Sermon – September 17, 2006

Who do you say that I am?

Some of you may have seen the cover story in Time Magazine this week.  It is titled, “Does God Want You To Be Rich?   It is a story about a popular theological innovation over the past few years that suggests that the blessing that God wants to give faithful people is wealth. . . . that the abundant life that God promises is quite possibily an abundance of riches.  The timing of the article is surprising, because it essentially paraphrases Jesus’ question to the disciples today, “Who do people say that I am?”  That was a question for the crowds, for the onlookers, for those who had not yet made a commitment to follow Jesus.  “Who do those folks say that I am?”  and the disciples give him the word on the street.  Well, Elijah.  Pretty good call.  Legit prophet, precursor to the Messiah.  Close, but no cigar.  How about John the Baptist.  Again, an OK choice, John the prophet proclaimed the coming kingdom, and preached the baptism of repentance. . . . legit prophet.  That’s what the people say.

“How about you?”. . .  “How about you who are my disciples, my followers, my chosen ones, my friends and fellow travellers.  How about you?  Who do you say that I am?”

Answering that is not as easy as it sounds.   One of the mistakes we make out of our humanity is trying to put Christ in a box that fits our needs, our standards, our criteria, our aspirations a Christ that is completed by our expectations.  Turn on the television or radio sometimes and you will hear the people that Time Magazine writes about, people proclaiming that Jesus is a cash cow, there to confirm our holiness so that God would bless us with wealth.  Jesus died on the cross so that you might be rich, is essentially the theology of that bunch.   I may have told you I heard one pastor say, “there’s a enough money in the world for 13 million dollars apiece, and I want mine and if you don’t want yours, I’ll take it because God wants to bless us with his favor.”  That favor is translated in dollars and cents.   Who do you say that I am?   It certainly cannot be that, as it is limited by our own aspirations and tempered by our greed.  We might then swing the other way.  Others would confine Jesus within the boundaries of rigid orthodoxy, “unless you see Jesus through my lens, you have no right to him.”    Sometimes, we just don’t know quite how to answer that question, because it’s huge.  Huge because what’s at stake is our own understanding of who we are in the universe, and who are neighbor is, and who God is why God would bother.  Sometimes it’s a frightening question.    Sometimes because logic fails, ever fails. . .  it’s too mysterious.. . .  we’ll come back to that.

Who do people say that I am?  

But Peter. . . .  Peter blurts it out.   “You are the Messiah”. . . . Peter said the M word.. . . . there must have been dead silence. . . the Messiah.   Now, we have to understand that part of the problem of defining Christ . . . is that we hear differently . .  have different understanding.  At the time in the understanding of many, the notion of the Messiah was one like King David who would come to lead the people, redeem the people, reinstate them as the chosen ones, and who would help to throw the rascals out, the occupying Roman powers.  That’s the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, I think, that Peter had in mind. . . . .

But Jesus wanted to be sure they understood, so he began to teach them that he must be rejected by the very people he needed to confirm such a claim that he was Messiah, rejected by the only ones who could legitimately support that claim . . . and then he went on about dying and rising . . . and it was too much for Peter.

So he called Jesus aside.   Wanted to give him a little schooling.     When I was involved in politics, I was on the senior staff of the congressional office. . .  and part of my job, really, was to protect the candidate from himself. . . so sometimes I would take him aside, like Peter, and say, “Listen, you really can’t call your opponent a bottom feeding communist. . .  naw, don’t need to do that.  You’re a little tired.  Now, go get him.”  Thought I was so smart.   Of course, the congressman would step out and say, not only is he bottom feeding communist, he’s ugly too.  So much for that.

Peter thought he would give Jesus a little schooling, but he got rebuked. . . . Get behind me Satan . . . he got a licking because too much was at stake for misunderstanding, too much love cast about, too much love, too much pain, to much sacrifice, too much hope for misunderstanding. . . . so he gave Peter the licking. . .  so we would understand that he loved us so much that he would suffer the rejection and humiliation of the very people he needed to validate his ministry, that he would be killed and humiliated and die on behalf of those to whom he poses the question, and then would rise again and bring them all up with him in faith.   Too much at stake to misunderstand who he is.

We gather every Sunday, we pray, we study the Bible, to hear again and again to hear who this guy is because if we don’t we will put him in our own box.  It is human nature.  We will create a Christ who is convenient for us.   Jesus understands us so he says, those who would follow me must take up their cross, share with me this ministry . . .  sometimes that cross is to let go of the things that would bind us to another definition of Christ and free us to be his followers in truth.

As soon as we begin to cram him into these boxes and confine him to our own limits, we will suffer the same rebuke as Peter . . .  if we are lucky.   Worse, we will be simply ignored, or worse, we will drag people along with us chasing a false Christ, one easier to swallow, bearing a false and shallow hope.  More pliable and amenable to our demands, but not the Christ of the cross.  That is the danger of a Jesus as cash cow theology.

It is important that we come back to revisit this story of love again and again, because we hear differently, because we’re different people.   I attended an evangelism conference once and one of the presenters told us this. . . that in a congregation the size of St. Matthew, there are six to 15 different lifestyles, married, single, young, older, widowed, retired, divorced. . . you get the picture. . .  we each have different world view. . . and if we pack Jesus into a box that fits only our criteria. . . well, it’s not the Christ who came to be one with the world.

He is the Lord of all, the one who calls us into a common community, who says because of me, you belong here, this is your place today . . .  and I’ve gone to prepare a place for you tomorrow. . . .  Crazy, isn’t it?    Mysterious.

I’ve got some good news for you this morning folks.   Mystery is back.   All these years we have struggled to confine the love of God in Christ to our definitions and we constantly run up against the limits of our language and our thought and our own capacity to love and we restrict Christ by that.

But the mystery of this great gift is back, God loves us, we old vain, stumbling, sometimes faithful, most time defiant people of God, loves us. . . . that’s a mystery.

 500 years ago God was the center of all truth . . .St. Anselm said, “I believe so that I might understand.”   A couple of hundred years later came the Enlightenment .  Reason was God.  I think, therefore I am.  I don’t need God.  I am self-referring and self-understanding.   All things provable are truth, all the rest is not.    Now, friends, a great thing is happening.  Mystery is back.   At a time when science and technology have advanced beyond our wildest dreams, they point us to the mystery of God’s divine order.   Mystery is back and at the van are the physicists and scientists who peer into the farthest reaches of understanding. . . .  and find. . . . mystery.

That all this can’t get us to the mysterious heart of God’s love. . . that the God of the universe comes to live with us and identify with us, and suffer with us so that he would always be this close.   Remember how it goes, “the Son of God though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness. . . . so he would always be this close. . . . mystery. . . . who died and on the third day rose again . . . mystery.

Who do you say that I am.  The one who comes to us with this mysterious, uncompromising, unbending, sacrificial love of God.   And he says, now that you know who I am, here is who you are.   If you are to believe, to follow, to buy this.  If you are to step into this mystery, you are one who is bound by a different cord to a higher power and a greater truth, and you will have to cut some of those other cords, free yourself from that which binds your life, and free yourself to soar with the mystery of God’s love. . .  that’s the cross we often must hoist, our struggle against those things that keep us from loving him and each other.

The consequences of that love is the peace which passes all understanding.   This is not mystery for mystery’s sake, not power for power’s sake, not cosmic drama because God is bored, but because God loves you and me.   Yikes.

And wants for us wholeness and community and place and peace.    Who do you say that I am?   The one who loves us beyond all understanding.