Sermon for Sunday, August 21, 2011 || Proper 16A || Matthew 16:13-20
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen
If you have heard me preach this year, you have heard me struggle with some of the most difficult texts our church asks us to consider. This week, I am thrilled to say that I have had a remarkable time thinking about, praying with and discussing the assigned texts for today. They are wonderfully rich, much lighter fare, and I think, pretty clear and positive underpinnings of some of the most important beliefs that we all share as the corporate body of Christ. And the Gospel is, at least offered up in a way that is imaginable, open, accessible and vitally important to us today.
This morning’s gospel begins with what reads like a pop quiz from Jesus. Matthew’s gospel has already included the stories of much of Jesus’ healing and miraculous ministry. He has fed thousands of people, healed others, walked town to town being God among us. This morning’s Gospel marks a turning point between watching and witnessing Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus beginning to talk with the disciples about the work and his expectations about what they are to do after His death.
But he doesn’t just launch into a laundry list of what they have to do, or tell them directly. In the tradition of great teachers, he engages the disciples by asking questions. The first is what I think of as a warm up question. “Who do they say the Son of Man – (speaking of himself) is?” I can clearly picture the disciples, sitting around Jesus, perhaps in the shade of a tree by a river in Caesarea, listening to this question. To modern ears he has asked the equivalent of “Hey, what are they saying about me?” Which initially struck me as odd, because I am pretty sure that as God, Jesus probably knows the answer to this essentially rhetorical question.
Is he asking so that he can listen for honesty, or insightful reflection, or inviting the disciples to thoughtfully sort through what they have heard so that they deliver the most salient possibilities? And are the disciples trying to sort through the outrageous things that have been said about Jesus not wanting to dignify the far out theories – or God forbid – the criticisms?
I can imagine the disciples looking one to the other wondering just how much they should say. Should they mention some of the crazier stuff they have heard? Should they repeat what some have said about appreciating the miracles, and Jesus’ ability to cater food for thousands, but that he might want to think about the traffic tie-ups that ensue? Or the people who were lucky enough to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ carpentry services, but express frustration at not being able to get him to come back and finish a job, or do more work?
What Jesus hears are good ideas – some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah, some say one of the prophets. Each is a pretty good guess and none too outrageous. And in allowing the disciples to wrestle with what they have heard, Jesus is easing them into the next question – which is surely on the final exam –has been asked of the disciples, and every Christian through the ages since Jesus originally asked it, and is relevant and critically important for us to ask and answer today.
“Who do YOU say that I am?” and here Matthew’s text offers up Peter’s answer, which is so profound that it is referred to as Peter’s confession. I have always thought of this moment of Peter being the smarty-pants disciple in the group eagerly jumping in, perhaps even raising his hand.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”! and Jesus is so pleased and moved that he declares that he will build His whole church on the answer.
It is worth noting that while Peter knocks this answer out of the park, articulating the belief upon which all of Christendom is going to be built, next week we will spend time on the next story in Matthew, where – spoiler alert — Peter gets a major rebuke from Jesus for getting something really really wrong. But today’s Gospel is one of Peter’s true shining moments.
This is the first time in this Gospel that this connection of Jesus being the Messiah is made so directly, and Jesus the teacher is pleased. Upon hearing Peter I wonder if Jesus has a moment or glimmer of recognition of Peter truly knowing Him – does this allow Jesus the opportunity to take a deep breath of relief because for this moment, he is known and understood for who He is?
This is such an incredibly rich moment – so central in our understanding and in our practice. Truly, Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, states the premise upon which we have built our entire understanding of the truth of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.
And we continue to ponder, study and adapt our understanding of who Jesus is today. Our efforts toward understanding are echoed in other sanctuaries in Cohasset, across our state, country and the globe. Right this minute there are people in pulpits, standing in fields, gathered by rivers, huddled in tents, some meeting in secret, some talking through loudspeakers, some bowing head to head whispering some version of answering with their understanding of who Jesus is. And with all of these interpretations – I wonder how they sound to God – a cacophony, or a symphony?
Each Sunday we join together to say and act in both small and profound ways who we say Jesus is. Peter’s answer – Jesus is the Messiah and the son of the Living God – will be echoed in the words that we share in the Nicene Creed. Our service reflects that Jesus is the great teacher. Jesus is Lord – Through Jesus Christ our Lord is not just lovely language that ends many of our prayers, but rather a reminder that we are to obey him. Jesus is the peacemaker. We will greet each other with a sign of His peace. Jesus is the absolver – we will reflect upon and confess our sins and shortcomings, and through Him we will be forgiven.
