Sermon: Q’s That Lead Us to Take Action

An imaginative depiction of "Christ handing the Keys of Heaven to the Apostle Peter" as written in Matthew 16:18, by Pietro Perugino (1481–82)

RCL [Matthew 16:13-20] - Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah.

Today, let us delve into the profound journey of understanding Jesus' identity and our personal response to this question. One of the topics I explored during my time at Oxford was under the guidance of Professor Nicholas Turner. Our focus was on Christian leadership during moments of crisis and the significance of engaging in dialogue and the art of questioning. Our reading today centers around the dialogue between Jesus, Simon Peter, and the disciples.

The backdrop of this story is set in Philippi a Roman town in Northern Israel right on the Syrian border. There were many religions in the area. The pagan people worshipped in fourteen different temples. Herod the Great built a large temple for the Romans to worship Caesar. 

It is here that we meet Jesus in our Gospel passage today. Jesus has been quite busy since healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter, if you followed the lectionary reading last week. If we were to read the passages between last week’s reading and today’s, we would learn from Matthew that Jesus had cured many, fed four thousand men, plus women and children, with enough left over for seconds, and argued with religious leaders who demanded a sign from heaven confirming his identity. And as if that was not enough, Jesus realized that even the disciples, his trusted friends, did not appear to understand him or his mission.

So here on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, at this crossroads of various world religions, and culture, Jesus ponders his mission and wonders about himself. And as we often do when we need to know the truth about ourselves – we ask our closest friends who have journeyed with us through thick and thin and seem to know us best, who also know what others are saying about us – Jesus asks a rhetorical question, “What’s the word on the street? Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples responded as if in a competition. “People say you’re John the Baptist.” “No, they think you’re Elijah.” “Wait, no, some think you’re Jeremiah.” “Yes, but others say you’re one of the prophets.” The disciples’ answers are based on the religious groups they are familiar with and interestingly, Jesus does not affirm or deny their responses. He simply listens as they reveal what they believe they know based on, ideas, and expert opinions of others. And isn’t that what we do? Our explorations of faith begin with naming what we have heard, examining what has been passed down from our various traditions and by repeating the stories that others have handed to us. 

These answers cost us very little; they are safe and good-natured, which is all well and good as they point back to history and tradition. But they lack intimacy. Naming what we have heard from others, repeating what we have inherited from our parents, our cultures, religious beliefs, or friends are good ways to begin our explorations. However, we cannot build our lives of faith on only hearsay. Eventually, the question of who Jesus is needs to become personal.

So, Jesus presses on with one of the most difficult questions among friends – a question that seeks the truth. One that desires no flattery, but an honest answer from the heart. It is only from those we truly love and who love us that we risk the answer to the question “How have you experienced me? Who do you say that I am?” 

Perhaps Jesus was thinking, forget about other people’s theologies and interpretations. And just for now, put aside tradition and creed and reflect on the life we have lived together – the bread we have broken, the miles we have walked, and the burdens we have carried. Remember the tears we have shed – the laughter we have shared. “Who am I to you?” 

One can imagine Jesus standing patiently and vulnerably waiting for a response – wondering if his followers understand his mission and vision – if they are willing to take a risk – if they love him enough to make a confession out loud.

Only the bold, reckless, impulsive, and earnest Peter has the courage to blurt out exactly what he is thinking. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Peter responds. We learn from today’s Gospel account that Jesus commends and blesses Peter for his answer, promising the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Yet, in the verses directly following our reading for today, when Jesus describes the suffering and humiliation the Messiah is to endure, Peter backtracks causing Jesus to rebuke him. Peter had set his mind on human and not divine things. Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah but really had no idea what “Messiah” meant.

Jesus’ teaching methods, characterized by the tactical use of questions, mirrored those of the rabbis of his day. His open-handed inquiries were often designed to confront his disciples and catalyze change. He was looking for accountability and commitment. 

Peter had answered Jesus’ question correctly, albeit with the help of God, but remained a spectator. He could not accept that the Messiah’s mission involved dying on a cross. Peter’s confession was only the beginning of his exploration of Jesus’ identity. It seems that Peter was living in the gap between knowing the answer to Jesus’ question and living into the answer to the question. There was so much more for Peter to learn before he truly comprehended what it meant to be the Messiah. 

Do you truly know what it means to be the Messiah? Who do you say that Jesus is? What stories of Jesus have you inherited? Do you need to unlearn some ideas that were passed down? What religious assumptions are you clinging to simply because they're familiar, safe, or easy? We tend to try fitting Jesus into our own little boxes. Are we living in the gap between knowing and living into our answer to Jesus’ question? 

Anthony Reddie, another of my professors at Oxford, author of "Is God Color Blind" and a black, liberation theologian, presented our class with an intriguing visual: a sheet of paper showcasing various depictions of Jesus. These depictions ranged from Jesus as a woman, to Jesus in different attires, glowing, smoking a cigarette, or even portrayed as homeless. This exercise challenged our conventional perceptions. For instance, the portrayal of a white Jesus stands out in many of our minds, yet historical accuracy suggests that Jesus might have been of Middle Eastern descent. It's worth pondering that our perceptions of Jesus are often handed down to us. But let's consider a different perspective – what about a queer Jesus? The truth is, each of us holds a unique image of Jesus.

Discipleship is a lifelong process, and growth will change our answer to many questions. In the second reading in the lectionary today we have read Paul’s letter to the Romans, who appeals to those present – and to us – saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Context and location are also important factors that might influence our responses, yet each of us must answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. 

We can stand up each day and declare, like Peter, that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” but what difference will that make if we remain spectators? Once we allow Jesus more deeply into our hearts and claim him as our Messiah, we no longer have the luxury of being spectators. We become co-creators and as such, we need to act; and action means living into our answer.

Living into our answer compels us to care and advocate for those experiencing injustice, discrimination, racism, poverty, and any other adversity. We are living into our answer when we love one another as Christ loves us – when we offer compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, and healing to a hurting world - when we work to bring about peace and to keep hope alive. 

In this context, let us also remember the journeys of queer individuals,like Peter, answer questions about identity with courage. The journey of self-discovery and acceptance can be met with challenges, but it is also a path toward living authentically, aligning spirituality with truth. As we strive to answer Jesus’ question, let us recognize that the diverse experiences of all individuals.

Before we conclude, I want to celebrate a meaningful step our church has taken. We've joined the Metropolitan Community Churches as a spiritual community, a denomination that has been affirming LGBTQ individuals since its founding on October 6, 1968, founded by Rev Troy Perry.

Just as Peter courageously answered Jesus' question, individuals within the LGBTQ community also bravely answer questions about their identities. Our partnership with MCC strengthens our collective resolve to support those on their journeys of self-discovery and acceptance.

As we answer Jesus' question, let us remember the guiding light of inclusivity and acceptance that MCC represents. Through this affiliation, we're inspired to actively co-create a world that reflects God's boundless love for all.

And so, as we carry the light of Christ within us, let's move forward with the understanding that we are part of a community that nurtures a faith truly transformative and embraces the diverse experiences of all individuals.

Who do you say that the Son of Man is? If you’re not quite there with an answer, ask God to help you with that and to transform you, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Amen.

Sermon: Q’s That Lead Us to Take Action Sermon: Q’s That Lead Us to Take Action Reviewed by Shane St Reynolds on August 27, 2023 Rating: 5

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