A sermon preached at St Christopher's on August 21, Pentecost 10.
Let us pray.
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It’s good to be home. Really good to be home.
The last four days or so, I have mostly resisted the temptation to say that it’s good to be back, because, well, if the two weeks’ vacation were what I hoped they’d be and if the two weeks away were what you prayed they’d be for me and my family - that is, if those days have given me a renewed sense of calling and energy, purpose and presence - then going back wouldn’t make much sense. But saying that it’s good to be forward doesn’t make much sense, either. You just get strange looks. And I don’t even know what Smokey did to you; he said something about scorch marks. I hope you’re forward, too. Two weeks forward, farther along the pilgrim road we walk together. It is good to be home.
I was in a weekly Bible study once as a kid. It was good, it wasn’t heady, but there was background reading assigned each week, one or two chapters, five or six pages, which none of us ever did. We’d show up and hope that our leader was feeling especially talkative that day. Don’t ask us questions, we’d think. But we had our bibles open to the passage and so he did ask us questions. It was Old Testament stuff about which king this and which king that, and none of us had a clue, really. But he didn’t let us off the hook. After he asked a question, he was especially good at providing those long, uncomfortable silences that if they had words might say something like, “I’m sorry, I know what you’re hoping for, but it’s not going to happen. I’m not answering this question for you. I’m not giving up on you.”
Long, awkward silences and holes stared through the table.
(Some of you getting ready for school tomorrow know exactly what I’m talking about.)
A few years later, I was confirmed, declared spiritually mature at all of twelve years of age. And the priest, my dad, warned our class. When the bishop comes, he said, the bishop has the right to ask you questions. To quiz you, see what you know. Well, I was a really good student and had absolutely nothing to fear, but if you’ve ever been a really good student, you know that not having anything to fear doesn’t always keep the fears at bay. My being a really good student only primed my imagination to fear the worst: imagine, for example, the depths of the humiliation I’d feel being denied the sacrament of Confirmation in front of the Assembly when I fumbled the final phrase of the Athanasian Creed. (The fact that you’re not laughing only proves the point.) Thankfully, (most) bishops aren’t nearly as cruel as a child’s imagination.
Some people like it, being put on the spot, having the congregation’s attention, all eyes are on you. Some of us don’t. Which is why effective group leaders often have us answer easier questions at the beginning. Get us comfortable. Build up our confidence. Questions of observation. This is something of what Jesus is doing when he asks his disciples: “What are they saying out there about me?”
Just a kind of repetition, really. Repeat what you’ve heard. Tell me what they’re saying. No right or wrong answer, but the beginning of wondering about who Jesus is. As it turns out, the answers out there aren’t right about Jesus – Jesus is not Elijah, or Jeremiah, or John the Baptist – but they’re still true answers. They’re true because his question was a reporter’s question. Just tell me what you see. Tell me what you’re hearing.
His next question comes in much closer. “Who do you say that I am?”
A good question. A true question.
And I wonder how long they took to answer this question. Did they stare holes in the table and think they’d out wait him? Did he give them one of those long, uncomfortable silences that says something like, “I’m sorry, I know what you’re hoping for, but it’s not going to happen. I won’t answer it for you. I’m not giving up on you.”
Peter finally answers. It would be Peter. He’s not the one you want to trust a silence to. He finally talks. But that question, and its silence, was meant for every one of them. And eventually it finds every one of us also.
“Who do you say that I am?”
This question and Peter’s answer is very close to what the evangelical tradition has rightly cherished as the believer’s profession of faith. The beginning of a personal relationship with Jesus. These are the words necessary to live the life of grace.
So in some churches, the sermon’s next step would be obvious to everyone: tell a few stories, and make an altar call. That is, if you haven’t had a chance to own these words, to answer this question for yourself, now is a good time, they’d say. And they’d be right, it is a good time. “Who do you say that I am?” What words does your own heart use to paraphrase Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
This answer is important because it’s true.
In these words, in your answer, a statement of fact becomes a commitment of heart. Moreover, this answer, your answer, it is the beating heart of the whole Church, the whole Christian faith. For this is the moment you unlock your whole self - body, soul, mind, and strength - and make room for the Lord who loves you, directs you, redeems and sustains you. Peter’s answer and yours is the heart of the story. But, and I say this carefully, it’s not the whole story. That is, I think we miss out on what a personal relationship with Jesus really means if we don’t read this story through to the end.
So what happens next?
Jesus calls Peter blessed – even though he didn’t come up with it on his own, indeed, especially because he didn’t – Peter is blessed. Jesus says that God has given him eyes to see and ears to hear and that his words about Jesus are true. And then Jesus gives Peter three things that are really one thing: 1) he gives Peter his name, calls him the rock of the church, 2) he gives Peter the keys of the kingdom, which is why doctors and lawyers having been meeting St Pete at the pearly gates in really bad jokes ever sense, and 3) he gives Peter, the Church, the power to bind and loose, or more straightforwardly, the power to forgive.
And these three things are really one thing because the forgiveness of Christ is what simultaneously makes the Church possible, unlocks the kingdom, and allows someone like Peter to be called the rock of the Church.
And the most important thing for us to see about these three gifts that are one gift this morning is that Jesus gives them to Peter in response to Peter’s response, or “personal profession of faith.”
Peter says “YES” to Jesus, and Jesus gives him the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness with others, too.
But I wonder if Peter wanted the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness with others.
And not just Peter. A man took me to breakfast once to introduce himself and give us a chance to get to know one another better, and at the end he looked me in the eye and said, “Father, I don’t know if this jives with what the church says, but for me, at the end of the day, it’s me and my God. No more, no less. I don’t need the others to live the life of faith.” I wonder if you’ve ever heard something like that.
You’ll notice my friend’s not-really-a-question question: “I don’t know if this jives with what the church says, but...” Sneaky when people don’t ask questions like that.
Lest there be any doubt, today’s gospel makes clear – NO! – that’s not at all what the Church says. Couldn’t be farther from the mystery of God. The holy mystery of the Trinity that says that divine love doesn’t happen a vacuum, in the company of one; but love shares, love binds, love heals, love stoops down, love reaches out across the divide.
You want Jesus? Jesus asks Peter. You got me, and with me the call to join me in the reconciliation of the world to God.
Because your faith is not for you alone. But the Kingdom hangs together. And your faith is a gift in God’s Kingdom.
I hope you have a personal relationship with Jesus. I also pray that personal does not mean individual for you. But that personal can apply to the urine-soaked homeless man as much as it can to God. Put your arm around him. Because God is personally present to you both. Because, there, Christ is present. I pray that personal can apply to the person you’ve learned to despise - he’s the wrong color, she’s too old or too young, maybe he’s even genuinely wronged you. Because Christ is present there, too. I pray that personal does not mean individual in your relationship with God. I pray that when God unlocks the life of grace in you, for you, you remember that you are not unlocked to God alone, but that you are now an agent of unlocking in a world locked shut and in need of love, the opening forgiveness of God.
One last story. There’s a picture of the heavenly feast that the early church liked to use. They used this picture whenever people asked what happened to the saints who had died. Where did they go? What were they doing now? And the picture that they used was a familiar one: the heavenly banquet feast. “Only, they’re not feasting yet,” the Christians would say. “Why not?” came the obvious question. After all, these were people whose professions of faith, like Peter’s, could only be admired as the highest and God-given response to the Christ, the Son of the Living God. “Why aren’t they eating?” “They are, but only appetizers.” Smart alecks. “Why on earth aren’t they feasting?” they asked. “Because, they’re waiting for you.”
They’re waiting for us. Having attained the prize, they haven’t forsaken the love God gave them, the way that it’s shaped them. Love waits for us.
Can we also love, forgive, reach out to the people who don’t yet know the answer - as an embodiment of the faith we profess? Can your life unlock the witness that the gospel is not information for your head but a way of life and action for your heart? Can we commit our lives in such a way? Will you?
And somewhere, softly, we hear him whisper, “I’m sorry, I know what you’re hoping for, but it’s not going to happen. I won’t answer it for you. I’m not giving up on you.”