Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Church's Witness

Sermon for Pentecost 11A

In her book, “Fierce Conversations,” Susan Scott says that while not every conversation changes the world, every conversation carries the capacity to do that very thing. Scott also says that what characterizes a real, fierce conversation is when those who are in the conversation have the courage to step out from behind themselves to reveal the truth that is in them. No more hiding or positioning, just real, fierce conversation.
The conversation between Peter and Jesus today, is one of those conversations.
It starts with Jesus asking who people say that he is. Peter answers that some think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or one of the prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. The thing is, these people that are guessing at what Jesus is, are giving really good answers. TO be John the Baptist is to be one who offers forgiveness of sins that does an end run around the spiritual industrial complex of the day. You could see how people might think of Jesus as connected in some way to John the Baptist.
As to their guess that Jesus might be Elijah, that is a very good answer. Elijah, it seems, in the time between the writing of the Old Testament and the first century when Jesus lived, had taken on a particular status in Judaism. Elijah, it was, and still is, thought, would precede the coming of God to be with His people. In many ways, Jesus is Elijah, just not as they expected him to be.
Still others, it seems, thought that Jesus might be Jeremiah; another interesting and not altogether untrue answer. Jesus was ultra-critical of Jerusalem and the religious powers that be, just as Jeremiah had been prior to the Babylonian captivity.
You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the people that Peter has polled are wrong. I imagine that Jesus might have been even a little impressed at the closeness to the mark that these folks got. They might not be right, but they are getting warmer.
But then Jesus sort of leaves those not-too-bad answers, and turns to Peter and asks one of the most important questions that exists: “But who do you say that I am?”
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter gives a remarkable answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We, here on this side of history, we hear Peter’s statement and say: oh yeah that’s Peter’s confession: Jesus is the messiah and the Son of the living God, no big deal. But this was being said for the first time, this was a leap in insight, Jesus is not necessarily a prophet, like those of old, instead he is something else entirely: the anointed one of God whose work is meant to restore God’s people to Him, he is the Son of the Living God. Not like all those other dead God’s, but the son of the only God, the living God. This is major, this is ground breaking, this is Dylan goes electric, this is the invention of fire, this is Peter’s confession.
It might help to set the scene a little bit, Peter and Jesus are having this conversation in Caesarea Philippi. Mother Suz has been there and she told me that it is in Caesarea Philippi where the Romans had set up a shrine to Pan, the nature god. Along with Pan, there is, and she has pictures of this, mini-shrines to a great many of the gods of the Romans, including a central niche for the son of the living god, for Augustus Caesar, for the Emperor, the god-man.
Peter is saying something so radical that we could easily miss its gravity. Peter is witnessing to God’s long-purposes at work in Jesus, but he is also putting Jesus above all the dead gods of old who represent the many aspects of life: fertility, joy, work, conflict, love, death. Peter even goes so far as to witness to Jesus as the son of the living God, over and against the Emperor, even over the Emperor who is the very embodiment of worldly power.
Good answer.
And Jesus rewards Peter for such a good answer: Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, " This is a big deal, because we have, in response to Peter’s good answer, Jesus saying that his church will be built upon that answer. This is the first time in all the gospels that the word church is used. In all four gospels the word church is only used three times, and all of them in Matthew.
It is often said that Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but instead we got the church. This is both true and false at the same time. Jesus preached the kingdom, he revealed the kingdom in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the revelation of that Kingdom, the way that God behaves with his creation. We, the church are not the revelation, Jesus is. Instead, the church is that body of people who witness to the revelation. Period. We are witnesses of Jesus, we proclaim him as the living God, above and beyond all other gods, all other graspings at control, and power, and security. We are the church, we are the witness to Jesus Christ who is the only revelation of God, our job is to point to him, that is why Peter’s answer is so highly regarded by Jesus.
And how is it that Peter arrived at this insight? Jesus says that it was not flesh or blood that has revealed this to him, but his Father in heaven. Peter didn’t learn this from somebody, he didn’t learn it from saying the Creed, or by assenting to a list of doctrines, he learned it from God, he learned it from obeying Jesus’ call to discipleship.
It is in the doing of discipleship that our faith can be grown into insights such as these.
This is how we can achieve the insight of who Jesus is, through our discipleship. Just as we learn about each other in real, fierce, truth-telling conversations. So too, do we discover who Jesus is when we obey his call to be his disciple.
And just as we all are surprised to hear what stories and pains we all carry, so too will we be surprised when we find that Jesus, more and more, begins to be a part of how we live. This is how discipleship works, it grows: a little here, a lot there.
I can personally attest to how sneaky Jesus can be, that he continues to reveal himself even more deeply as I give him more of my life as his disciple.

This conversation. This conversation between Jesus and Peter is our conversation. Jesus is asking us, who we say he is. And it is through our discipleship that we begin to formulate that answer.
Sure, we can all give the theological answers that sound good, but for each of us to come to an insight, and authentic response to who Jesus is, to do that we must be disciples, to live this Jesus life.
To let this conversation with Jesus take on the characteristics of being a real, fierce conversation, then we have to step out of ourselves and do what all disciples of Jesus properly do, and point to him.
To be the church is to necessarily point away from ourselves and point to Jesus. This means that we should stop worrying about the budget, and the building so much. Point to Jesus, witness to Jesus, the revelation of God.
The Church has shrunk in the recent years because the youth of today see us as being more interested in keeping our buildings than with witnessing to Jesus.
Let’s get back to our original insight, to Peter’s confession.
Let’s be the church, fiercely.