Who do you say that I am?

August 23, 2020
12th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 16

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Who Do You Say That I Am?

10 Years ago, the summer of 2010, I spent 12 weeks in chaplaincy training – all seminary students are required to do this thing called Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s on the job training with a group of others in training with classes and group sessions, and yes, limited amounts of patient visits. At it’s best it is part of the process that enables us to evaluate with great intention what we think we know about following Jesus, who God is, and who we are in relationship with God. At it’s worst, it’s designed to break your spirit. It depends on the supervisor.

As part of the pre-work for our training, our supervisor had us write a spiritual autobiography which she expected to be at least 10 pages long. We wouldn’t be allowed to begin without it in her hands at least two weeks prior to our start date. I did manage to resisted the urge to start with “to begin my life at the beginning of my life …” although I may have tweaked the margins a bit to get to the full 10 pages which showed I do not turn out to be the hero of of my own life.

From these pages, and the pages of the 4 other student chaplains in our summer group, our supervisor formulated who we were and fixed these personas in her mind, with gorilla glue apparently, because never once in actually meeting and working with us over the 12 weeks that followed, did she deviate from her initial notion of who we each were.

People often come to a new relationship with prewritten narratives of who we “should’ be for them.

People often come to Jesus with prewritten narratives of who they want him to be.

So, continuing on our walk with Jesus as Matthew tells the gospel story, we are now with Jesus and the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, a Roman settlement near a temple built by Herod the Great and dedicated to the Emperor Augustus, who gave himself the title “Divi Filus” Son of the Divine.

Standing in the proverbial shadow of this temple dedicated to a self-proclaimed god of human origin, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” The People have a variety of answers, all of which try to fit Jesus into something, or someone, that they are already familiar with. Just as the disciples could easier believe it was a ghost rather than Jesus walking on the water, the people can easier believe that this teacher is a reincarnated prophet of old, even though God had promised them a deliverer.

If they can fit Jesus into their own already written narrative, then they don’t have to change the way they see their world or the way they think about their world.

And then Jesus makes it personal – he turns the question to the disciples: “but what do you say?”

And Peter, blessed Peter who shows us first hand that Jesus calls us with all of our faults and foibles, in our God created humanness, to serve God’s Kingdom, Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (But, as we’ll see next week, he still struggles to rewrite his own narrative of who Jesus “should” be. For now we’ll give him full credit for his answer.)

In our Old Testament lesson we read today, we see God’s people resisting the narrative of others – as the Egyptians tried to oppress the Israelites into who they wanted them to be, a group of people they owned and controlled completely, the Israelites resisted. Exodus 1:12 tells us, “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” The midwives did all they could to resist the evil of the Egyptian government that said some people are less than human and can be own and controlled. Moses’ parents did all they could do to resist. Even Pharoah’s daughter chose not to conform to her father’s way of thinking and took the baby Moses as her own son.

Like the Israelites, Jesus didn’t conform to who others wanted him to be but lived the life he came to live, the life he shows us we can live if we let go of what the world says life is all about.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he gives it to us plainly: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Not “perfect” in the sense that we must be perfect but perfect in that God is perfect and in seeking to do God’s will we reveal the Good and Perfect God to the world.

God created each and every one of us in the divine image and Jesus came to show us a different way to live. We spend an awful lot of energy trying to create God in our own image and fitting Jesus into our own way of living. In a sense, we have become our own oppressors.

The tighter we cling to the ways of the world the more we oppress in ourselves the love and compassion that comes from the image of God at our very core. We have the choice to bind ourselves to God or to this world.

We are created to live in relationship with God and each other, grounded in love and compassion and grace. This is where we find the freedom God promises us. This is how we are delivered from the anger and hate and violence of this world.

But don’t tell anyone. What a crazy thing for Jesus to say! Why would he say such a thing?

For several reasons, one of which is that Jesus prefers to reveal who he is by actively loving people as God loves us – unconditionally and uncompromisingly. Jesus also knows that Peter and the others haven’t fully let go of their ideas that God’s promised Messiah is to be a military style victor who fights violence with violence instead of justice, reconciliation, and grace. More on that next week when we get to part two of this sermon.

Between now and then, spend time with Jesus’ questions: Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you try to fit Jesus into your own narrative or do you pray for the eyes to see and ears to hear who God really is and who we are called to be in our relationship with God?

Make time this week to ponder Paul’s words from the letter to the Romans. And if it begins to make you uncomfortable, call me or someone else you trust and talk about it. We are on this journey of transformation together, bound together by Jesus’ love. Amen.

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