Simon Peter actually gets it right this time!
That’s something worthy of noting in and of itself.
Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
Their answers MAY be truthfully reporting
what others are saying…
…or perhaps, they are just dropping below radar,
falling short of ‘I-statements…’
with that all-too-common human ducking mechanism,
wherein we attribute to others what we are thinking ourselves…
— ‘“THEY are all saying” that you are
or John the Baptist
or one of the prophets.’
But Peter, beyond all expectation, gets it right this time:
His hand shoots up,
I kind of see him in this moment like Horschack from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
“Oh, oh, oh.”
(Sorry, that allusion was probably lost on anyone younger than 50!)
Oh, oh, oh. “You are the Messiah.”
Unbelievable — for Peter to know the right answer,
to understand the whole situation,
to really grasp what’s really going on:
“You are the Messiah.”
“That would be a correct answer, Simon Peter.”
But, you know what, friends:
one word answers,
rather than being helpful,
in certain circumstances,
they can be conversation-stoppers.
Well, even wrong.
Peter either got lucky or actually knew a little, for a seoond, of what he was speaking.
He hit the bullseye.
So what else was there to say?
Well, almost as soon as poor Peter finally can claim 100% on a test,
Jesus takes it further, keeps on going…
You see, one word answers
don’t really lend themselves to story-telling.
I mean, what more needs to be said beyond “Messiah”?
Well, according the the account we heard,
Jesus thinks there’s more to say.
And Jesus is the consummate story-teller
who wants people to tell the full story of their lives,
to wrestle with all, even if some of the loose ends aren’t tied up,
rather than rest assured and overly-confident.
Jesus calls us. like Jacob by the Jabbok,
to wrestle with our own lives.
And with each other.
And even with God.
And wrestle with the presence of God’s kingdom,
beyond the pages of Scripture
or what we think we’ve been told faith means.
Jesus wants to meet us
and find us
and help us find ourselves
where we REALLY are —
not in some timeless, perfect church space
or even in the unchanging rules from the Word of God.
No, Jesus wants to be with us
where we really live,
in all the variables and ambiguities, even the mistakes
of our all too real lives.
So Jesus isn’t satisfied with the single word title.
Or a one word answer.
In fact, he orders them sternly not to share it with others.
Instead, he keeps going,
takes them where it’s harder,
beyond the black and white,
past all the simple answers,
back into real life,
where things are often as deep as they are confusing, and messy,
or just unclear, even mysterious.
Jesus prefers the imperfect and the story,
the real testimony of living experience
and the word of God as we find it in our own lives
to the rote recitation of someone else’s formulations.
Think about it —
that’s what Jesus’ kept doing in his ministry,
his consistent approach to what makes for a faithful life:
…according to the Gospels,
he chides the prayer-book reciting Pharisee
and praises the awkward, halting prayer of the Tax collector
for whom all Sabbath rituals and social expectations of the day
and pretty much ALL piety
is passed over
in favor of God’s mercy, given and received.
Why then for so many Christians,
has the answer to who Jesus is
been removed from their own religious experience
and assigned to an something more refined,
or even canned?
Someone else’s faith or creed,
another’s interpretation or tradition,
just too simple a definition or title.
Church, Jesus won’t let us rest there.
He continues further, to where it’s messy,
in effect sketching what being the Messiah means,
maybe even deliberately unsettling us,
leading us into discomfort lest we’re too comfortable:
“the son of Man must undergo great suffering
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes,
and be killed,
and after three days, rise again.”
Peter, perhaps emboldened by his earlier success,
steps right into it,
almost a spiritual trap,
pretty much cancelling out his “good disciple” status,
by taking Jesus aside
“Jesus, come over here.
Now really, what’s with all this negative talk.
Who’s really going to follow you,
if you’re telling them about crucifixion and death?”
Folks, if it was uncharacteristic
for Peter to get faith right for a change
now he’s blown it big time:
Jesus turns to all the other disciples
and in turn rebukes (I’ve always liked that word)
Jesus rebukes Peter publicly:
“Get behind me, Satan.
You are focused on human things, instead of lifting your head toward the Divine.”
Not to side with Peter over against Jesus,
but is it really that surprising that Peter’s wallowing in the human
and finding it hard to get enough altitude for the Divine?
Sometimes I appreciate how wonderfully,
dependably human Peter is!
Poor Peter almost plays the Gospel’s straw man,
a poster image of disciples who never quite get it,
….and when he thinks he does,
he ends up serving as an example of how wrong we often are!
Church, we have a choice of how we respond to Peter,
we can get all high and mighty,
shake our heads knowingly
so everyone can see our disbelief,
and — with a slightly elevated inflection —
voice our surprise,
…ask a bit too loudly
— so others will hear and know that we’re not guilty of Peter’s denseness —
how can this guy be so off base so often?
