By The Rev. Sherry Deets

11 Pentecost, Proper 16 – August 24, 2014

Matthew 16:13-20

“But who do you say that I am?” This question is posed to Jesus’ disciples, but it is a powerful question for us today. Who do you say that Jesus is? Gathered in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus wonders aloud what the crowds are saying about him but more importantly what the disciples think. It’s another way of saying, “Why are you following me? Why have you left everything you know? Who do you say that I am?” And so it might be worthwhile to ask the question today. Why are you here? Why have you chosen to follow this Galilean peasant? Why are you on this path?

Jesus asks us, he asks you and me, “Who do you say that I am”? This is, at its heart, a question of identity. It is a question of extraordinary vulnerability. Think about it. He’s asking on what you will wager your lives, the claim of your being. This is no benign question but has everything to do with who the disciples think Jesus is and more importantly, who they think they are.

Questions like this are risky, so risky. Like our Exodus story. On what will you stake your identity, your life, your future? How do you want to be known?

This really is the question of life, isn’t it? Do you know who you are? Who you want to be? What are the demons that make reflecting on that impossible? Because there are many. The demons that tell you that you can’t. The demons that tell you that you are not good enough. The demons that insist you aren’t enough. Period.

Hear Jesus’ question as less about certainty and more about inquiry. About imagination. About exploration. About possibility. I want us to wonder together for a moment or two what we actually mean when we say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. Or that Jesus is Lord. Or, for the theologically inclined, that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity. Or, in the words of the Creed, that Jesus is light from light, very God from very God, begotten but not made.

You see, I think it’s really hard to align our lives with our confession when we don’t really understand what that confession means. And I’m not sure most of us really do – myself included. (We can take some comfort, I think, that Peter didn’t understand what he said either, as we’ll learn next week.) Because this whatever-it-is that Jesus was and is…it’s really hard to put into words that we can understand. And so we come up with titles and formulations and all the rest, trying to get at the mystery of what God has done in and through Jesus, and that’s understandable. But all too often those words only keep the wild and unpredictable God of love and grace at arms distance from us, and Jesus remains inspiring and exemplary, but ultimately rather tame and eminently safe, kind of like the prophets of old seem to us.

So, what do you mean when you confess Jesus as Lord? Can we put it into words? My friend David has this to say: I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. In this sense, Jesus revealed God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and think seriously about ending their lives, a heart that is upset and angry when a young black man is shot dead for no explicable reason, a heart that is torn up in grief at the desperate situation and violence that rips apart the land we’ve named Holy, a heart that loves us like only an adoring parent can and so not only wants the best for us but is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love.

But it’s more than that, too. I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.

So, who do you say that Jesus is? The question is one of identity and our answer says more about who we are, than who Jesus is. The things we do this week — our actions, decisions, choices — will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or damage of the world. Andy Andrews wrote a little book called The Butterfly Effect in which he catalogues the extraordinary impact of simple and courageous efforts. Except when you go back, you can never really tell which efforts made the biggest difference. So, for instance, should Norman Borlaug, who developed high yield, disease resistant corn and wheat be credited with saving two billion lives from famine, or should Henry Wallace, the one-term U.S. Vice-President, who created an office in New Mexico to develop hybrid seed for arid climates and hired Borlaug to run it. Or should we credit George Washington Carver, who took a young Henry Wallace for long walks and instilled in him his love of plants. Or should it be Moses and Susan Carver, who adopted the orphaned George as their son. Or should it be… Well, you get the idea. Andrews points out how inter-connected our actions are, creating an unforeseen butterfly effect that can ripple across time and space to affect the lives of millions.

What will we do this week to make a difference in the world. Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives. In today’s reading from Exodus it’s Shiphrah and Puah, quietly standing up to a bully and tyrant. Who knows whom it will be today, this week, this year. The Apostle Paul, in the second reading, says that we all are members of the body of Christ, each with different gifts, yet all one in faith and with the same potential for God to use us to change the world.

So what would you do if I told you that what you do this week could change the world? Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am”?

May we live our lives reflecting that Jesus is the Son of God. Amen.

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