Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16: 13-20.
Every Sunday after the sermon, we stand up to say words together. The UCC’s statement of faith is common. Or an other affirmation at the back of the hymnal.
On Anniversary Sunday, we use the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, which asks: “What is my only comfort in life and death?;”
and then answers “That I, with body and soul, both in life and death am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…”
I’ve used other texts too. For example, the Farm Worker’s Prayer or the Prayer of St. Francis. There are Scripture passages that work well too… Psalm 23 or Romans 8.
More, different affirmations than Old First had in the past. Why? Because no one set of words, no matter how inspired, sums up or encompasses the depth and mysteries of faith.
Different “renderings” also help our people with the various nuances of our faith. Have you noticed, we talk about the same God, but we don’t all sound the same?
There’s one more reason for changing up what we say. The variety makes an important point. Namely, none of these words are obligatory. This is not a test of your faith. The Affirmation of Faith isn’t some bar you have to attain. A standard to measure whether your faith is “right,” “approved” or “sufficient.”
For folks used to… comfortable at Old First, and for people from churches that recite the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed in every service, the affirmation of faith may feel like what one does at church. Maybe you’ve never even thought of it.
But for those raised in the free church traditions, it stands out. Can get in the way. Especially over against all the ways Old First affirms openness, individuality, and freedom of conscience.
A recent visitor from the UCC’s congregational side asked: “I’m not sure about us all standing up and saying together what we ALL believe. Do we?”
~ Some say every word of the Affirmation…
~ Others pick and choose (not that I look!), parts they say wholeheartedly; parts they mumble or skip.
~One of you says, you fall silent, so you can listen to everyone else, and for God.
Another explains: “The Affirmation of Faith is for me a spiritual exercise, a challenge really: standing before God each Sunday, can I grow clearer what I believe? …even when that ends up being about what I don’t believe.”
Another laughs & explains. “Michael, don’t fret too much about what Affirmation we use; choose whatever you want; my faith is found in another phrase you often use: “No matter who, no matter where on life’s journey, we’re all welcome here.” Whatever the rest of us may or may not be saying, this worshiper just repeats that line quietly to himself as a way to thank God.
Beloved, there’s no one mandatory formula. No “must say” words you have to accede to in to be fit in here Or to win God’s favor. Instead, celebrate your own response to faith. There’s a gracious breath of practice and understanding included across the Christian church, starting right here.
And the United Church of Christ teaches that “real faith” (whatever that might mean) always begins with the freedom to be honest– with yourself, with God and with your neighbor.
The Affirmation of Faith, practice it in whatever way feels right to you… Because affirmations are about bringing us nearer; it’s to be a bridge, not a stumbling block. Sort of like why God loved us first.
We misunderstand this Matthew passage if we hear this encounter between Simon Peter and Jesus warning us “if you don’t use the right formula of faith…” If it leaves you feeling there’s only one right way to relate to or claim Jesus… say as your “personal Lord and Savior.”
So influenced by Paul’s emphasis on faith, tradition has often worked Christianity out as a series of confessions. But Simon was clear, others recognize Jesus differently. And Jesus didn’t condemn them. In fact, Jesus explained, how we are given to recognize him is not something we accomplish. Instead, it’s what God gives us to know… At the end of today’s passage, Jesus actually instructs us not to tell anyone else he is the Messiah.
There are faithful people at Old First who’d never use language that others would use without a second thought. There are faithful people here who aren’t so sure what exactly it means to call Jesus the Christ.
Here’s an example from my own faith life: I refer and relate more readily to the “sweaty human-guy Jesus” I could meet on the road of my everyday life… “Christ” for me is more of a graduate school concept. A theological construction.
One of my best friends in ministry, however, is adamant that I can’t know Jesus, because I didn’t live when he did; …that the only Savior I could possibly know– after the resurrection and ascension– according to my friend, is this cosmic Christ…
Somehow, human differences of opinion or personality or spiritual style, like all the theological detail that often hold the various churches at arms length from one another… I can’t imagine they matter that much to God.
Remember last week’s story of the Canaanite woman? Jesus remarked and responded to the woman’s faith. But she never actually articulated any formal faith position! Instead, she took Jesus serious enough to take him on, to tell him he was wrong in not showing her and her people more love and care. Reminds me of one of my former parishioners, who’d get in arguments with God, as if God were as present and real and frustrating to her as her sister she lived with most of her adult life.
Her chutzpah, her willingness to fight with God… for Jesus that was sufficient faith.
…”On this rock, I will build my church.” Not surprisingly, the church interprets Jesus’ statement about the foundation of his church variously. The Catholic Church says the Rock was Peter himself, essentially the first Pope. Protestant understanding, if there can be said to be one, has the church founded not on the person of Peter, but upon his confession.
Both times I’ve stood at Caesarea Philippi, I wondered: “no literalist has ever taken Jesus’ statement at face value? Could a literally-minded Christian not suggest that, instead of Jerusalem, or Rome or Constantinople or Wittenberg or Canterbury or Philadelphia or Cleveland… maybe Caesarea Philippi should be our homebase.
You see, there’s this towering rock face right where Jesus talked this way with Simon Peter. …an unscalable cliff really, from which run spring-fed pools become streams that become the Jordan River…
Actually, Jesus often used nature right around him to make his preaching points. And the church is built on this rock wall we inevitably keep running into or beating our heads against– the barrier between who we are and who God is, the difference between our breadth of understanding and any real grasp of God.
Beloved, faith isn’t some test of our political or spiritual correctness! Instead, it’s our willingness to be vulnerable before that which is greater than you yourself could ever be. It’s about taking off our masks and ceasing to pretend. It’s about standing in the shadow of a cliff so high you’ll never see over it. About letting ourselves be dependent and insufficient with the words whose meanings we know are beyond us. Risking opening ourselves to that which is so much greater than us, to Someone greater than us.
Simon Peter never quite got what Jesus was all about or the difference Jesus made for his life. But along the way, he gets changed. Jesus renamed Simon (not the other way around1) Jesus redefines Simon’s identity. Simon becomes “Peter,” in Greek “Petrus,” “Rock” … on this rock.
When the Bible uses “rock,” what’s it usually referring to? When I say before the sermon, “May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer?– what’s that Rock?
The Rock’s certainly not my words. Or my faith even on my most believeing day. Or the meditations of our hearts, no matter how profound they might be. It’s not the breadth or the narrowness of our faith. No, the only rock we can count on is God. …The only foundation we can stand firmly on.
Beloved, church focused on God, if you will, not on us. Not about our hearts full to bursting with faith or lives emptied by questions or overwhelmed by doubts. But about God who is the answer to all of those. We’re welcome here not because of who we are or, surprisingly, what we believe, but because God wants us here. Can you imagine if a Jewish neighbor or a Muslim tourist or someone’s Hindu spouse showed up– which of course happens– would we turn them away?
One person told me, “I’m not really showing up for anything spiritual; I just need a place to sit, quietly, by myself, but with people, and grieve.” Welcome.
Because more than anything we can do or say, if we let God, God will change us… Our epistle reading, I think, helps:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Mark, you are the liturgist, and you usually lead us in the Affirmation of Faith, but may I handle it today?
All right then. Please, rise if you are able. And turn to your neighbor, and share one thing that you are sure of, whatever that may be, religious or not– something you believe most deeply…