear in mind when we read the gospels: who was this portion written for? Who was the target audience, if you like, because it changes? And understanding this helps us to understand more clearly the message in that portion of scripture. Sometimes we see Jesus talking to his disciples but the message he speaks is clearly intended for the Pharisees. The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying but the Pharisees certainly did. They were his audience on those occasions rather than the disciples. So to develop Fr. Derek’s thinking we need perhaps to recognise that sometimes there is an implied audience. Again in today’s Gospel we’ve heard Jesus speaking to his disciples: they were his target audience on this occasion but at the same time we need to ask ourselves who else might Jesus be speaking to? And this time we should see ourselves as the implied audience because we, too, are disciples. What Jesus said (in the past tense) to his friends – and particularly to Peter, all that time ago, he is saying to us today: is saying - present tense. Now. This morning.
I’d like us to reflect for a moment on this Jesus. Here is a man who has left his mark on history, which is fairly surprising given that he lived a long time ago in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere, came from a poor family with no political or social clout, didn’t travel extensively, never wrote down his thoughts and ideas and died in fairly ignominious circumstances. In the normal course of events he ought really to have been lost to history. Yet this man became one of the most revered and talked about people who ever walked the human stage and I’m entirely confident that those three or four years of his public ministry have had a profound impact on the lives of each of us here. The problem is that there is a dearth of material from Jesus’ own time and mountains of conflicting material from every generation since. So which Jesus are we talking about? Gentle Jesus meek and mild, as the hymn would have us believe? (Small children and fluffy bunnies?) Remote, mystical Jesus championed by an army of conspiracy writers such as Dan Brown? Radical-revolutionary Jesus so beloved by the downtrodden in the liberation movement? Nerdy-precocious Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis in the temple in his youth? The Jesus of the American televangelists (“put your hands up to the screen and Jesus will heal you”)? Jesus: Remote? Or close?
Will the real Jesus please stand up!
Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus poses a key question. He starts the exchange with his disciples with the opening gambit “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We can imagine the disciples processing this: “The Son of Man” is a term found a number of times in Jewish Scripture, so however rough and ready and uneducated his followers might have been, they should have known the term. But they don’t at this stage seem to have made the connection between the title “Son of Man” and Jesus himself though, because they come up with a variety of first-thing-that-come-into-their-heads answers.
Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Now they know that Jesus is referring to himself, and you can’t help but wonder at this point how foolish the disciple who offered “John the Baptist” as an initial answer is now feeling. Perhaps there is some friendly teasing at this point as they laugh at the daft answers they’d come up with…… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has just said and begin to consider it themselves.
Perhaps there is a similar mental back-tracking taking place here as we also realise the implication of both the question - and Simon Peter’s response: after all, every time this passage is read we are forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. As modern disciples we are the implied audience for this segment: it’s not just a story from back then. It’s a challenge for us today. No, it won’t hurt us at all to consider that Jesus is still asking the question of you and I today, here, this morning – and every time we hear this story, so when we ask: “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” his counter question is “Who do you think that I am then?” with a reply swiftly supplied by Peter: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”.
If Peter was actually the first to have fully understood the nature of the man he had been travelling with and sleeping cheek by jowl with, what had he thought before? How had the others understood this Jesus who had called them from their ordinary routines to this life on the road as religious itinerants? Which of the disciples’ answers best represents ours? Are we at that stage of spiritual awareness where we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet, perhaps, which is where my Muslim friends get stuck? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time? A political activist with a bad sense of timing?
Or like Simon Peter, have we recognised something beyond that? Have we had that moment of dawning realisation where we recognise that Jesus is….not was….is indeed the Christ, the son of the Living God?
Yes, Jesus, the Living Lord of the Church, responds, present tense, persistently down the generations “But YOU: who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in our lives. How anyone answers that question is a matter of huge significance.
It goes to the heart of our relationship with God; it goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves; it goes to the heart of how we lead our lives; to the heart of the relationships we have amongst ourselves and to the heart of the very motives which drive our lives and our decisions.
When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the Living God, Jesus begins to become known for whom he is and things begin to change: Jesus promised to build his Church upon this confession of faith but the true foundation of the Church is the one whom Peter confesses not the confession. So we need, perhaps, to ask ourselves again “Who do I think that he is?” And when we do, we re-live this Gospel story. As we individually and personally reply to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to us - to each of us - “You, too, are Peter and with you, too, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues and it includes us – present tense: it includes us. It’s in the here and now.
Look at the last 2000 years and consider them as rings of time - a ring for each decade say, scores and scores of such circles. We are in the very outermost circle, farthest away from the centre - and at the centre is the Cross. We are brought into the circle, into the faith, in large part because somewhere, somehow, someone in the circle just before ours took us by the hand, so to speak, and said, “come,” and so drew us in. That is one very important reason why we are here. That person was able to do this for us because someone else had taken him or her by the hand and had drawn them in and that’s what we in our turn should be doing to others. And way back we are in continuity with someone who was there at the start: with Jesus himself.
That continuity is a continuity of Christ’s presence, a continuity of faith, a continuity of tradition and doctrine, and a continuity of people - each connected to those who went before because we’ve recognised Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Part of the identity we receive from the Lord, is the same as Peter’s. He was the first stone of the edifice the Lord is building - is building, present tense. That structure is the church. Not a building, a community of disciples past present and to come. Peter was the first stone of a building which God is continuing to build. We continue to be called to be who Peter was called to be. Through us, and by us, Christ continues to build his church. Through us, Christ continues to be present in his world.
But we only play our role in that process when we answer his question “Who do you think that I am?” with the reply “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”