It may come as surprise to most of us, but according to many biblical scholars, this account, which is often referred to Peter's confession of Christ is one of the most debated passages in the church, ever. The controversy stems from the words, "on this rock I will build my church."
Now, we could speculate about who or what the "rock" represents, but I'm pretty sure that many centuries worth of theological debate will not be resolved in one sermon. So, I propose we all just agree that there's something important happening here between Jesus and the disciples and whatever it means, it is central to the identity and purpose of the church.
And what could be more important at this moment in our history, than to be reminded of the identity and purpose of the church. I mean, in the midst of what is, without a doubt, a difficult time to be a Christian...or, let me rephrase that...when it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize Christ and his beloved church in this world...this particular scripture, and the lesson it contains, might be exactly what we need to hear this week.
In some ways, it functions like Paul Harvey's "rest of the story." This passage is a natural follow-up to last week's message. For those who were not able to hear last week's message...there are copies available in the foyer. In it we wrestled with the question...what if the Church is being tested to see if we will boldly proclaim the gospel at all cost? More specifically, what if we are being tested to see if we will speak up boldly or remain safely silent in the face of exposed racism, rising division, and open hate-speech?
Well friends, if we are facing a test, this reading seems to be saying: Church...here is how you pass it.
Passing the test, if you will, begins with being able to do what Peter did...to confess from our innermost being...not just from our head knowledge or some rote answer we learned in Sunday School...but to boldly proclaim what God has personally revealed to us..and to do so with our entire lives.
In other words, it's not enough for the Church to just know the story and to believe in Jesus. We have a responsibility to be able to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. We are called out...that is actually what the Greek word "ecclesia" means. We translate it to "church", but it carries the connotation of those who are called out for a purpose. We, the church have been called out for the purpose of proclaiming who Jesus is...and for sharing his message of mercy and justice, for offering his compassion and forgiveness...for telling his truth about welcome and kindness...and for living as his community of wholeness and peace. We are called out to say that this gospel...this truth about who Jesus is...is the one and only hope for our own lives...for the well-being of this nation...and for peace in God's world.
On the one hand, this seems like such an obvious and easy proclamation to make, right? I mean, we Christians know this about Jesus...we read it in scriptures...we sing it in songs...it rolls off our tongues like water over rocks...particularly when we are in the presence of others who think and believe like we do. We gather on Sundays and we have no trouble saying all this and more about Jesus.
But what happens when we leave the comfort zone of our sanctuaries and Sunday school rooms? What happens when we are not with, as they say, our tribe? It is a lot more challenging to speak the truth about Jesus when we are surrounded by powers and forces that are operating contrary to the gospel...or when evil rather than good seems to be getting all the attention...or when confusion about truth is propagated boldly and in the name of a false Christianity.
This current day cultural challenge is what makes the context of this particular story so significant. You see, Caesarea Philippi was not some random, inconsequential place for this revelation about Jesus to take place. It was the location of the Cave of Pan, also known as the place of the pagan Gate of Hades. Not to mention, Caesarea Philippi and the Cave of Pan was also the same place where the Greeks and Romans received revelations from the god Pan who was called a "seer" or fortune-teller and a giver of revelations. So no wonder Jesus chose this place to asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?". In the middle of this hotbed of idolatry and false gods and unholy revelations, the answer Peter gives is an intentional slap at all those false narratives.
Peter's profession of Jesus as the Messiah was truly an ah-ha moment of divine revelation...a revelation of truth that none of these other forces...not Pan nor any other Greek or Roman god...or any other idol could have made. It was also a turning point for the disciples as they received a new identity. Not yet fully established, they were deemed to be the church. They were no longer individual disciples, but they were a community. A community with a purpose...a called out community given power and authority to proclaim the gospel. ALTHOUGH, as Jesus added, not in that very moment. They were to wait until later...when the time was right.
For the disciples, that would be sometime after Jesus completed his mission and headed into Jerusalem to do what he intended to do. The disciples' time would come when their voice was needed to draw others into Jesus' fold.
Our time, however, is right now. The narrative of our nation is changing...and not necessarily for the better. The identity of Christ, his mission, his hope, and his church are all at risk of being hijacked into a political message that could not be further from the truth of Peter's declaration.
Now is time for the church to speak up and declare what we know to be true about who Jesus is. Let me repeat that...now is time for us...the church...to declare what we know to be true about who Jesus is and who his church is called to be. Now is the time for us to tell our stories about what a difference Jesus had made for us personally and to share the promise of hope he offers this world.
And folks even that is not as easy as it sounds. To declare who Jesus is requires each member of the Body of Christ to use our lives -- our words, our actions, our choices, our relationships, our votes, our everything we've got at our disposal -- to let the world what it means to trust in Christ...to hope in Christ...to live his gospel and be guided by his Spirit.
It takes our whole lives...and it takes all of our lives. When it comes to being the church, no one gets to remain a bystander. If you're in, you are all in. You are either hot or you are cold. God doesn't do lukewarm. It is as I said to the kids, everyone has a part to play in the story of salvation. And no, it's not always the leading role or the best part. More often than not, it requires self-sacrifice and playing nicely with others...something that does not come naturally to our independent, self-preserving, egos.
So, I wonder, what if Jesus asked each of us that today...who do you say that I am? How would you answer? Would it be in a meaningful, revelatory way? Could you answer without using church-y words? Would others be able to discern the answer without our spoken word...you know, just by examining our lives? our priorities? our checkbooks? our politics? our Facebook and Twitter?
Yes seriously, would those who are outside the church know about the unconditional love of God, the deep compassion and mercy of Jesus, or the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, just by observing the church and her members? Would these folks see Christians living in the kingdom of heaven, even while living on earth and in light of the evil that surrounds us? Or would they see division and little pockets of power that raise serious doubts about the purpose and significance of the church. At times, I worry that the latter is happening at an alarming rate.
Christian churches have become divided over so many various "hot button" issues that we have created chaos and disunity, while diminishing the authority and power of the church. Now don't hear what I'm not saying...the Body of Christ is a powerful God-created, God-ordained thing that cannot be destroyed. But when it comes to being the church in the world, we have to admit that we have failed...in many ways. The presence and effectiveness of Christianity has suffered a serious decline throughout the world, in part due to the way we treat each other. It seems that in our passion for having others see our specific viewpoints and to convince them to believe what we believe doctrinally, we have lost sight of our shared baptism and one gospel of grace.
As a result, to those who are lost in darkness...or who have no faith...or who are already jaded toward organized religion, we are, at a minimum making Christianity seem insignificant to them, and at worst, our failure to speak with one voice is turning them toward something else.
Sometimes that something else is the deep darkness of despair...sometimes it is the high of an addiction...sometimes it is the lie of self-sufficiency...and sometimes, increasingly often, that something else is a dangerous ideology of hatred and supremacy that we are seeing emerge from the shadows of this land.
For lack of a better way of saying it...there is a network of false prophets and boatload of bad theology floating around that portrays Christianity as a self-serving faith rather than one of self-sacrifice. Their message is one of exclusivity, accumulation, and power. Their answer to the question of Jesus' identity is to hold up the mirror that makes him into their image. He looks like them, thinks like them, has the same values as they do. Jesus likes who they like and hates who they hate. There does not seem to be any measure of accountability to anyone, or to any community, other than one's own self.
Unfortunately, this alternative version of Christianity is taking advantage of the church's divisions and distractions to promote a different answer to who Jesus is...one that is unequivocally a lie. Yet, if we, the Church universal is not telling and showing...living and proving...a different truth, if we're quiet, passive, distracted, or downright afraid to speak out, then this lie will be the only answer questioning folks will ever hear.
Earlier this week there was an editorial published online on Time.com. It was written by Christian pastor, Brian McLaren. In it, he discussed his observations following the events that took place in Charlottesville a few weeks ago. More specifically, he was trying to understand how the face, if you will, of the hate groups has changed. The alt-right, the KKK, the neo-Nazi groups are no longer small gatherings of fringe-folks spouting off hate slogans. They are now well-organized protesters, well-funded and growing in number. They claim the support of certain Christians, even while chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans; shouting homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs...AND speaking of putting Jews in ovens and driving people of color off "their" land.
Who are these people?
To try to understand, McLaren talked with a former white supremacist, Christian Piccolini who was recruited and radicalized by an extremist group. Listen to what Piccolini said, "There are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, so they tend to search for very simple black and white answers." He tells McLaren that savvy extremists are ready to dispense those easy answers - usually through the internet.
Piccolini goes on to say that the draw to these groups is, "not necessarily because of the ideology. I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent. I believe people become radicalized, or extremists, because they are searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose."
Listen to that...identity, community, and a sense of purpose. People join into the forces of evil because they are looking for identity, community, and a sense of purpose.
Call me crazy and naive, but is that not exactly what the church was created to do? To offer identity, community and purpose?
Folks, if we really want to be that city on a hill...to be the light shining in darkness...if we the church want to be a haven of hope and a promoter of peace...an example of good over evil...then this is where we start. This is how we pass the test. Whether we're talking about standing up to supremacists or speaking up for the least...we, the church are called to focus our hearts, minds and souls...direct all our mission and ministries...channel all our energy and dollars...toward helping people find their identity in Christ...drawing them into a community of forgiveness and compassion and hope...encouraging them to discover their God-given meaning, value, and purpose as a beloved child of God.
Friends the church is being tested...I believe this with all my heart. There is work to do and it begins with each of us answering Jesus' question, Who do you say that I am? And then going a step further past Peter's profession to express what it means to find our identity, community and purpose in Jesus Christ. It's a story people want...need...and are desperate to hear.
Allow me to close with McLaren's last words to faith leaders around the nation: "Aristotle was right. Nature indeed abhors a vacuum. If we don't provide emerging generations with genuine identity, community and purpose through robust and vibrant spiritual communities, somebody else will do so. If good religion slumbers and stagnates, bad religion is the alternative."
Church, as we stand in the midst of our own 21st century Caesarea Philippi, facing our own version of the Gates of Hades, the world is asking us: Who do we say that Jesus is? May our answer...revealed in both our words and our actions...as well as by our binding and loosing...be a proclamation of the good religion, giving all glory to God. Amen.