Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon from Sunday, August 24, 2014

Scripture:  Matthew 16:13-20
Sermon:  A growing faith

My name is Peter.  You know me well.  I won’t be long.  Like everyone else I want to get over to the Peach Festival before your pies are sold out.

But I want to talk with you a bit about my faith because apparently it’s my faith – and yours as you share it, that is the bedrock foundation of our being Jesus’ church – a community of light and hope in the world.  And I wonder sometimes about it – about my faith.

Every time I meet Jesus my faith seems to grow bigger.  It grows deeper; I become even more fully grounded in him, more appreciative of him and happy to be Christian.  But it also grows broader and wider; it seems to take in and cover more territory – become more open to things I once thought were maybe outside the boundary of faith in him.

Like the day Jesus and we were walking near the city of Caesarea Philippi.   It was always a hard city for us.   From long ago days it was the centre of a pagan cult dedicated to Pan, one of the pantheon of Greek gods.  In our time it was a Roman administrative centre – one of the places Rome set up in our country to send its tentacles into all our lives, all the better to control and suck the life from us.  

The city was beautiful.  Philip the Tetrarch spent millions rebuilding it to make it a showcase.  But it was a showcase of Roman pride and arrogance.  There really was idolatry at work there.  It was right around that time that Philip minted new coins to commemorate what he called his “great founding” of the city, and the coins had his image on them.  His image!  What idolatry!

We didn’t go into the city, but I wouldn’t be surprised if just being near it prompted Jesus to ask what he did – the questions of identity and allegiance that we should have expected.  It was hard to be near that city and not feel that your commitments were being tested, and that for the sake of your soul you really needed to declare yourself.

So he asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  

As soon as we heard the question, I was nervous.  I think we all were.

“Son of Man” is a loaded image for us.  It was the prophets of old who promised the coming of “a person as unto a son of man” to set all things right and bring an end to evil and history as we know it.  By our time the Son of Man was a kind of superhero from God who would come with holy words and powerful actions to avenge evil and put an end to it, to protect the good and make the world safe for all God’s people and creatures. 

We debated sometimes if the Son of Man had already come and maybe done his work, or if he was still to come, or if maybe he was already among us.  So when Jesus asked us who people saw as the Son of Man, we assumed he thought people saw him as that One.  And we had to tell him, no.  

We knew we couldn’t lie to him – couldn’t pretend.  So we stammered, “Well … some say John the Baptist is the Son of Man,” and we could see why people thought that; he did come on like an avenging angel ready to set all the world right.  “And … some say Elijah was the Son of Man – that great old prophet who stood up in bygone days against the king and his idolatrous advisors.”  “Others say Jeremiah – you like him, Jesus; some say his words still have the power to undo evil and make room for what’s right in the world.”  “And other prophets, too, Jesus.”

In the nervous silence we slowly became aware Jesus was not upset.  In fact he seemed content that when people either prayed to God or thanked God for an avenging, finally-setting-things-right kind of presence in the world, his was not the first name on their lips.  He seemed relieved.

I think I was too, because there’s some aspects of the Son of Man – like his extreme vengefulness, that just don’t seem to fit the Jesus I know.

Also, I wonder, was Jesus maybe also happy to know that people recognized other messengers of God apart from him – that he was not the only one people looked to, that people knew the truth of God is too big to be taught by only one teacher, to be known in only one tradition, to be lived out by only one community – that he and we were not alone in the world?

“So then,” he asked, “if I am not the Son of Man that people are looking for, who do you say I am?”  

It was a direct question – not the kind we’re used to asking one another.  We like to hold our faith in Jesus inside, and keep it to ourselves.  We also don’t like to pry into others’ faith and ask maybe-embarassing questions – not even in worship and other church activities. 

But he asked, so I said, “You are the Christ – the messiah, the son of the living God,” What a wonderful confession of faith, I thought.  As good as the one you say every week: “We believe in God…who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new.” 

I was pleased with saying it, and waited for his approval.  There was silence – not a disapproving, but a waiting on his part, to see if I might say more.  When I didn’t, he did.

“Yes, Peter – and all of you, now and in ages to come.  I am happy you see me as your leader and teacher.  I want you to know the meaning and the way of true life.  I want to help you live freely and openly as true human beings among other people and before God, warts and all.  Unlike many of your leaders, I want to teach you the way of real community through compassion for the poor, openness to the stranger, humility about ourselves, and forgiveness and blessing of your enemies.  I want to teach you (how do you say?) to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, and to see me crucified and risen as [the] judge and hope of all you do.  

“And when you do this – when you really know and follow me as your messiah, you will be strong no matter what happens; right, no matter how others judge you; and light in a world that lives in much darkness.  You will be a community of light among other communities of light against the darkness that seems always to be here.”

I had to think about that.  I confessed my faith in him as messiah – as leader and lord, and I thought that was what he wanted.  But in response he talked about me – about us, as though in the end it’s at least as much about us as it is him.

And then he said the darnedest thing – the darnedest thing.  He said, “And don’t go telling everyone I am the messiah.”

I’ve wondered about that a long, long time.  And I still wonder.

I know he wants other people to know him.  But was he saying, “Don’t feel like you have to plaster my name on everything you do; let the holiness of what you do speak for itself; if people ask why you do it, tell them; but don’t worry about it”?  I don’t know.

Or is he telling us that belief in him is not the only way of real faith in God and openness to God’s kingdom?  Is he afraid that if we push our faith in him too hard or in the wrong way, other people and even we might start making him and the meaning of messiah into something he isn’t and doesn’t intend?

Or does he want us to remember that it’s not him as some superhero, but us as a community of faith in him that makes the difference the world wants to see, and that God wants to make in the world?

Faith in Jesus is the bedrock foundation of who we are.  I wonder sometimes about it, though.  And as I said, every time I meet him, my faith always seems to grow bigger in some way.

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