The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A The Rev. Dr. Howard J. Hess
Who Do You Say That I Am? August 21, 2011
I. Introduction. Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” The answers to these questions required three things from Peter: Clarity, courage, and passion. For Peter, his ability to respond to Jesus in today’s Gospel came mid-point in his spiritual journey. Jesus had nurtured Peter so that he could respond in this way. The story of Jesus and Peter had started much earlier and would end much later. I have seen that same pattern in my own life.
I am a boy who grew up in the church, nurtured by the faith of my parents, the many Sunday School teachers who taught me, and Vacation Bible School leaders who didn’t yet have electronic equipment, but instead used flannel boards to bring Jesus, the disciples, and the many animals in the Bible – mostly sheep -- to life. These were the saints who nurtured me. I can remember their faces and many of the things they said to me. I didn’t always understand what they were teaching: all those prophets and kings, the giant figures of Moses, David, Mary, and Peter. But I was in a world with the Biblical story of salvation and that was where I belonged. How did I know that? This is how: those saints loved me. Through the rough times and the good times, they continued to love me. The Hebrew word for that kind of love is chesed. It is unconditional love, rooted in mutuality of affection and responsibility, and mirrored in Christian action. Jesus said to the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Then he said to Peter “Who do you say that I am?”
II. The years came and went for me. New glittering lights and exciting experiences beckoned -- far away from that little church I grew up in. And never one to pull back from a challenge, I went on my way. But always Jesus’ questions echoed in my thoughts: “Who do others say that I am?” And, “Howard, who do you say that I am?” Where did my willingness to respond to Jesus’ questions come alive? There was no one place, and no one time. It came alive when I worked with a young man with HIV/AIDS whose trailer was set on fire in rural Indiana; it came alive when I studied Archbishop Oscar Romero and Detrich Bonhoeffer, who made decisions to take truth to power and paid with their lives. It comes alive when I visit you in times of deep trouble and see your courage, fortitude, and the realness of your faith. I believe that everyone here has her or his own variation of this story. Our stories are incredibly different. But underlying all these different stories, there are several core truths to which today’s Gospel points us.
III. The focus of our Gospel is Jesus’ interaction with Simon Peter. Many Biblical scholars view this portion of Matthew as a pivotal point in his story. Peter had been called to follow Jesus through the leading of his brother Andrew. Most likely he had previously been a follower of John the Baptist. Peter was a seeker. But Peter had character flaws that at times made him a slow learner. Jesus had had to be patient with Peter – very patient. He had great hopes for him, but Peter was a get it done, self-righteous guy. In today’s Gospel Jesus was inviting Peter to take another step in his spiritual development. “Step out of the boat, Peter; who do you think that I am? “ Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He got it right. Jesus was not a shadowy figure, like a reincarnated prophet or a rising political star. Jesus then responded to Peter with profound affirmation: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven!”
Now, listen carefully to the words of Jesus as he continued: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” There is more, but that is left for another sermon. Right now, I want to focus on what has just happened in this interaction. It’s what we call a word play. Simon Peter was given a new name, just as Abram had been given the new name of Abraham. We can easily miss it in the English, but less so in the original Greek. Jesus took Peter’s name and linked it to the word “rock” which in Greek is Petra. The first part of his name -- Simon -- is omitted. This is significant. The name “Simon” means listener. The time of listening was passing and the time for building had begun in earnest. Certainly this was not by any means the end of Peter’s learning. Many times of pain and confusion lay ahead, especially during Jesus’ Passion. But Jesus was right. Peter lived into his new name. He was to become the first leader of the young Christian church and did an inspiring job of guiding the early Christians through very treacherous waters.
IV. At this point in my sermon I believe that you would be fully justified in asking me the question, “How is this relevant to each of us?” The relevance is quite striking. The first point: A time comes in each of our lives when we must have clarity; when we truly have to stand up and assert our belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In the western Christian church, I believe we are waffling on this point and losing our ability to be the light of the world. We are in danger of losing our clarity about who we believe Jesus to be.
Secondly, each of us has to have courage and be willing to stand up alone. Others can stand beside us, before us, or behind us, but we stand before God alone. God has no grandchildren, only children. Having said that I want to assert a corollary truth that I see repeatedly played out in Scripture. Our spiritual pilgrimages do not follow the same roads or have the same timing as others. Our pilgrimages are incredibly varied. The beauty is that God works differently with each of us throughout our lifetimes.
But in order for us to have an encounter with the resurrected Christ, we must be clear, have courage, and be motivated by our passion. Although each of us learns our spiritual lessons in different ways, we don’t and won’t learn these lessons passively or remotely. Doubting Thomas had to touch Jesus’ wounds before he believed that Jesus had been resurrected. In contrast, Mary Magdalene saw the truth of the resurrection readily and became the “apostle to the apostles.”
V. Conclusion: I believe that this church is being offered the gift of discovering more fully the full spectrum of our spiritual gifts and opportunities for ministry. But in order to seize this moment, we must be willing to respond intentionally to Jesus’ second question: “Who do you say that I am?” God is guiding us, but we must be clear and passionate about what God is placing before us. And know that we are not alone in our response. We are guided by the God who created us. Listen for God’s direction in other passages from today’s reading. Listen to Isaiah and think about the new name given to Peter: “Thus says the Lord. Listen to me you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and from the quarry from which you were dug.” And then take to heart the promise and the prayer at the end of today’s psalm: “The Lord will make good his purpose for me; Oh Lord your love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hand.” Amen.