Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pentecost 16B

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. And Peter, the one who can never keep his mouth shut, speaks without realizing what he’s saying.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter bursts without thinking, wondering why Jesus would ask a pretty basic question.

But I think Jesus was trying to take their temperature. He probably heard the gossip about who people thought he was, and he wanted to shut down any misinformation before it got out of hand.

“Who do people say that I am? What are they saying about me? What’s in the papers, what are the bloggers blogging about? Who is tweeting about me and what are they tweeting? What’s happening on Facebook? I’m curious. Because I haven’t been totally direct with people, and I want what’s going on out there.”

It’s interesting that Jesus thinks his disciples have their ears to the ground. After all, they haven’t really left his sight since they began their preaching tour. They may have been milling about in the crowds, eavesdropping on peoples’ conversations, getting a sense of who people think this wandering preacher is, and why they think that.

But people only have their own experience to draw from. Some say that Jesus is “Elijah” because they see Jesus’ ministry of speaking God’s Word. Others say Moses because they see him as a great leader. Some say “one of the prophets” because his preaching has cut through their hearts like a surgeon’s scalpel. But no two people agree as to who they think Jesus is.

There’s no consensus until Jesus asks his followers.

“Okay, that’s who THEY, OUT THERE say that I am. But who do YOU say that I am? What do YOU tell people about me?”

It’s a pretty direct question, isn’t it? Is Jesus testing them? Or is even more curious about his friends’ answers then those on the street.

“You’re the Messiah,” Peter says impulsively. Probably impressed with himself.

Did Peter answer Jesus correctly? Yes. But did he know what the correct answer was? No.

Peter may have given Jesus the “correct” answer but he had no idea what he was saying. He didn’t really have a clue what the word “Messiah” meant. But he knew that Jesus was it. And Peter showed Jesus that he was completely ignorant of the divine plan - or even of basic Hebrew Sunday school. That’s why Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that the Messiah needs to be killed and raised on the third day. Peter couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a murdered king.

“Jesus, what are you talking about? That makes no sense! You gotta stop with this whole dying and rising thing or we’ll start losing people. That’s no way for a messiah to talk. That’s not what people want from a king,” Peter might have said.

And that really ticked Jesus off, and he lays into Peter with the strongest language in his arsenal.

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on divine things. But on earthly things.”

Then Jesus totally loses it, and goes off on a rant directed at Peter, but also aimed at anyone within earshot.

“Hey folks, listen up! If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”

Stunned silence. Jesus’ listeners were probably taken aback by his vehemence.

“What’s his problem?” people probably muttered to each other. He’s been awesome up until now. He’s got this whole healing the sick and raising the dead thing down pat. Why’s he so touchy?

It all started with that simple question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter’s answer showed that even Jesus’ closest friends hadn’t a clue who he really was or what he was supposed to do. They knew his name, and they knew his divine job title, but after all that time together, they didn’t really know HIM, and why he came among them.

Sometimes I worry that, as Christians, we’re more like Peter in this scenario than we like to realize. We often speak in Jesus’ name without first defining our terms. We assume we know what we mean when we use words like “Messiah” or even “God’s Word” “salvation” “grace” or “faith.” We think that we are all in agreement as to what these words mean.

We’re like Peter in the way that we think we know what God is up to in our lives and in the world. Peter probably believed, like many others did, that the Messiah would be a mighty political warrior, restoring Israel to the golden age of when King David sat on the throne. And he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that Jesus’ greatest accomplishment would be to die a cruel death as a common criminal.

Peter wanted Jesus to affirm his sense of power. He wanted a front row seat when the Israel’s glory finally returned. He liked his proximity to the almighty. He liked the social affirmation that came from being associated with someone who held divine power in his hands.

Through our history, we’ve longed for that power as well, and I often hear people long for the days when Christians held the reigns of authority over our culture and demand a special place at the table.

Every December I hear about some phony “War on Christmas” as if what the culture celebrates as “Christmas” resembles, in any way, the birth of a saviour born in a barn, or if our society has any responsibility to announce Jesus’ birth for us.

I hear about how we’ve taken God and the bible out of the schools, as if it the job of the public school teachers to do our job as churches for us.

I hear about how stores are open on Sundays, despite the objections of the churches, as if the Christians should dictate when people can and cannot operate their business when folk can do their shopping.

We complain that people don’t naturally gravitate to church on Sunday mornings, without reflecting on why Christians have lost influence in society.

We mourn for what we’ve lost. We long for the times when we flourished and took our place at the head of the table.

We’re more like Peter then we think. We want a God of power. Not a God of the cross.

One of the reasons I went to Japan was to see how Christians lived their faith without the culture propping them up. Japan is a secular society with some religious rituals imbedded into the culture, but they are not an overtly religious people.

I find the history of Christianity in Japan fascinating. Especially because Christians flourished in that country without the help of Japanese society. Some may say, despite the challenges Japanese culture put in front of the Japanese Christians.

Christianity in Japan never really broke the 3-5 percent range of the population. And today, Christians are less than one percent of the population.

But Christians, despite their small numbers, have had an IMMENSE impact on Japanese life. Especially in health care and education. Christian universities are thought of as being among the finest in Japan. Christian hospitals have an excellent reputation for providing exceptional health care. Christian relief agencies provide aid for people in Japan and beyond in numbers that would make us well-fed Canadian Christians blush.

They are wonderfully effective in their witness in a naturally hostile culture because they came to Japan to serve rather than be served. They didn’t complain when the culture wouldn’t officially recognize them. They simply rolled up their sleeves and did the work of the kingdom. They knew the God of the cross, rather than the God of power.

That’s one lesson we can learn from our Japanese sisters and brothers as we try to see our future in an increasingly multi-religious Canada. We can learn that we don’t need society and culture to help us to our job as Christians. We don’t need schools to teach our faith or for politicians to vote the way we demand that they do.

Instead of mourning what we’ve lost, we can celebrate what we’ve gained. I think we’ve been given a gift. Our loss of official influence is an opportunity to re-claim our message. We can be a unique presence in our community without worrying about how we might look.

We can be a light shining in the darkness instead of being lost in the light pollution that simply covers the darkness. We can be that city on the hill that Jesus said we are. We can move ahead into a renewed future where the church may be smaller, but it will be stronger than it was.

We have all that we need. God has put each one of you here to do God’s kingdom work. And God will send more people to help. God isn’t finished with this church. Not by a long shot.

So when Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am” we can answer proudly “you are the Messiah” and we’ll know exactly what that means, because we are living it every day.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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