A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on August 21, 2011
Sermon for Pentecost 10 (Proper 16A)
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
It’s heating up already on this August Sunday morning, so I’ll start off with a story from the Arctic.
One afternoon, way up near the North Pole, a father polar bear and his son polar bear were sitting in the snow. The son polar bear turned to his father and asked, "Dad, am I 100% polar bear?"
The father polar bear replied, "Of course, son, you're 100% polar bear."
A few minutes pass, and the son polar bear turns to his father again and says, "Dad, tell me the truth. I can take it. Am I 100% polar bear? No brown bear or panda bear or grizzly bear?"
The father polar bear replies, "Son, I'm 100% polar bear, your mother is 100% polar bear, so you are definitely 100% polar bear."
A few more minutes pass, and the son polar bear AGAIN turns to his father and says, "Dad, don't think your sparing my feelings if it's not true. I gotta know -- am I 100% polar bear?"
The father polar bear was distressed by this continued questioning and asked his son, "Why do you keep asking if you're 100% polar bear?"
"Because I'm freezing!"
We all want to know who we really are, don’t we?!
Remember when you were growing up and people would ask you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And what did you say? And is that what you now are?! (I remember saying at about the age of five that I wanted to be a fire fighter. And here I am, trying my best to put out the flames of hell!) It’s kind of a strange question these days when you think about it. It’s wonderful to encourage a child’s imagination, but life does take some funny turns; and people often change the “what” of what they are – sometimes multiple times these days in the course of one’s lifetime. But the real problem is that the premise of the question is wrong.
A reporter once asked a question of Senator George Mitchell, and the Senator replied, “I disagree with the premise of your question. If you’d like to ask another, I’ll try to answer it.” When we ask the question “what” a person wants to be, the premise of the question is wrong. It’s not so important what you are or want to be, but who you are and who you want to become.
We can easily hide behind professions or titles – all the “doing” parts of our lives. But the important question in life is “who are you?” Who are you at the very core of your being? What kind of person are you? What are your deepest values and commitments? The “what” is definitely secondary to the “who.”
A lot of people are out of work these days. I remember many years ago in the mid 1980s during another recession and a lot of people were out of work. Here at Christ Church we were doing job search counseling and support, and Gordon McAdams invited one of the Boston area’s better known outplacement counselors to speak. He was talking about interviewing skills one evening, and he talked about how to start an interview with what he called the “30-second drill” – by which he meant, a brief, 30-second prepared and memorized statement about yourself that had nothing to do with the jobs you had held, your education, or your accomplishments, or anything that shows up on your resume – but a statement about the kind of person you are, your character, your most deeply held values, including some of the kinds of things that the interviewer wouldn’t even be allowed to ask you about yourself.
The who is so much more important than the what. Who you are is an important thing to know.
Today’s Gospel confronts us with the question of who Jesus is. It was an important question for his disciples, and probably was on the minds of many people who were touched by his ministry: Who is Jesus?
In the episode in today’s gospel, Jesus asked the disciples about what people were saying out there. What’s the word out there on the street –“who do people say that I am?”
The disciples said to Jesus that some were saying he was John the Baptist (who had recently been beheaded by Herod). Others said he was the prophet Elijah, the worker of miracles, whom everyone expected to reappear before the end of the age. And then still others said that he was the prophet Jeremiah, who knew how to speak truth to power, and who opposed the religious leaders in Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Others thought he was one of the other prophets.
And then the real question comes: “But who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter, stepping out first, as usual, makes that memorable confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
We often think of this as a moment of personal revelation – and a personal confession of “what Jesus means to me.” And in our modern climate of individualism we often quickly run to our individualistic response that says, “but he can mean different things to different people. What does he mean to YOU?”
But context is important, and I think in this situation it can shed some light on what was almost certainly at work in Peter’s confession. It was significant that Peter would make such a statement as this in a place like Caesarea Philippi. This was a Roman, not a Jewish, city. By going to Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, Jesus has entered not another dusty little town in Israelite Galilee or Judea, or the gleaming temple city of Jerusalem, but he had come right into a Roman enclave. Good, devout Jews didn’t come to a place like this. What would they eat?! This is Rome’s “Green Zone” – like the American Green Zone in Baghdad. Here it looks like Rome, or as close to home for all those Roman soldiers as they could get out here in the hinterlands of the empire – all the symbols, the amenities, security and prosperity of the empire it represents. By announcing his being the Messiah here – in this place – he is making a serious claim against the powers that be. Messiah, after all, is a political title – the one who will deliver Israel from its oppressors. When he affirms Peter’s confession, he’s letting his disciples in on a way of life that is an alternative to the powers of this world – and in a place that has made universal claims that go way beyond Israel and its people.
“You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is a bold claim indeed. Jesus then said to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, “Peter, you didn’t get this by being merely human, the son of Jonah, born of your human parents, doing and thinking like human beings normally think. You got this by thinking the way God thinks.”
And then Jesus says to Peter: “You are Petros – and upon this petra (rock) I will build my church.”
Some throughout history have interpreted this to mean that it is Peter himself (and his successors) upon whom the church is built – a view that has historically supported the idea of the papacy and the institutions that support a hierarchical and magisterial understanding of church. Others have seen the petra, or rock, upon which the church is built as Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. In other words, “the fact that you got this by thinking the way God thinks, Peter – THAT is the thing on which I will build my church. This movement, this revolution, this new way of being, will be peopled by and led by those who learn to think as God thinks.”
Paul understood that we as Christians were on a journey into a new reality that is different and distinct from the status quo. He said in his epistle to the church at Rome, “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.”
He goes on to say that we all have different gifts – gifts that taken together represent Christ’s living presence in the world. Some of you are prophets who know how to speak truth to power, some are those whose special gift is to serve others, some are teachers, or exhorters, or philanthropists, some are leaders, and others cheerful purveyors of compassion or builders of community! And, you can even be more than one of these, or even something in addition to them!
These gifts or qualities may or may not have to do with the “what” we are – our chosen professions, for example (although in the ideal world it would be great if we all got paid to do the thing that we were most gifted at!). But they are examples of qualities that we take into whatever it is that we do in life. And the “what” we are (or want to be when we grow up!) can be anything – as long as we get the “who” right. We can be business people, or teachers, or fire fighters, or homemakers, or priests, or soldiers, or office workers, or lawyers, or musicians – if we do them as means to bring God’s love more and more into our world.
We’re all called, like Jesus, and like Peter and the disciples, to stand for and work for an alternative to the ways of this world – one that is rooted not in the love of power, but in the power of love. One that seeks not its own gain, but to serve others. When we use our gifts – who it is that we at our most basic and essential level are called to be – we will be participating in the building of that kingdom, and not the false and ultimately failed kingdoms of this world.
Paul says in our epistle today, “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.” We come here week by week to continue this journey of transformation, taking Christ’s own life, Christ’s real presence, into us in bread and wine, feeding on his love, until we become truly and fully transformed into his likeness. May his presence and his likeness continue to feed us and grow in us.