Jesus is the source of reconciliation – through the Eucharist, as we reenact the last supper we will have the opportunity to be in communion with Him, and with each other. It is in those moments at the communion rail – on those times when there are few distractions, that I wonder whether we are providing Jesus with the same sense of being known as Peter’s declaration provided for him in Matthew’s gospel? We are invited to know and deepen our understanding of who Christ is in that act of communion.
Think of the other parts of our worship service that resonate with you – what do they say about who Jesus is?
After giving thanks for the Eucharist and for our blessed time here together, we will be sent out into the world to continue to answer the question Jesus poses. Having been nourished, known, reconnected and fed, you and I will go out into the world to declare who we say Jesus is – using our lives and our choices as our answer. As believers I think that we have the opportunity to answer the question many times a day and we demonstrate our beliefs about who Jesus is based on how we live and the choices we make.
I have done some short hand for my beliefs this morning. For anyone who can’t see it, I am wearing a t-shirt that gives Jesus the thumbs up – declaring that I am FOR him. For any social media mavens among us, this thumbs up is the same symbol that is offered all over the internet to help us rate everything from restaurants to status updates on Facebook.
I first actually saw a teenager wearing this shirt and thought – “Fantastic. I know what he thinks of Jesus”, which sent me on an internal wonder about whether he or I would “friend Jesus” on Facebook – which in today’s world is truly saying something about who you think someone is. They are either one of your friends – and you are in favor of them, or not. — For the record, I would totally friend Jesus.
I would suggest in this coming week – where I imagine many of us will be looking for shortcuts, as we navigate busy schedules trying to fit in the remainder of summer activities in a more compressed time frame – that we pause and reflect on how our decisions or actions are made because we are Christian — following one of the tenets that we know to be part of who Jesus is. Are we doing what God wants us to do?
Jesus’ response to Peter’s profound statement is to declare him the rock upon which he will build his church. I invite us to pause this week to consider decisions and choices that we make and consider whether we have joined Peter as part of the foundation of Jesus’ church, or not.
And if you aren’t sure, imagine yourself being described by someone else. As Jesus asks the disciples – “who do they say I am”, how would someone answer that about you?
This week I was asked to imagine how a family member might describe me to someone – it was a challenging exercise and I wondered how far down the list Christian, church-goer, Jesus follower or faithful person – would end up?
But it too sent me on a tangent that I carried with me through various meetings and interactions for the day – wondering how my counterpart in those conversations would describe me to someone else, and conversely how I would describe him or her to someone else. It was a very interesting exercise. And one that I am suggesting you consider during the coming week.
I have a week’s head start on you, and can attest to the fact that being attuned to our belief in Jesus as the son of the living God as we go about our day and make choices and decisions, can have a profound impact.
I will close with one, simple example from my week. I was having what I thought was to be a social lunch with a colleague who runs an organization that is sometimes at odds with my group, and in the middle of a catch up conversation, my lunch companion launched into what turned into an incredibly unpleasant string of criticisms and accusations about what we were doing well, and frankly what she would have us do differently.
After my initial shock – when I sat WAY back in my seat, I remembered this morning’s Gospel passage and my intent this week to constantly answer the question of who I say Jesus is. This completely changed my response to my lunch companion. Instead of jumping in with my reasons, rationale and TOTAL justification, I tried compassion.
I responded to her tone and agitation level by acknowledging it and offering appreciation for the struggle that she must have gone through to say the difficult things she said. (Now, you have to know that some of my response took tremendous effort, and for a split second, I DID wish that she were doing her own assessment of who she thinks Jesus is, because surely, I reasoned, she would have stopped herself from what felt like a full-on verbal attack.) However, upon hearing my compassionate – almost empathetic response – the change in her demeanor was instantaneous.
My response was not what she expected. It validated her frustration, and because it allowed her to ease off her aggressive tone, I am confident that we got to a much different place in our conversation than we would have, had I not been in internal conversation trying to answer who I say Jesus is.
I can’t guarantee that it will work like that for you this week, but I can say that it made a big difference in my week, and I very much liked the opportunity to use this gospel teaching, which was so important in Jesus’ and Peter’s day, and is vital to our lives together today.
So, I invite you to join me in appreciating the opportunities we have to answer Jesus’ question – by our actions – who do we say Jesus is. Amen