My final sermon at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, Ohio, September 16th 2012. I love this parish, these people. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have served them and to have prayed with them and to have worshipped with them.
Jesus asks two questions: Who do people say that I am? and Who do you – you who know me the best, who have followed me the most closely, who are standing next to me – who do you say that I am?
Who do people say that I am? What are they saying about me? What do they expect from me?
The disciples tell Jesus what they’ve heard, the word on the street. Some people think he’s John the Baptist, some Elijah, some a prophet like the prophets of old.
John the Baptist: a messenger, a forerunner, an ascetic, disciplined religious type who lived apart and lived lightly, leaving no footprints on the earth. A thorn in the side of the authorities – he argued with the king, and it didn’t end well. One whose job it was to prepare the way for the One sent by God.
Elijah was a prophet, one of the finest, a truth-teller and a miracle-worker, a thorn in the side of the authorities – he fought with the king and the queen, and escaped with his life just barely at times; he has become timeless, a powerful reminder of the coming of the Day of the Lord. He has become a portent; in Jewish traditions, Elijah will return to herald the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, God’s judgement and salvation. To this day, a seat is set aside at the Passover table for Elijah, in case he comes to lead his people into a new Exodus.
The people who think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or a prophet, these people know that Jesus heralds something new. They think that he is sent by God; how can he not be? They believe that God’s judgement and grace will follow him, that he will be instrumental in bringing God and the world together. …
But then Jesus asks his companions, his closest friends and intimates,
Who do you say that I am?
And Peter takes the leap of faith from Elijah to the Day of the Lord, from John the Baptist to the one baptized by God’s own Spirit, from the prophets of old to their fulfillment, and he says,
“You are the Messiah.”
Jesus is the Messiah, the one anointed by God, the one who brings God’s grace, God’s salvation, within himself, not trailing behind him, but embodied in him. He is not only a thorn in the side of the authorities, but he deposes earthly authorities; they cannot silence him even by putting him to death.
And yet, Jesus immediately began to teach them that the Son of Man would suffer and die, before he would live again.
The Messiah, this Jesus, is unpredictable, unexpected. He doesn’t fit in our already-formed molds, the chair we set out for Elijah, the pictures of John – Jesus is doing something altogether new.
It is not only that he heals the blind and the demon-possessed, or teaches with authority, or gets into trouble with the authorities. It is that he is prepared to lay down his life for us, to serve us, to love us. He is dying – literally – to tell us how much God loves us.
But who do we say that Jesus is? By our prayer and our worship, our service and the way that we live in the world, who do we, who call ourselves Christians, followers of the way of the cross, dying to show God’s love to the world – who do we tell others that Jesus is?
Because who we say Jesus is, how we tell the story, goes to the heart of our faith, and the heart of who we are.
Peter, even though he knew that Jesus was the one they had waited for, that the kingdom of God was not trailing behind him but was within him and came into the world with him, still Peter was tempted to tell a different story. He didn’t want the story of cross and resurrection, of suffering and service, of grace and the offer of forgiveness even to the Gentiles, to the Romans, to his enemies.
He wanted to tell a different story, one of triumph and victory unstained by any blood but that of their persecutors. And with all that we’ve heard on the news in the past few days, how can we fail to sympathize with him?
But Jesus rebuked him. That is not the story of the Messiah on the cross. The way of the cross is not the way of the world, of those who need to get their own way at any cost.
The way that we tell the story, the stories that we tell, go to the heart of our faith, who we say Jesus is.
If we withhold forgiveness, from ourselves, from others, we say that we are still waiting, when Jesus has already brought God’s forgiveness into the world.
If we fail to love our enemies, as well as our neighbours, we do not describe the Jesus who loved sinners, who healed even centurions’ servants, even Syro-Phoenician women’s daughters.
If we want to wreak havoc on those whom we oppose, or who oppose us, we have fallen prey to the same temptations as Peter.
When we think that we have all of the answers, that we know what’s what and we are right, then we forget about the unexpected unpredictability of the Messiah, of Jesus.
Our actions, our attitudes, as well as our words tell the world who we think this Jesus is, whom we proclaim as saviour.
I have spent the best part of a year in your company now, and we have told these stories, of who Jesus is, together.
In our best moments,when we care for one another, offer prayers of healing, prayers of comfort; when we lay one another to rest with prayers for the dead and prayers for the grieving; when we bless one another’s birthdays and anniversaries, we tell the world that Jesus is a person of prayer; Jesus is a person who is intimately connected with God, always in communication with God, praying and listening, seeking out God’s presence.
When we baptize, we tell of the Jesus who was baptized by water and by the Spirit of God descending like a dove.
When we feed one another, forgive one another, offer gifts to one another, we remember Jesus as the one who brought God’s abundance into being, feeding the multitudes, healing so many, welcoming children and outcasts and the ones beyond the pale, all alike.
When we celebrate together, we tell the story of how Jesus, in his own day, was called out for partying too hard (remember that story?), who was willing, despite the weight of his glory, to lighten up and delight his friends with table fellowship, with wine at a wedding, with his companionship.
When we celebrate Communion together, we tell the story of how Jesus was willing to be broken by the authorities that he challenged, in order to lead us through death into new life, through the vale of shadows into the light of God’s kingdom. I will leave it to you to decide how and how much of a thorn in the side of authority you want to be in the telling of the story of Jesus, but remember that telling the truth to power is always properly done in love, out of love for all of God’s people, even the powerless, even the powerful.
And when we are tempted, like Peter, to shrug off the cross and bypass the tomb, to head straight for the glory without a thought for what it cost our God, our saviour, our Messiah, afraid of what it might cost us, then we might remind one another of the warnings of Jesus: “You are setting your mind on human things, instead of on divine things,” on the kingdom of humanity, instead of the kingdom of God.
You are named, though, not for Peter, but for Andrew, to bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ. And where they meet, there is the cross. Here is the cross.
I give thanks today for the stories that you have told me, the stories that we have shared, the stories that we have lived together in the past year. I have prayed to God that I might be faithful in the stories I told you, in the stories I left with you. I ask your forgiveness for where I have fallen short, and I give thanks for your gentle corrections and support and teaching. I am thankful for the work that God gave us to do together, and for the worship that we have offered together. I give thanks for all of you.
And I say that you are a people chosen and anointed by God to do great things, to bring Christ to the world and to show the world into the kingdom of God, doing these things with love, because of the great and unfailing love that God has for you.