A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 13, 2015 (Proper 19, Year B)
See, I told you they’d be back. And it is a joy to welcome all of you to St. John’s this morning for the aptly named Homecoming Sunday. Some of you have returned after being away for much of the summer; some of you never left and have been gone for only a week; some of you may be worshipping with us for the very first time; and some of you may have just gotten out of the habit. But whatever the reason or whatever the circumstances, God is glad you’re here. I am glad you’re here. And I assume it’s not just because we rented a bounce house.
As we look at our gospel passage this morning, I want to begin by popping the question. Well, not really. I won’t be getting down on one knee and proposing to all of you. That would be awkward for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that my wife is sitting out there somewhere.
But anyone who is married or engaged or has been married has either popped the question or had it popped to them. I love hearing stories of people’s proposals. Some are creative, some are pedestrian. Some are utter flops (just Google “marriage proposal fails”). It’s one of the first questions I ask a couple when I meet with them for pre-marital counseling, just after the question about how they met. The answer to that one, by the way is overwhelmingly “online.” With the occasional sheepishly-shared-because-they’re-talking-to-a-priest “at a bar.”
In this passage Jesus pops the ultimate question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a question for the disciples but it’s also the defining question of our lives. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” There are a variety of possible answers out there and Jesus knows this. It’s why he prefaces the Big Question by first asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?’
Now, Jesus isn’t fishing for compliments here. He’s not taking the pulse of the masses like a politician checking his poll numbers. He’s fully aware that his mission in the world will be misunderstood; that for as popular as he may be when he’s teaching and healing, his message of love will eventually lead to the hard wood of the cross.
But it’s interesting to hear what John Q. Public thinks about him. “Some say you are John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Strange answers to our ears. Yet they all point to the crowd’s great hope that a messianic prophet would emerge to lead the people of Israel out of political and spiritual bondage to the Roman government. They were desperate for a savior. But one formed in their own image, not in God’s image.
And it’s important for us to ask that same question in our own context. What do people beyond our walls think about Jesus? What do people beyond our walls think about Christians? Well, if you pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV or go online, the public perception of Christians in America is not something that resonates with the Jesus we know. Judgmental, hypocritical, exclusionary. Jesus’ reputation in the world is suffering and he wants to know what we’re going to do about it. What are we going to do to change that perception, to invite people to know the loving Jesus we encounter in Scripture, in prayer, and in our daily lives?
But changing that perception must begin with the personal. It must begin with our own relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s all well and good what other people think and we’ll get to changing their misconceptions, “But who do you say that I am?” You can’t dodge such a direct question. In the same way you can’t not respond when someone pops the question. You can’t ignore the words spelled out by the skywriter: “Will you marry me?.” An answer is expected. You may have to think about it. But eventually even a non-response becomes an answer in itself.
And Peter got it. Peter, the one who’s always popping off with rash answers if not popping questions. He boldly answers Jesus by proclaiming loudly and clearly for all to hear, “You are the Messiah;” literally ‘the anointed one of God.’
Unfortunately for Peter, the euphoria of getting the correct answer is short-lived. It’s amazing how in just a few verses Peter goes from teacher’s pet to detention (or at least that’s my first week of school analogy). Peter gets the initial answer right but he has no clue at this point what it will actually entail. Because once Jesus starts to talk about the suffering he will endure, Peter rebukes him — “Lord, don’t say such things.” There’s almost a superstitious vibe here — ‘If you don’t say it out loud, it won’t come to pass.’
But Jesus does say it out loud. He tells the disciples very clearly that he will suffer. Not because he’s looking for sympathy or playing Debbie Downer. Our Lord will be arrested, suffer, and end up strung up on a cross because his message of love and inclusion is at odds with and threatens the powers that be. When you live your life as an embodiment of the divine call for justice, you set yourself up to suffer.
But enough avoiding the question at hand. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” There are all sorts of possible answers. Safe answers. A nice guy, a great moral teacher, someone I’m happy to spend an hour with every week or so. And there’s some truth here but this doesn’t come close to the fullness of the true answer which can only be “The Messiah.”
The good news is — and where Jesus’ question differs from a marriage proposal — is that this question isn’t asked once and for all. It is asked of us daily, lovingly, and throughout our lives. “Who do you say that I am?” Ultimately it is a question of identity. We must know Jesus’ identity in order to let him fully shape our own. And this takes time. Discipleship is a journey after all — it’s no accident that Jesus asks this question of the disciples while they’re on the road. And it’s not always an easy one with quick answers and pat responses. Allowing Jesus’ identity to transform our own identity is a gradual process. Which is precisely why Jesus asks us who we say he is over and over and over again.
As we re-gather as a community, perhaps feeling frenzied and slightly out-of-control as we readjust to the fall routine, it’s important to reflect upon the place of your faith in the context of your life. Fall is a busy time. But it’s also a great time to reexamine the priorities of your life and place Jesus Christ firmly at the center. It’s a great time to ground the extraordinary pace and volume of our lives with a living faith. It’s a great time to reclaim your identity first and foremost as a beloved child of God.
Only then are we able to live lives full of meaning and purpose. Lives where love and relationships and community matter more than anything else. And so on this day, as he does every day, Jesus asks us yet again, “Who do you say that I am?” And he awaits our faithful response.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015