Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary Reflection, Year A August 24, 2014
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:15
Leave it to Simon Peter to take home first prize in the Messiah Identity Contest! Yes, Peter has the right answer to Jesus’ question: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells Peter that his “knowing” comes from God, and not from his own wisdom. Even so, divine knowledge notwithstanding, Peter continues to struggle with what it means in practical walking-around terms for Jesus to be God’s son and the savior of the world, and how he and the other disciples fit into the picture. And just what are these keys to the kingdom? Do they unlock a prize behind door number three? Do they really give the holder power to loose or bind sins? And why is everything such a big secret anyway?
It’s easy to become focused on these sorts of questions and be distracted from the overarching issue of identity with which those early disciples grappled. Those of us who “read” Peter’s confession today must also answer Jesus’ question and the others that bubble up in response. Who is this Jesus? And just who and whose are we? These questions bring us to the heart of this snippet of a lesson, and while they may seem easy to answer (Jesus is God’s Son and the Savior of the world, and we are his followers.), the reality and vision they uncover is tough to live into.
Thankfully, like Peter’s confession, our understanding of Jesus’ identity does not come from our own ability to process cognitively that he is the Messiah. Even for us today, this comes as Spirit-gift, more felt from deep within our being than worked out through logic and brain power. We are given the gift of the Spirit in baptism. We are named and claimed as God’s very own, as beloved children incorporated into the family. And, like Peter, we sometimes goof up. We deny Jesus. We impetuously seek control and are slaves to the will and to culture. We are woefully imperfect humans in process, yet God is building the church on us, too. We may not be “the rock,” but we are living stones and tellers of the story. There are no more barriers; we have full access to God’s reign.
What does this mean in practical terms for the average 21st century disciple? It means that we face an identity crisis of sorts. Jesus asks that we name who he is, and not only name him but also claim him. Jesus also states clearly to whom we belong. We are God’s; we are not our own. We stand in stark opposition to what the world expects, demands, and requires. The good news is that no longer are we admonished to keep Jesus’ identity–and our own as followers–some kind of secret. We are sent out into the world to show and tell what God has done so that everyone may come to hear and know. When we are at our best, and only by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, our own identity is also clear. It’s when we let the world’s notions compete with our identity as followers of the Messiah that we find ourselves in crisis, ineffective and unsure of our way. That’s why it is so important as community to revisit these basic questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say he is?” By taking a cue from Peter’s confession we are equipped to make our own and strengthened by one another as Christ’s body. This is how to prevent an identity crisis, and it’s also some really good news. Blessings on your preaching and teaching.
Who do you say Jesus is? Take a few minutes and practice your “discipleship elevator speech” today. How would you answer this question when out in the community and when asked to share your faith? Do you trust God to give you the words? Are you willing for your identity as a follower of Jesus to be known? Some faith traditions find this kind of exercise easier than others, but we can all use a gentle reminder and some practice. Part of worship is to proclaim God’s praise, so taking a moment to share your story and confess your faith is an appropriate thing to do. Try it during the sermon, or consider it part of the offering. You might even practice right before the sending to ready one another to go out into a world that needs to know Jesus’ identity.
Consider a study of the Old Testament reading from Isaiah (51:1-6). Be sure to set the historical context for the passage and spend plenty of time with verse 4: “Listen to me, my people, and give heed tome, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.” What does this mean for us today? How might we interpret this reading as one of hope in a time of worldly upheaval? You will likely end up with a powerful discussion, as youth and young adults aren’t as likely to put on the “nice” or “correct” filters that stymie meaningful dialogue. Be sure to provide some way or way your youth can respond and take action to one of the issues that is troubling to them.
Built on a Rock… In today’s Gospel, Peter makes a great yet simple confession of faith and a statement of Jesus’ true identity. Jesus tells him that the church will be built on him–on the rock of his confession. Look at your own congregation. Who are the people on whose confession your congregation has been “built”? Do you have their photos? If so, make some heavy cardstock building blocks and write their names and include photocopies of their pictures. Talk to the children about how our congregations are built on the witness of Christ in each believer. Build a simple “foundation” of faith blocks. Invite each child to write their own name on a block and add it to the foundation. If you have a digital camera take their photos to add to the blocks later. Consider extending this exercise to the entire congregation and display the blocks in a visible place in your building for all to be reminded. Be sure to make one big cornerstone for Jesus’ name and another large block for Peter. End with a simple prayer of thanks and encouragement to tell everyone what God has done. (Photos: David Goehring, Renaud Camus, and Trevor Cummings, Creative Commons. Thanks!)