Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
August 23, 2020
Lessons: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Theme: As disciples of the Christ, God’s faithful and generous people continually hone their answer to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?”
Key Scripture: [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” – Matthew 16:15
A congregation in a nearby city hosted a wonderful multi-week participatory study around the question Jesus asks in Matthew 16:15. There were opportunities to create images of Jesus reflecting who the artist understands Jesus to be, and lay people provided sermons, reflections, and musical offerings. It was a beautiful, deeply meaningful, and vulnerable experience. The series invited everyone to rethink, carefully and prayerfully to examine exactly who Jesus is and what that means for their life. It was a rich experience that provided ground for deepened faith and significant growth. But it was not a comfortable series because it involved work, a willingness to change, and a commitment to listen to and for Christ.
But who do you say that I am?
Jesus is quite strategic in choosing the time and place to ask this question of his disciples. He has just come from an encounter with some Pharisees and Sadducees on the other side of the lake and is now approaching Caesarea Philippi in what is now the Golan Heights. This marks the northernmost point of Jesus’ ministry, a place he can get away from crowds, out of the Jewish and Temple sphere, since Caesarea Philippi was a Roman town. It was also known as the birthplace of Pan, the god of nature, fields, forests, mountains, flocks and shepherds. A spring that once flowed from the mythical site of Pan’s cave becomes the Banias River that joins the Jordan River. Here, at the crossroads of various world religions, commerce, and culture (Syrian, Greek, Roman, Jewish), here is where Jesus poses this critical question.
But who do you say that I am?
One brisk sunny Sunday morning in late January, I stood with colleagues and friends near the mouth of Pan’s cave, also known as the gates of hell. We came to the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve from the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter in Tagbha, where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed thousands. Our intent was to share worship and the Eucharist in one of the small groves near the church. One of our ELCA bishops, The Rev. Jessica Crist, was to celebrate. That did not set so well with the priests who maintain the property, and we were asked to either have a male celebrant or find another place to worship. So we found another place to worship, a place with a bird’s eye view of the Gates of Hell. Even as Jesus often champed against the religious strictures, traditions, and laws of his day, we too were champing against a church law that excluded women leaders.
But who do you say that I am?
I’m not so sure I even took time to contemplate this question in the very spot Jesus asked it. It was a whirlwind tour of Israel and West Bank, walking in the footsteps of Jesus among the living stones, Palestinian Christians who still bear witness to the ministry of Jesus. If you think Christians are a persecuted group in the United States, the fate of Palestinian Christians will put that dubious claim into perspective. But we still have an extremely important question to answer: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter knew who Jesus was by the grace of God, and his confession “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” prompts Jesus to, in effect, hand over the reins of the movement leadership to him. Of course, later in the chapter Jesus has to tell Peter to “get behind me, Satan!” Discipleship is a lifelong process, and growth will change our answer to Jesus’ key question. Some would be quick to reply, “Jesus is my personal savior.” Others might describe Jesus as their co-pilot or homeboy. We tend to mash Jesus down and squeeze him into our own small ideas and limits. Even Peter’s definition doesn’t capture the full essence of the Christ. How could it?
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has described Christ as “another name for everything.” So expansive and all-inclusive is the Christ that nothing is beyond the divine breath, touch, and presence. What if Jesus showed up in our own nation’s capital, in the shadow of halls of power, of nations’ embassies, of businesses and transport and asked all of us to respond: “But who do you say that I am?” Context and location are important to answering this question, as are growing and deepening as disciples, yet each of us must answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. For me, the answer is more in line with the views of Fr. Rohr, the Apostle Paul, and the largely unsung women who clearly recognized the cosmic scope of the Christ. What about you? How will you respond? What might be the range of responses in your faith community, and how do we reconcile our answers in a way that makes wonder and awe rather than a comfortable and dualistic reduction we can manage?
But who do you say that I am?
In the spirit of not reinventing the wheel, how about asking a few members of your worshiping community to answer this question as succinctly as possible and either record their answers for digital worship or invite them to share their testimony if worship is in person or outdoors. Why not begin a small group study to help congregants explore this question after this week’s worship series.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” How will you answer? Check out the short film below and use it as a discussion starter. Yep, you’ll find plenty to discuss with this video—both where it falls short, where it truly reflects life, and how the ending is so incredibly, well, human.
This week’s focus verse is Romans 12:5 – “…so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another…”
(Note: You will need a small puzzle for this lesson. If you are still worshiping digitally, invite the children to bring a puzzle piece to digital worship. If you are worshiping outside, give each child a puzzle piece to hold and consider. Then invite them to put their puzzle piece on a tray you provide. Have a worship assistant with gloves, assemble the puzzle so that the children can see it on the way out of worship. If possible buy a blank puzzle at a craft store and write congregational members’ names on the puzzle pieces.)
What have I just given to each one of you? A puzzle piece? Right! So do you know what the puzzle looks like? (entertain the answers) I don’t know. I’d have to see how the pieces fit together. What I do know is that one puzzle piece does not a picture make. We need the gifts and talents of all people—every puzzle piece—to see the finished vision, the complete picture.
This is what Paul is talking about in today’s lesson from Romans. We all have gifts. Each one of us is essential to the Body of Christ, what we also call the church. Alone we are just a part of the body. Together we are so much more than we are alone. Plus, Paul says we belong to one another. We are part of the same family, the same tribe, the same community.
What if we invited more people to bring their puzzle pieces so that we can have an even bigger vision? I think that could be fun. Let’s pray together.
Finish with a simple echo prayer and blessing:
Dear God (Dear God),
Thank you (Thank you) for giving each one of us (for giving each one of us us) gifts and talents (gifts and talents). Help us to share our gifts and talents (Help us to share our gifts and talents). Help us to see the best in others (Help us to see the best in others), so that we can all work together (so that we can all work together), to share your love (to share your love). Keep us from fear (Keep us from fear). Keep us hopeful (Keep us hopeful). Make us helpful (Make us helpful). Give us peace (Give us peace). Amen (Amen)
Stewardship Bulletin Insert
This week Paul reminds us in Romans 12 to not be conformed to the world but rather to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ. More than that, he reminds us that we all bring gifts and talents to the Body of Christ, the church, and together we are so much more than the sum of our parts. In Christ we are new creations living in the light of the One who changed everything.
How about a multi-sensory exploration of Jesus’ question “But who do you say that I am?” Use as many modalities as you and your family/friends/community would like. Drawing, painting, dance, poetry, music, prose—don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. At the end of the week compare notes and experiences and have a conversation about what you have learned. You might do this with a small group within your faith community or invite a group of neighbors or friends to join you in this project.
2008 Reflection: https://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2008/08/conform-or-transform/
Note: Reprint rights granted to congregations and other church organizations for local, nonprofit use. Just include this note: “Copyright (c) 2020, Rev. Sharron Blezard. Used by Permission.” Other uses, please inquire: firstname.lastname@example.org.