Joel 2.12-17

Matthew 16.13-23

Tenuous Tectonics

Second Sunday in Lent

            I think I was about fourteen years old when I went to my one and only Billy Graham crusade – that’s what they were called, “crusades” – at Madison Square Garden. There were thousands of people there – I had gone with our church youth group, and even though it was not a glitzy production, at least not by today’s megachurch standards, I do remember being impressed by the number of people who streamed forward at the altar call, that moment when, as he always did, Graham invited people forward to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I’ll admit, that was a moment that made me uncomfortable, and I remained glued to my seat as several of my peers got up and walked toward the stage. And to this day I still struggle with that brand of personalized Christianity, so let me be transparent and tell you one thing I didn’t like about Graham’s theology and one thing I did.

            To me, the idea that Jesus lived for himself, that he wanted people to believe in him, is slightly askew. Now I am among that entire cohort of baby boom Sunday school students into whose memories John 3.16 was drilled: “For God so loved the world that he gave the only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That one verse notwithstanding, most of the time it seems to me that Jesus talked about God and other people, and not about himself. What that kind of talk seemed to do, about accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and savior, which was the evangelical template language of its day, was to make believing in Jesus the goal, an end in itself, and so those folks who gave their lives to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade felt like they had fulfilled their faith duty at the moment they gave themselves to God. And believe me, I went to college with a lot of them. But to me, receiving Christ is not the end, it is only the beginning. I’m not in God’s good grace solely because I believe; that belief is the engine that compels me to find ways of serving God by serving other people. That’s why to this day evangelical Christianity has such a spotty track record when it comes to mission and outreach. Faith doesn’t end at personal salvation; that’s when it is only beginning.

            But I also heard Graham say something that for me represents the lifeblood of our mission together as God’s community of faith. On multiple occasions Graham has been commended for the thousands of souls he brought to God. But he sometimes corrected that notion along these lines: he would say something to the effect of, “I was only the last step. These souls have long been nourished and nurtured by parents who loved them, by church school teachers who taught them, by pastors who shared the good news, by friends and peers who showed them who God is and how much God loves them. I was only the last step,” Graham would say, “the farmer who brings in the harvest after others have planted and watered and fertilized and cultured and grown the crop to maturity.” It is that humility that I choose to remember about Billy Graham.

            I didn’t start out to talk about him this morning, but it turns out that his vision of the church and community where the love of God grows in the human heart – and yes, the idea of a personal relationship with God – dovetails even more than I first imagined with the passage Michelle read from Matthew this morning. But before we go there I wonder, did anyone notice that in our UCC Lent devotional “Lovers and Fools,” there were two fairly glaring typographical errors this week? It seems that this week, and this week only, the day between Sunday and Tuesday is Wednesday; the date is correct for Talitha Arnold’s “A God Who Can Take It” – it reads February 19, but the day of the week has it on a Wednesday instead of a Monday And then in yesterday’s reflection by Mary Luti, Mary cites a verse from the passage Michelle read, but instead of Matthew 16, the citation reads Joel 2.12 instead, so just for good measure this morning I read that mistaken citation from Joel – which is an excellent Lent-oriented passage that calls for fasting and penitence – and I let Michelle read the correct one.

            In Matthew 16 Jesus was interested to know what people were saying about him, so he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is,” or more simply, “Who do people say that I am?” He knew the disciples were hearing the scuttlebutt, and that people were probably whispering to the disciples things they might not have the nerve to say to Jesus himself. And the disciples’ answers revealed Jesus was right; “Some [are saying] you’re John the Baptist – others [are saying] Elijah, still others [say] Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” People didn’t know what to make of this Jesus, and thought he might be one of the patriarchs or prophets returned. But then Jesus asks the hard question – hard, because it is the personal question: “Ok, but - who do you say that I am?”

            Let’s allow that to sit there for a minute, because the question he asked the disciples is the same question he asks you and me. Who do you say that Jesus is? There’s an old episode of Seinfeld where George is considering telling a woman he’s dating that he loves her, and asks Jerry if he thinks it’s a good idea. “I don’t know,” Jerry says, “you want to say “I love you,” with no idea if you’re going to get an “I love you” back? That’s a pretty big matzoh ball you’re leaving out over the plate.” I think of that exchange when I read this loaded question in Matthew: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s a pretty big matzoh ball out there. How will you answer it? Or to borrow Graham’s language, who is your personal Jesus?

            Fortunately, Peter steps in at the right moment with the right answer – or at least it looks like the right answer, at first blush: “You are the Messiah (or, the Christ), the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but God who is in heaven.” And then Jesus – or maybe Matthew – has a little fun with Peter’s name. “And I tell you, you are Peter (petros/petros), and on this rock (petra/petra) I will build my church.” It’s partly from this passage where Jesus calls Peter “the rock” that the Church of Rome understands Peter to have been the first Pope. He is rock solid. He is the foundation on which Jesus will build the church. But as it turns out, Peter is not quite as stable a foundation as we think; there are a couple faults in his tectonics, as we are about to see.

            Because however we are prepared to answer that question about Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” we are unlikely to be prepared for what comes next, when Jesus answers the question himself. He goes on to explain just what Peter’s reply really means, that he is the Christ, the messiah, the son of the living God. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the messiah was a politically charged figure, the one who would redeem Jerusalem and overthrow the Roman occupiers. The messiah would usher in a new age, an age of redemption and restitution. To them, this was the long-expected messiah to whom the scriptures have pointed for hundreds of years. But Jesus embodies a different kind of messiah. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Hold on; what kind of messiah is this? One who suffers like mortals do? One who is going to die? This isn’t what Peter and the disciples signed up for. So Peter began to rebuke Jesus saying, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.” And then Jesus turns his “Peter and the rock,” his petros/petra language on its head: “You have become a stumbling-block… for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

            Well, of course he is; Peter is only human. And so are we. When asked that question, who do you say that I am, did we think of a Jesus who suffers, a Jesus who dies, a Jesus who was rejected by the temple elders and scribes and priests – that is, by the church leaders of his own day? Probably not – probably not. More likely, like Peter we had something grander and more exalted in mind. But guess what? Whether or not we had the right answer, we are still the ones on whom God continues to build the church. Our foundation is sometimes as tenuous as Peter’s but God still uses us. As Graham said, it’s the peers and the parents, the pastors and church school teachers, the family and friends who tend and care for the gardens where faith is grown. God is able to use us, sometimes because of who we are, and sometimes in spite of who we are, to build both church and community.

            Take a look at that stone in your hand. Some of them have words cut into them. What do those words say? [peace / hope /faith / love / laugh / live ] Are these words that can help us create community? Can we build something on this rock? Of course we can. And some of our stones don’t have anything carved into them, do they? So what will we inscribe there? What will we use to create the foundation on which the church of tomorrow is built? Who do you say that I am? As Mary Luti wrote in her devotion, “I don’t always know who [Jesus] is, but I’m convinced he always knows me. It is precisely in my incoherent belief, my variable allegiance, my inconsistent perception, and my flickering courage that he recognizes me unfailingly.” And it was the fourth century prelate and writer Theodore of Mopsuestia who suggested that Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ did not belong to him alone, but “was going to become the common property of all believers.” It wasn’t just Peter; it was, and is, and will always be all of us, on whom God continues to build the church: one stone, one rock, one petros, one Peter at a time.


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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


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