Rev. Teri Peterson
September 13 2009, Ordinary 24B
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
When Pastor Hani visited us this summer, I was reminded of something I learned while preaching in an Egyptian church a few years ago: In Egypt, “Christian” is just a label on a birth certificate, it doesn’t mean anything about who you really are. Protestant Christians in Egypt call themselves “believers” to distinguish from both the Coptic Orthodox and also from the Egyptian version of nominal cultural Christians, something like the “Christmas and Easter” type. Here it’s a vast percentage of Americans who say they “believe in God” but don’t participate in a community much.
In other words, lots of people say they’re Christians…but, like Peter, would prefer to keep that quiet.
Who do people say that Jesus is? Some say he’s a prophet, some say he’s a teacher, some say he’s a healer, some say he’s a good example.
But forget the gossip, the hearsay…who do YOU say that Jesus is?
It’s not an easy question in 21st century America. There’s a lot of temptation to use those other words—prophet, teacher, healer, example—and see our friends nod their heads in agreement, maybe even in relief that we haven’t turned out to be one of THOSE Christians. But Peter takes a stand, even as the other disciples are all doing the classic Presbyterian look-at-the-ground-avoid-eye-contact-at-all-costs move. Peter looks Jesus right in the eye, then comes out and says it: Jesus is the messiah, the one we have waited for. He makes a classic statement of faith, telling Jesus and all the world what he believes. Or, rather, he tells us what he thinks. He knows, in his mind, that Jesus is the Messiah, the One who is to come, the one who will save us.
But, when Jesus begins to explain what that means…well, let’s just say Peter isn’t thrilled with this turn of events. It’s one thing for Jesus to teach crowds of people to be nice to each other, feed thousands of people with a miracle, heal the sick…it’s a totally different thing for him to go around saying, where people can HEAR, that his brand of lordship looks different than they expected. This is a lord who will be conquered, humiliated, killed, not one who will conquer and humiliate and kill others. This is a lord who will ask us to follow into the depths of despair, need, and pain so we can join him in bringing grace, peace, and love. This is a lord who calls us out of the darkness and into the light.
Lots of people say they’re Christians…but, like Peter, would prefer to keep quiet about what that means for our lives.
Jesus doesn’t keep many things on the down-low—he’s not afraid to say out loud things we would prefer to keep to ourselves. And the thing he says (loudly, I imagine!) to Peter is that saying it with your mouth or thinking it in your head are NOT the same thing as living it every day, in every action, every word, every thought, every relationship, every move.
Who do you say that I am? You are Son of God, Lamb of God, Word of God. King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace. Alpha and Omega, Immanuel, Rabbi. Savior, Messiah, Friend.
Okay, forget all the hearsay, all the gossip, all the words…who does your LIFE say that I am? who does your life say that YOU are?
This is a little harder…words are easy, as Peter discovered. We’ll confess with our mouths and believe in our minds and maybe even in our hearts, and yet we’ll walk past those who hunger; we’ll pollute the waters and not worry about those who are thirsty; we’ll ignore the stranger because they are just too different; we’ll think it’s a pity that some are cold but won’t offer our own coats; we’ll wish all could have health care but let complexity distract us from actually ourselves caring for the sick, we’ll stay away from prisons, not believing that those who have strayed can truly be redeemed…and we’ll try to forget what Jesus said in Matthew 25, that whatever we do to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely, we do to him.
We’re good at the words, at the belief part. But when it comes to putting that belief into action, living our faith, following Jesus wherever he’s leading us, we often have the same reaction as Peter. “Surely, you don’t mean that…and if you do, could you please be quiet about it? It’s very inconvenient, it gives the wrong impression, it isn’t fashionable.”
Many of us say we’re Christians…but, like Peter, we’d prefer to keep that in our heads, inside the church building, in our homes, in the book.
I think this is a little like what happens to Peter—he has all the right answers at first, but when push comes to shove and his lifestyle or his image is on the line, he gets defensive and wants to maintain his brand-name label. But when Jesus tells us what the life of a follower is like, it doesn’t seem to involve having the right answers, reading the right books, praying the right prayer, keeping up the right appearance, or even saying the right name. “follow me.” “stop worrying about what other people think of you.” “give everything away and come.” “take care of others.” “do justice, love kindness, be humble.” “take up your cross and follow me.”
Taking up the cross is not the same thing as wearing one on a silver chain around your neck. Following Jesus is not the same thing as reading about him. Being faithful is not the same as thinking the right things.
There is hard, but good, news for us here. The good news is that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we can’t earn it and we can’t pay for it. That means we can follow freely, unencumbered by the world’s expectations, that we don’t have to know everything or be perfect…all we need to do is follow where Jesus is leading.
The hard news is that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we can’t earn it and we can’t pay for it and we can’t hoard it for ourselves. Jesus may not be leading us where we thought we wanted to go, and what other people think really is important to many of us, so it’s easier to keep it all quiet, confined to an hour on Sunday and maybe a few words of thanks before dinner or before bed. If not joined with our lives, all our words and all our songs say nothing.
Our calling, as we enter a new year of worship, ministry, and mission together, is to sing it out loud with our lives, not only our words, to LIVE our faith every day, to follow, not only believe.
I believe we can live out loud together. May it be so.