Or, if we take a step back in humility,
we might see in our brother Simon Peter
a bit of a fellow traveler,
uncover some compassion and sympathy
for another hapless child of God,
pretty much like us,
whose intentions are good,
but who more often than he’s probably comfortable with
somehow gets turned around and lost along the way.
I think Jesus means this story to put “the question” to us this morning.
Who are we saying that Jesus is?
There are those few word answers —
Son of Man, Lord and Savior, the Anointed of God.
But a few words are a duck
and reduce our answers to tautologies really,
werein we’re right only,
if we’re right at all,
in as much as we haven’t said that much,
…at least not about our lives and experience and faith.
The short answer,
even if right,
doesn’t really get into the thick of things.
Beloved, If someone asked you who this Jesus is,
more than quoting a title or using some creedal phrase,
how would you tell people about who this Christ is in your life?
Do you have a story to share?
Could begin trying to describe a feeling?
Perhaps its about love,
how you recognize being loved and how you can love?
It’s a skill we’re not so good in the UCC
about training our Christians in —
how to express our faith publicly,
beyond the confines of our own hearts.
Instead, we hold it all inside,
like a secret,
or a lamp under a bushel.
I wish we were better at it!
Because I figure,
if you are participating in a congregation,
if you are showing up here,
if you can put up with the nonsense and disappointment
that come along
as surely as
the joy and love of
belonging to a church —
…if you are here,
I believe you must have had some moving spiritual experience, even just one,
somewhere along the way.
And while you might not explain your faith like every other Christian,
you are here because
some of the poetry and practice of the church
promises to help you hold on to and draw from
that spiritual experience that is undeniably and forever yours.
But, church, here’s the problem:
most of us can come to church Sunday after Sunday,
perhaps our whole lives,
and never get the chance,
or be expected to share
the mustard seed or mountain of
spiritual experience we’ve had.
It’s like we’re all sitting on these big secrets
that could lift the roof off this sanctuary!
And for remaining silent,
our collective experience of the Divine is that much poorer,
and our witness is that much weaker.
“Who are we saying that he is?”
The answer I commonly hear is,
“I don’t know what I believe.”
“I’m not comfortable talking about faith.”
But, beloved, I believe you do know who he is. .
And what you believe.
I believe you know much more
than you are confident in saying.
And that it’s the church’s job to help you find those words.
You know why I am so confident?
Because your lives show what you believe.
If one looks carefully,
one can tell from how you speak and what you do…
…people can see what you believe,
how you are, who you are…
what you say and do,
your words and actions can even show someone
something about this Jesus…
the life you live, the love you share
can offer a glimpse of God.
In your willingness to roll up your sleeves,
and dive into the messiness of our real lives.
To accept and love and work with and serve people like yourselves,
who are neither all good,
nor all bad.
To realize that life isn’t ever so much
about how right you are,
and is always much more about
how much you love.
I shared an essay recently,
from a woman who wrote
about the experience of her husband’s unexpected death
at too young an age.
She concluded that uncomfortable with being uncomfortable with life
wasn’t such a bad way to be human.
(Because at least it was showing up for the real thing.)
She said, she’s trying to watch her feelings
as they pass through her and her life,
rather than chase them away with alcohol and ambien or netflix.
And she’s trying harder
to engage with people as they are —
…not being afraid of strangers,
asking better questions,
really listening to the answers,
not being afraid to go to a second location,
being less judgemental of herself and others.
I was talking with a friend this week,
about someone else (that doesn’t sound so good!),
but we were talking about a friend we both care about,
who is stuck, so stuck he wonders if he can live,
And my friend had an insight:
Unless you are willing to suffer
there’s not much hope.
It sounds sort of gloomy, huh?
But in context it made a lot of sense.
But my friend heard how gloomy it sounded,
and corrected herself:
Maybe, better would be:
unless you are willing to do your own work,
there’s not much hope.
Bullseye. There’s a story in that.
Church, you are people who are willing to do your work,
to wade into the waters and the dangers and pain of living
in order to find each other and ourselves and Jesus.
And there’s hope.
Church, I give thanks for the faith you have,
even as I invite you,
in response to Jesus’ question,
to find ways to live and to share your faith more…
There is a benediction that I have always loved,
it comes from Howard Moody, the former Pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan,
where I was a member, and it’s fittint today:
“And now unto all of you who are the Living Word,
more precious than print,
more sacred than Scripture,
walk in humility
and act in mercy
that all may see the Spirit,
whose image you bear.”
Howard Moody September 7, 1997