Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
The servant is vindicated by God
I will walk in the presence of the LORD. (Ps. 116:9)
Dangers of the unbridled tongue
Peter’s confession of faith
“Who do people say that I am?” This is an interesting question for marketers at this time of year in the United States, as voters prepare for the mid-term elections. Candidates for every position and in every state want to know how they are doing in the polls, what people are saying about who they are, what they stand for, how their record is being interpreted or misinterpreted. Lots of office-seekers pay big money to various PR firms and consultants to shape the story of who people say they are.
If anything is clear in today’s Gospel reading, it is that Jesus did not have a public relations specialist. Still, he was an increasingly well-known figure in the communities he visited, so he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
There are various answers including political rebel, teacher, and heretic, carpenter, prophet, and miracle worker. Last week, a Gentile woman called Jesus Lord.
Jesus presses on, asking how his own disciples understand him. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Church people usually know Peter’s answer: “You are the Messiah, the anointed one.” It sounds like the right kind of answer to give to a question from Jesus. But Jesus is interested in heart truth as well as brain truth.
If he were to look into your eyes today, and ask you who you say he is, what would your answer be? If someone had never before heard the story of Jesus what would you tell them about him? What stories would you to emphasize? The Good Samaritan? The Prodigal Son? Jesus flipping over the money-changers’ tables in the temple? The resurrection? That time he called the Syro-Phoencian woman a dog and she fought back?
Would it be must important for you to make sure they understood Jesus as a Healer? A Miracle Worker? A Teacher? A Sacrifice? What? Or rather, WHO?
I don’t think I’m overstating the importance of your answer to Jesus’ question when I say that it shapes everything about your life, your faith, and how you experience the world. How you answer Jesus’ question informs how you spend your time, your money, your energy, your talents. No matter how your family or culture or community wants to define you, no matter what your WORDS say, the way you live expresses what you truly believe.
And Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is not only a central question for each of us to wrestle with personally for the rest of our lives, it is also a pivotal question for us to answer collectively. Who do we, the congregation Trinity Lutheran Church, say that Jesus is? Of course, Christians attempt to embrace the complexity of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We try to express the attributes of God we find central by referring to God as Savior or Lord or Servant or Creator and a wide variety of other titles, but inevitably, some groups lean toward certain characteristics and some toward others. No one congregation or denomination or religion captures everything there is to say about God in its self-understanding—that’s why there are so many of us!
But since we are here, in this community, I’m interested in how we answer the question, “Who do we say Jesus is?” When a visitor comes here, what do they learn about who Jesus is? How is our response communicated to them? What attributes and activities of God do our ministries emphasize? What do our physical space, our worship services, our relationships with other congregations or community programs say about who we think Jesus is? What do our printed materials, our budget, our website, say about what we believe? Is there anything important we want to say about Jesus that is being left out? Are we saying some things we might not mean to be saying?
I doubt that there is a clear, definitive answer we all might give. My guess is that it changes from time to time, depending on where we are in our faith journeys, separately and together. Not only that, but we are bound to stumble in our efforts to live faithful lives as individuals and as a congregation. One day our actions might announce with Peter that Jesus is the Savior of the world, and on him hang all our hopes, but the very next moment our lives might preach a completely different message—revealing us as the nearsighted, sinful, and confused people we are.
So I want to remind us all of this important detail: today’s big revelation about the true nature of Jesus comes from Peter. You know the one: Peter, who sinks into the waves immediately after walking out toward Jesus in faith. Peter who—when Jesus needs him most—repeatedly tells complete strangers,” I don’t know the man.” Peter, who is afraid of the cross, who is so like us in so, so many ways, getting it wrong over and over… THAT Peter is one to whom Jesus says today, “On you I will build my church.” It is to Peter that Jesus gives the authority to enforce or release the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s on Peter’s shoulders that we, the Church, ride, for better and for worse.
Remember that morning on a beach after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus takes Peter aside, breathes peace to him, and invites him to continue to share in Jesus’ ministry? Jesus feeds Peter and shares with him a dream of caring for all the lambs of the world. Peter has shown himself to be less than trustworthy, and yet Jesus sees potential in Peter. He takes another chance on him. And then another. Seventy times seven chances, I’d venture to guess. Peter is multi-dimensional, both more and less than we think he is.
If Peter had ever dared to ask Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” he would hear the stirring truths that he is both the Rock on whom Jesus wants to build the church AND a man of little faith. My hunch is that we’d all hear pretty much the same thing, but I still think it would be a fantastic prayer exercise to try. Let me know what you hear if you decide to ask Jesus this week, “Who do you say that I am?”
Remember that in God’s view, there aren’t any good guys or bad guys. There’s just beloveds, and God so loves us all that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life! God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. That’s love. That’s who Jesus is and how Jesus sees us.
When terrible things happen around us or to us or because of us, God acts in the midst of them, transforming what looks like the end into a new beginning. God’s dream is always for life and life abundant. Even in the face of death, God’s final word is resurrection, not annihilation. God’s plan for Peter and you and me and the world is this: feasting for the hungry, sight for the blind, freedom for the captive, hope for the hopeless, and forgiveness for the broken. God’s plan is to hold close, to connect us to each other and to God, and to redeem even the darkest hours of our lives.
That is who we say that Jesus is. That is what we bite into at the Lord’s Supper, and that is what soaks us in our baptisms. Nothing can separate us from that love: not height, nor depth, nor things present, nor things to come, nor angels nor demons, nor powers, nor principalities, nor our testimonials to the true nature of God, or our failures to give such testimonials or our inability to give them well, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from our God who is love.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider