“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. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it got late, and the shopkeeper put things in order and called it a day. He closed shop and went home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves broke into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves didn’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearranged all the labels, the price labels, on the items in the store. So cheap things now had four digit tags. And really precious things were made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrived at the store and didn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appeared any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness of the rhythms of life, it was just another day. Then the customers started arriving. They, too, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them began interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now were, as if the mislabeled labels reflected true values of things. And they’re still doing that now, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.
Kierkegaard says that our world is that shop.
Cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and sometimes our devotion). We sometimes attach our lives to these cheap things. We make too much of them. Meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them, so we miss them altogether. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.
And yet. Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. Sometimes, a person finds herself doing double takes between twin mismatched realities, and she thinks to herself, “Well, that can’t be right.” You peel off a label of a precious thing called cheap and you decide to elevate its place in your life. Likewise, you peel the high-priced label off of the cheap thing and make room in your life accordingly. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles.
An MD/PhD student came to me at the start of a year like this one a few years ago and said, “Jonathan, I’ve realized something. I can be first in my class or I can be a person who takes care of herself and those around her, engages the community of faith, nurtures her soul, and gets nine hours of sleep every night. I can't do both. I’m not sure being first in my class is worth what it will cost. I’m not even sure it will make me a better doctor. I’m making the choice not to pay it.” True story, years later, I was sitting at a table at a mutual friend’s wedding reception with this student and her fiancé, and one of the other guests at the table - new to both of us - says to this student, out of the blue, “You look so well rested!” And I thought, “Who says that??” But then, I thought, if anyone did deserve to have it said of them, it was this student.
Maybe you have had one of these life-relabeling moments in your life. Something you had thought was worth everything, you came to question or reevaluate. Another thing you hadn’t valued very much at all emerges, unexpectedly, as precious and beautiful in a way you hadn’t seen before, and you know you will, from this moment on, commit your life to it in a particular way; that is, you can see already how the distance from where you are starting from to the place where that beauty will call you will mean a change in your life, and it might even be hard, and you say yes anyway. You feel yourself to be on the edge of willing alterations to the ways you think about and move within the world. And ordinarily such a prospect would have been scary, if not terrifying, but instead you are energized by and made open to the possibility of the new thing you could be. Christians have historically called these moments conversions, when God moves us to bring our lives into line with true labels, and these conversions happen even from within the life of faith.
It’s not that the confusion is news. You might have suspected that something was up, that some of life’s labels had been swapped. The trick is discernment, which ones go where, how to undo the mess and make things right, and we are here in part because we believe discernment is a team sport. Together, weekly, we open our hearts and the scriptures and ask God to make our imaginations more like God’s imagination. We watch throughout the stories of Scripture as Jesus pulls “cheap” labels off of people on the margins and puts the cheap labels on performances of prayer that are just for show. We marvel as so-called weak things like patience, generosity and vulnerability, gentleness and humility, self-giving and forgiving get raised up in his story above traditionally big-ticket items like power and wealth. And this episode from Matthew's gospel is maybe one of the biggest’ bandaid-ripping, label-switching moments in the whole story of Jesus.
They’re in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples. The place is named after Caesar, the emperor. They’re standing near a temple named for the emperor, who sometimes goes by the title, “Son of the living God.” Sounds familiar. In other words, Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is about to get political. Peter is about to call Jesus a king, and the thing about calling certain people kings is that it can un-call other people kings, even when you don't say it exactly that way. Because when it comes to allegiance, you only have one pledge to give. But Jesus doesn’t look much like a king, which may be why one theologian has observed that, these days, we ask the state to give us the things we used to ask God for. Because Jesus doesn’t look much like a king, which is why Jesus calls Peter’s answer, Peter’s attempt to rearrange the labels, a miracle. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
What does he mean when Peter calls Jesus king? What does it mean when we, too, call Jesus the Messiah?
To call someone like Jesus a king is a little bit like Peter’s saying he found God’s kingdom in the produce aisle, just behind the bananas. It’s not just that the kingdom’s been mislabeled, in terms of value or worth, it’s been mis-shelved altogether. Because Jesus doesn’t look anything like the usual label called, “king”. Kingdom labels play by the usual kingdom rules of political territories, patriotism, and securing a place above the others. This label is so well known it's in our bones. What was the old, thoroughly misogynistic game we used to play as kids? King of the hill? You know, where someone stood over the others on a pile of something until someone else pushed them off of the pile, and one empire gave way to another, but nothing was new, because the old rules applied, where the point of the game was still to push others down in order to rise up and secure yourself a kingdom for as long you could. That's the label we all learned for kingdom.
Of course, Jesus is nothing like this. What on earth made Peter call Jesus a king? A gift from the Father, Jesus says. The beginning of a conversion Peter himself doesn’t yet understand. The revelation of what the true kingdom, God’s kingdom, is.
In Luke’s gospel, this question will come up again. Jesus’ followers will be playing by old label rules, jockeying for position in the kingdom of Jesus, and Jesus will say, enough. Them’s the world’s rules, but that ain’t how we roll in this kingdom. And then he will confer on them a kingdom that looks like a table at which there is room and food enough for everyone. This table. Where old kingdoms coerced, this one opens up. Where old kingdoms secured the prosperity of the monarch, this monarch freely dies on the cross to free his subjects who had become subjected to sin and death. Jesus inaugurates this new kingdom when, on the night before he died, he breaks the bread he calls his body and gives his life for them. God’s kingdom is made known at this feast and this table on which is poured the cup of forgiveness, for you and for many.
And if this is true kingdom, what do we make of the others? After all, when it comes to allegiance, you only have one pledge to give. Will we really pledge allegiance to the kingdom of the crucified king and all it entails? And if we do, what does this undo about the way we think about the world and how we move within it? A world in which cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and sometimes our devotion). In which we attach our lives to these very same cheap things, and we make too much of them. A world in which, meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.
Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles. They are the mercy of God.