By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
(Delivered at The Church of the Good Samaritan, Paoli, PA)
August 24, 2008
Read: Matthew 16:13-20
“Who do you say that I am?” is still the question that Jesus asks us today. “Who do you say that I am?”
Can you see, can you imagine with me, the looks on the disciples faces when Jesus asks this question of them. I can imagine faces looking down or away or anywhere but at Jesus’ face, feet shuffling, kicking a pile of dirt. What is the right answer?
What is your answer today? Often, we want Jesus to be just like us, to fit the mold that we have decided is good and correct for Jesus, for God. Most of us have a problem with who Christ really is, with the way Christ chooses to do things. Tom Long recalls a prayer by 6-year old Norma: Dear God, did you mean for giraffes to look that way, or was that an accident? Long observes that this prayer already expresses a rudimentary quarrel with God: Norma would not have made giraffes the way God made them–and neither would we. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. If it was up to us, Christ would be exactly the way we wanted him to be.
In her commentary on Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, Linda Bamber reminds us that, for good or for bad, we tend to look for ourselves in a story as a way of understanding the story, as a way of empathizing with the characters. She opens her comments this way:
When adults show children how to read a map, they say, “Here is your street (or state or nation),” and the habit of finding ourselves on the map persists when we are grown up. When travelers return with pictures of Cairo or Barcelona, they say, “That’s the hotel we stayed in, there,” as if it explained the picture. If a work of fiction is a map of its own world, the first question we ask of it is, “Where am I in here?” or “Who is like me?” This question is unsophisticated but important, because it shapes our most basic responses. Only when we have answered it do we know who to love and hate and what to hope for.
As I read her words, I realize that we respond in the same way with scripture. We try to “locate ourselves” in the story, including our text for today.
– Am I one of the Disciples who are put on the spot by Jesus?
– Am I one of the people the Disciples know or know about, whose answer they bring to Jesus?
– Am I a bystander who overhears this conversation, but is unaffected by it?
There are many people who seem to want to be the bystander. They want to be a part of what is called the “water cooler” conversations. Too many people want to join in the gossip about the Disciples – and maybe even about Jesus – rather than be directly affected by the story.
Those of us who claim a relationship with Jesus Christ, however, those of us who want to be included in the church Jesus builds, have no choice but to locate ourselves squarely in the place where the Disciples find themselves. We cannot read this in any other way. We read this story as if Jesus is asking the questions of us.
So what are our neighbors saying about Jesus and what do we think? (If we don’t have an answer to the first question, we need to spend more time with our neighbors and if we don’t have an answer to the second question, we need to spend more time with Jesus.)
Peter breaks the uncomfortable silence with the statement, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus pronounces Peter blessed, the rock upon which the church will be built and the inheritor of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
But, you know, Peter’s answer isn’t really Peter’s answer. Jesus says that ‘flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven’. And I wonder about the living God part of his statement. Peter doesn’t just say that Jesus is the Son of God, he says he is the son of the living God. A vital, active, moving, LIVING presence. Living implies a relationship…it is on Peter’s relationship with Jesus that the church is built, not on any virtue of Peter’s—or yours, or mine.
My friend Barbara states: “Peter may not exhibit the flawless character, the intellectual profundity, the spiritual depth I would prefer in the founder of my church, but I will tell you this: I am really glad to hear that he is the one in charge of heaven’s gates. Someone like him may understand someone like me—someone who finds answers hard to come by, who finds it easier and safer to repeat other people’s answers—because I have not thought about my own, or because my own do not sound good enough, or because I do not trust God to help me with them. Peter may understand someone who goes ahead and says things and then regrets them, or makes brave promises, like, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt 26:35) and then loses heart, saying not once but three times, “I do not know the man” (Matt 26:74).
If Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, then there is hope for all of us, because he is one of us, because he remains God’s chosen rock whether he his acting like a cornerstone or a stumbling block, and because he shows us that blessedness is less about perfectness than about willingness—that what counts is to risk our own answers, to go ahead and try, to get up one more time than we fall.
What joins us together as one is our proclamation that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God. It is our relationship with Jesus that we hold in common. It is this relationship that is the foundation for Trinity, Coatesville’s relationship with Good Samaritan. We may speak of different understandings of what Jesus looks like, but we know deep in our hearts that my Jesus, our Jesus and your Jesus is the Son of the Living God. The Living God. A God of relationship, of fluidity, of movement, of creativity, of being beyond our comprehension. The God of our salvation. As Paul says to us in Romans, “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.”
Another friend, Barbara Crafton shares: “The brain is flesh and blood. A brain on its own is soft and seemingly formless: it needs the cranium to hold its shape. But it’s a lot tougher than it looks: although there was a time, not that long ago, when everybody thought that the patient would surely die if the brain were even touched, today doctors do all sorts of drastic things to brains, right up to and including cutting them in half, and usually the brains come out of it just fine.
The human brain is so unprepossessing in its appearance that it was a long time until doctors understood that it had anything to do with thinking. For centuries, that faculty was located elsewhere — the stomach, the heart. Even the liver for a while. But now, we can image the process of thinking — we can actually see the brain do it.
And so we see that thinking is a very physical thing. Physical, and electrical, too: thought is energy. Thought happens in the world of history. We do thought, just like we do other things: we walk, we eat, we scratch an itch, and we think. And yet, and yet — we know and sense that thought isn’t just like these other activities. Thought authors things. Thought creates a possibility, and sometimes that possibility comes to be. So thought authors history, as well as living in it.
Peter blurts out his confession: his friend Jesus is really the Messiah! Other ideas about Jesus have surfaced already — maybe he is Elijah, or John the Baptist, or maybe Jeremiah. These opinions are based on evidence, at least as far as their authors are concerned: to them, at least, they make some sense. But these ideas do not come to be. This is the one that works its way from spirit through the flesh and blood an unlikely miracle of thought into a spoken word that lands dead center on the truth.
The things we know are more numerous than they used to be. They’re growing in number all the time; we get smarter and smarter. For each of us, though, thought authors something that needs our flesh and blood in order to come to be. It must somehow be applied. Someone must watch and receive the gift that thought authors, whatever it might be.
May we all, as children of the living God, receive the gift of God’s abundant mercy and grace to live, to truly find life and proclaim with all of our being that Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Amen.
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