Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Living a Question”
Rev. Art Ritter
August 23, 2020
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “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, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
I heard a news story this week that was somewhat strange. It was one of those stories that usually comes out of Florida but this one actually occurred in Tennessee. The story was about a case of mistaken identity, a very strange case of mistaken identity. A woman named Jade Dodd went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew her driver’s license. She filled out the paperwork, took the exam, paid her fee, and had her photograph taken. A few days later her new driver’s license arrived. The identification photo in the lower right hand side of her license was a picture of an empty chair. Dodd called the state DMV but they did not believe her. So she took the license into the local office to show them that her photo was actually a photo of a chair. The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security told CNN that they believe the error happened when a photo of the empty chair was the last photo taken for the day before putting the camera away, and that somehow the last image for that day was placed on file as the photograph of Jade Dodd. Dodd’s friends and co-workers are now sending her photos of other empty chairs, asking her if any of the chairs happen to be her relatives.
Questions of identity are part of the journey of life. William Willimon writes that along with questions like “Why is the sky blue?” when we are young we tend to be full of other questions about our identity. “Who made me?” “Why am I here?” There is the old perception that sometimes those in their teens or early twenties take a year off from school or work to try and “find themselves.” Sadly, as we grow older our questions about identity may get smaller or at least shallower. Our identity is found in the pursuit of more tangible things. We ask, “How much more money do I need to make to be really happy?” “When will I get the promotion or raise that I deserve?” “When will we ever get to the point of this sermon?”
A colleague of mine in Florida, Shawn Stapleton, shared a delightful post on Facebook this week. Shawn is a new first-time grandfather. He wrote, “I remember when I graduated high school. I was pretty sure I knew who I was. Then I graduated college. I was pretty sure I knew who I was and it wasn’t who I was before. Then I became a dad. I was floating on air! I was sure I knew who I was and it wasn’t who I was before. Then, as I worked and became jaded by the world around me, I became someone different again. Every win, every loss, they reshaped me. I have tried to live in such a way that I grew from them. I always figured there was a lesson or purpose. Today I am a grandfather, and I think the lessons all led me to this. I was pretty sure I knew who I was before. Yet I had no idea. This is who I am, a grandpa. I love this little girl…..We will giggle, and drool, and study the world, and try to use our hands, and smell smells and see pretty sights and hear pretty sounds together. And all the while I will feel like my best self…which is the best gift anyone has even given to me. I thank God for this little girl.”
In the Scripture reading today, Jesus asks his followers a very tough question about identity. The scene is strategically placed by the author of the gospel of Matthew. It follows Jesus’ acceptance of the Canaanite woman and the removal of boundaries that would limit God’s mercy and grace. It also follows Jesus’ help in feeding a crowd of four thousand people when the disciples said that they did not have enough resources and thus were not able. The reading for today occurs in the district of Caesarea Philippi, the heart of secular power in that region of the world. The Roman Governor and Roman army were based in Caesarea Philippi. It was the place to be if you wanted to be powerful and influential.
Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The answers were rather obvious. John the Baptist. Elijah. Jeremiah. One of the prophets. Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” It suddenly got quieter. That was a more difficult question to answer. Peter finally spoke up saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answered him saying, “You are the Rock, the basis of my church. I will give to you the keys to the kingdom. You will be able to bind and loose and to pronounce the forgiveness of sins.”
It is interesting that this lesson begins with a Jesus asking a question about who people thought he was. The lesson then ends with Jesus telling Peter who Peter is. When Peter understands who Jesus is, Jesus is able to tell Peter what Peter should be all about. The moment Peter begins to see the real identity of Jesus is the moment when Peter is empowered to do the work of Jesus. Jesus moves Peter very quickly from a confession of faith to a vocational assignment. “Upon you, I will build my church.” Peter’s identity is matched with his perception of Jesus’ identity. Recognizing God in Jesus, Peter was now called to live as the presence of Christ in the world.
William Willimon writes about a professor friend who grew up within the church but during college and graduate school left the faith. He was disillusioned with the church’s failure to respond in the Civil Right Movement and became in his own words, “sort of a Christian, but one who didn’t actually practice Christianity, a believer but not a doer.” The professor became an expert in East-West business relations. In the 1980’s he had a conversation with an official of the then Soviet Union. She asked him, “So you are a Christian. I am an atheist. Tell me- what difference does your belief in God make in the way you vote, the way you spend your money? Tell me, when was the last time that you did something because you stopped and asked yourself, ‘What does God want me to do in this case?’” The professor was stunned. He said, “I realized that though I believed like a believer, I lived like an atheist.” It was a stunning moment of recognition that brought him to embrace a more living and meaningful Christian faith.
Who do you say that I am? That is the question, isn’t it? That is the reality of our identity in the eyes of God. How do we answer that question? Who do we say that Jesus is with our words and actions? Rick Warren once wrote, “Christian are like teabags. You don’t know what’s inside until you put them in hot water.” Who do you say that Jesus is? Canned, feel good, sentimental answers won’t do. The quotation of Bible verses or theological beliefs won’t cut the mustard. The answer is never merely academic or abstract. It always has a context. That’s what makes it so hard.
Who is Jesus in the midst of this pandemic, where it seems that every choice we make is one of risk, and when fear and uncertainty weighs us down?
Who is Jesus in the midst of a pandemic where choices have to be made about the health of the public as well as our own health, when our needs to put food on the table must be weighed against the welfare of those around us?
Who is Jesus when conspiracies and untruths are the order of the day, when we easily speak as truth opinions we’ve heard on the cable news or when we generously click and share social media posts and anecdotes to make us feel better, to make us feel right, or at least make the world seem more logical?
Who is Jesus following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor too many more and the increased racial tensions our country?
Who is Jesus as we approach a bitterly contested national election with an angry and divided electorate? Who is Jesus as we consider which candidates we will support?
Who is Jesus when our neighbor is hungry or when many in our community can’t find work or must work for a wage that cannot support their family?
Who is Jesus when we are faced with decisions that have no easy answers, when the night is dark and the storms are overwhelming, when being faithful means risking and taking a stand that makes us stand out?
Who is Jesus when we are given news we don’t want to hear or when our life seems to be falling apart?
14th century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “We are all mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.” In God we find our identity and in our actions God is given an identity in our world. There are the moments in which we understand who Jesus is and what he is calling us to be. In those moments, things shift dramatically, we see things differently, and we find a new identity in ourselves. But it is not enough just to confess Jesus as the Messiah and Lord. The acknowledgement must be one of practice and not theory. We must live out understanding of Jesus identity in the understanding of our God-given identity, in our relationships, with our bank accounts, with our time, with our energy, with our ballots, and with our choices.
William Willimon asks the question we must all ask in considering our identity: Do we believe just what the church believes about Jesus? Or do we believe what Jesus believes about us? In our answer lies our true identity. Who is Jesus? The world is watching for our answer.