“A Living Question”


 8/21/11; Matthew 16: 13-20

 A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

The Celts – ancient peoples of the British Islands and Northern France—     centered their spirituality in mystery. Not distant, impersonal mystery, but mystery which pervades ordinary, everyday life. The Celts believed in “thin places”; literally, sacred locations, often in the natural world, in which the boundary between heaven and earth is especially slight. When the Celts embraced Christianity, they did it on their own terms, interpreting Jesus through their own spirituality of mystery.

When it comes to spiritual ancestors, I am drawn to these Celtic Christians. I remember, as a child, sitting on the steps in the early evening, watching as the sun turned our sprawling yard to gold. My whole known world – the swing set, the garden, the wood pile— suddenly became sacred ground. It seemed that the grass and the corn on the hill shimmered with the very green of life itself. Growing up, this sense of God’s presence surprised me often in the ordinary, everyday beauty of nature, music, and ideas.

When I was ten years old, I spent a week at Bible Camp. The leaders of the camp talked about God and Jesus in ways I had never heard before. They insisted that I needed to know for sure that I was “saved”. I had to pray a certain prayer to invite Jesus into my heart. Then God would forgive my sins and I could go to heaven. Earnestly, I took this new message to heart. Fervently, I prayed the prayer. Still, I came home from camp puzzled. Why was it that in all my parents and my church had taught me, In all the Bible stories I had learned and hymns I had sung, this crucial matter of being “saved” had never come up?

“Who do you say that I am?” This is the big question in today’s Gospel text. Jesus first asks the disciples: “who do people say I am”? Well, they reply, you’re being compared to some pretty big names: Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist. But Jesus doesn’t, ultimately, seem to be that interested in the answers of the general public. He wants his closest followers to speak for themselves. He’s looking to hear their perspectives, grounded in their personal experience of him. “But who do you say that I am?” “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Peter speaks with breath-taking certainty and authority. Or does he? The very next episode of Matthew’s Gospel reveals a large rift between Peter and Jesus. Jesus predicts that, as the Messiah, he will suffer and die. Peter says no way is that going to happen – that’s not what a Messiah does. When Jesus rebukes him, saying, “get behind me, Satan”, it’s hard to believe that this is the same Peter to whom Jesus has just handed the keys to the Kingdom. And remember, the night Jesus was arrested, Peter denied that he even knew him, not once, but three times. Peter may sound fervently sure of his faith one moment, but in the next breath, he proclaims his doubts and fears with the same bold passion.

Who do you say that I am? Peter’s response echoes in our ears, but the question itself leaves room for a variety of voices and responses. Who do you, and you, and you, say that I am? For some of us, God is in the thin places of mystery, but for others of us, God emerges amid reason and logic, or in the struggle for justice. Some people encounter the divine in a personal way; For others, the holy is more of a force beyond understanding.

It is intruiging to consider the setting in which Jesus poses his question about identity. Caesarea Philippi is located near a large spring. Naturally, in a desert climate, water sources often became places of worship. The spring is one of the four tributaries that feed the Jordan River, so it is considered holy in Judiasm. For pagan worshippers, the spring represented the divine gift of fertility. The cave out of which it flowed was thought to be the birthplace of the Roman God Pan, the God of nature: tender of fields, forests, mountains, flocks and shepherds. It is in this “thin place” that Jesus asks his question and Peter makes his confession. Heaven and earth brush close. The seen and unseen mingle.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’ Peter’s declaration may sound dogmatic in our ears, but what if Jesus’ choice of the setting offers a more expansive interpretation of those words? What if Peter, in calling Jesus “the son of the living God”, means to connect him to that sacred spring, that source of all life and blessing for all people?

Who do you say that I am? Notice that Peter’s quick interjection covers the silence of the other 11 disciples. They don’t say a word in response to Jesus’ question. I’m thinking back to my childhood puzzlement over finding a language for my faith. Though I grew up attending church every week in my UCC congregation, I had no way to describe my personal encounters with mystery, and I never talked about them. Now I call them thin places, borrowing from my Celtic ancestors in faith.

I can also now appreciate the complexity of my experience of Bible camp. I felt uneasy in that setting, because of the sense of coersion. I have since come to realize that salvation, in our tradition, is not a gate around some future heaven. It is God’s gift of a whole life, here and now. Yet at the same time, the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus drew me in, offered a missing piece.  Not because I was afraid, but because the God who met me in the thin spaces felt so very real.

UCC Pastor Lillian Daniel has written a book about testimony in the church called “Tell It Like It Is”. She concludes that the willingness and the capacity to share our testimonies of faith is one sign of a vibrant church community. Daniel offers the following good-humored parody of our attempts to talk about faith as a church:

“So, what exactly do you believe about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit?

I don’t know…what do you believe?

No, tell me about your faith.

I mean how have you experienced the living God in your life?

Well, I wouldn’t want to offend you.

No, no, I really want to know.

I can tell you what I don’t believe.

So what do you believe?

I believe everyone should be free to believe what they want to believe…

And for you that is…

I just said it.

Said what?” (Day 1 radio; “Fear of public speaking”; Feb 1, 2009; http://www.day1.org/1205-fear_of_public_speaking)

“Testimony”, in my book, does not need to be scary. It is not about any certain kind of answers, but about loving the questions that live and breathe among us. There are many possible answers to the question of who Jesus is. But at the same time, the answers we choose to give matter – a lot. As our planet warms, as the gap between rich and poor widens, as wars rage, it matters who we say Jesus is. Is he a way to get to heaven or a way to live on earth? Is he a warrior or a peacemaker? Does he motivate us through fear, or in love and freedom?

When Jesus declares that he will build his church on Peter’s confession, and gives Peter that name “Rock”, he is really saying that the foundation of the church is our practice of speaking honestly and personally about spiritual matters. Who we are as people of faith is not determined by some external authority, but through our continuing response to the testimony of those spiritual ancestors who have come before us. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, testimony is “the rock from which we are hewn” and “the quarry from which we are dug” Jesus gives Peter, and us, the authority to “bind” and to “loose”; that is, to decide for ourselves which pieces of our tradition to release and which to save.

The preamble of the constitution of the United Church of Christ declares that it is “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own…” As we welcome new members and staff members today, Let us remember our call to be a people who testify, who put our faith into language – not only the language of words, but of math and science and art and music and service and justice. For our companions on this journey, young and old, let us not attempt to provide answers, but to offer frameworks, and partner in interpreting possibilities. Let us love the questions enough to truly live them together. Amen.


One Response to ““A Living Question””

  1. Kathy Haskins Says:

    I have always been amazed at the wonder and mystery and complexety of life and the universe. I feel God and Jesus opporating in my life and in the lives of others all around me. Blessings, Living Waters, Thin Places, I like it. Thanks for sharing the multicultural piece about the spring at Caesarea Philippi which makes Peter’s statement so much more meaningful.

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