Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?

No Place Like Home

2 Corinthians 5:6-11, 14-16

“We’re at home in the body,” says Paul the Apostle…at home in this vessel that bruises and jostles and ages and wrinkles and sneezes and bleeds, at home in this meat case of incessant needs, at home in this temple of hungers and appetites yearning for ecstasy, longing for paradise, wishing escape from our aches and our pains, our own wounded psyches, our time-addled brains. From the tips of your toes to the crown of your dome, be it ever so…broken… there’s no place like home.

There’s no place that needs such upkeep and maintaining. One day you’re feasting, the next you’re abstaining. One day it’s easy to carry your weight, the next day you wonder “Who packed all this freight?” One day you’re an athlete racking up points, the next you’re a senior with bionic joints. One day you’re a tower of strength, in your prime. The next day lumbago is twisting your spine. The years pile on and give you a licking, but with diet and meds the ticker keeps ticking. So we take baby aspirin and pray for catharsis because, after all, home’s where the heart is.

Home’s where the heart is…so, although we are slowing, we’re still pretty confident about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight–especially when nature calls three times a night. But despite all our physical hurdles and hobbles, despite how our little world teeters and wobbles, despite all our blindness and deafness and woe we still, pretty much, know which way to go. Though our feet may meander, our attention may roam, softly and tenderly Christ calls us home.

Christ calls us home. And yes, we are judged. We stand here before him all battered and smudged, we feel every scar—especially those we’ve inflicted—every lie or dark deed–we stand here convicted. But we stand here with Christ who died once and for all so that our death is wrapped up in his in one ball of death-killing love and mercy and grace that lifts us right out of that self-centered place where we wallow in fear and ego and worry and gross self-importance and anger and hurry. We find mercy and grace, forgiveness, shalom—our souls wrapped in love until Christ is our home.

Christ is our home. So we see with new eyes—a new point of view—and to our surprise, because Christ is more than a mere human being, we see that there’s really no mere anything. Or mere anyone–we are, all of us, deeper, more complex, more cherished, and no life is cheaper than yours or than mine or than anyone else’s. We find our true selves when we learn to be selfless, when we fall into Christ and let love conform us, let the Spirit inspire, reshape and transform us, till in this slow stew of transfiguration we see that in Christ there is new creation.

In Christ, new creation. All things are reborn—the ones you love most, the parties you scorn, the planet itself, the stars in the skies—all things are made new and we see with new eyes. Old habits, old angers, old grudges, old fears, addictions, obsessions, your old unshed tears, old guilts that trouble your sleep in the night, opinions and bias that narrow your sight—it all fades away to allow a fresh start in Christ, your new home, in Christ, your new heart. The old fades away as the new takes its place and life becomes grace upon grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace, even through the long waiting that drags on our days as we’re anticipating that final renewal, the post-mortem waking, when you’ll shine like a jewel at the final remaking of all things that are and all things that will be and all things that were. And all you. And all me. The blossom that hides in the seed is concealed and what we will be has not yet been revealed. And though we’re impatient to make our escape, like a nymph in a chrysalis we’re still taking shape. But home’s where the heart is and our hearts are glowing, so we speak with confidence about where we’re going. We walk by faith, not merely by sight. Love urges us on and Christ is our light. Our feet may meander, our attention may roam but softly and tenderly, Christ guides us home.