Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Sermon from Tallinn 3

Isaiah 51
Psalm 138
Romans 12
Mat 16

August 24th

Many Christians are uncomfortable talking about Jesus in the present tense. In many sermons we hear a lot of the historical present as in “Jesus says,” but we’re really talking about what Jesus said in Scripture some 2,000 years ago. And, if the truth is known, many preachers are often talking about what a contemporary scholar has had to say about what Jesus said. This is the preacher’s nightmare: “Am I giving an accurate, fair and orthodox picture of Jesus the man and am I giving an accurate, fair and orthodox interpretation of what he is saying? Alternatively am I imposing my pet theories; am I following a theological agenda? Am I projecting my own thoughts and feelings? Am I telling you what I think Jesus ought to have said, or what I think he meant to say? Am I concentrating on my own academic and religious credentials so that I am I too busy trying to project myself that Jesus can’t be seen properly at all?” You might feel that sometimes you hear more about Tillich or Bonheoffer, Bultmann, C.S. Lewis or Toomas Paul than you do about Jesus in some sermons.

Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus poses a key question. He starts the exchange with his disciples with the opening gambit “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We can imagine the disciples processing this: “The Son of Man” is a term found a number of times in Hebrew Scripture, so however rough and ready and uneducated his followers might be, they should have known the term. They don’t at this stage seem to have made the connection between the title son of Man and Jesus himself, though, as they come up with a variety of first-thing-that-come-into-their-heads answers. (I get this sort of response a lot in the classroom as youngsters shout out a series of increasingly random answers which they hope with scatter-gun efficiency may turn up the correct answer in there somewhere. Eventually.)

Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Now Jesus is joining the dots for them and making the connection: Son of Man, Jesus. Jesus, Son of Man, and you can’t help but wonder at this point how foolish the disciple who offered “John the Baptist” as an initial answer is now feeling. Perhaps there is some friendly teasing at this point as they laugh at the daft answers they came up with…… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has said and begin to consider it for themselves.

Perhaps there is a similar mental back-tracking taking place here as we also realise the implication of both the question and Simon Peter’s response: after all, every time this passage is read we are forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. Yes, Jesus is still asking the question of you and me today. This question was not simply posed in the historic past, hence my opening remarks. Jesus asked, certainly and IS STILL asking.

If Peter was indeed the first to have fully understood the nature of the man he had been travelling with and sleeping cheek by jowl with, what had he thought before? How had the others understood this Jesus who had called them from their ordinary routines to this life on the road as religious itinerants? Which of the disciples’ answers best represents ours? Are we at that stage of spiritual awareness where we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet, perhaps? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time whose body mouldered away long ago in the heat of Palestine?

Or like Simon Peter, have we recognised something beyond that? Have we had that moment of dawning realisation where we recognise that Jesus is….not was….is indeed the Christ, the son of the Living God? It is a realisation that should cut through some of our strongly held and often articulated positions and prejudices.

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

These verses are among the most studied, debated, and disputed verses in the New Testament. Throughout history this promise has been interpreted in different ways. In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter is the model disciple who must be constantly sustained by Christ. In the early church he is remembered primarily as an Apostle and martyr. Very early came the idea that Peter is the template of every true, spiritual Christian on whom the church is built. The “Eastern” interpretation is that the rock is the faith of Peter, so that the church is built on the faith of believing Christians. (Personally I favour that view); and, of course dating from the fourth century is the Roman Catholic understanding that the promises made to Peter apply also to Peter’s successors in the Papacy. However, fundamental to all interpretations are Jesus’ words that the church is my church and the sheep my sheep. Ultimately faith rests on Christ, who is the good shepherd of the flock. Is. Not was.

Instead, let’s consider what this story says about Peter, and about us. Peter becomes the first person to make the great Christian Confession of faith. He names Jesus as the Messiah, the hope of Israel, the son of the one who created heaven and earth. Now, Jesus is beginning to be recognised by people — and something new is happening, something new is being built — by the will of God, and by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Consider this image: look at all of the last 200 centuries as rings of time, as concentric circles of time, scores and scores of such circles, we are in the very outermost circle, farthest away from the centre — and at the centre is a Cross. We are brought into the circle, into the faith, in large part because somewhere, somehow, someone in the circle just before ours took us by the hand and said, “come,” and so drew us in. That is one very important reason why we are here. That person was able to do this for us because someone had taken their hand and had drawn them in. As we say to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to us —to each of us — “you, too, are Peter, you too, are a rock, and with you, also, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues and it includes us.

And so on, through all the centuries, hands are held through all of those circles. Until we reach the place where a very few of those hands were hands that touched by the mark of nails. That continuity is a continuity of Christ’s presence, a continuity of faith, a continuity of tradition and doctrine, and a continuity of persons—each connected to those who went before.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. I am making the assumption that you have said to Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” I am making the assumption that someone has taken your hand and drawn you into the circle.

Perhaps not: maybe instead you can carefully articulate a history of how Persian dualistic ideas migrated into post-exilic Judaism and how apocalyptic thinking shaped the intertestamental period so that nascent Christianity developed these curious ideas about personified evil and about a place of punishment for the wicked called hell.

And of course, you can give a clear account of why this first century rabbi Yeshua, also known as Jesus of Nazareth, bears little or no relation to the Christian myth that led the world into a terrible dark age until Greco-Roman ideas resurfaced in the Enlightenment to free humankind from the tyranny of Roman Catholicism and its Protestant successors.

And yes, today perhaps you can celebrate the blossoming of the Enlightenment to include freedom from the patriarchalism, classism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, and homophobia of Christianity. For, after all, Jesus, the great poet of love, would certainly turn his back on what the Church has done with his ideas if only he were alive to see it.

But what foolishness to think that Jesus is God in the flesh who could die and rise and still be in charge of the universe!

And Jesus, the Living Lord of the Church, responds, present tense, “But who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in worship. How everyone answers that question is indeed a matter of death and life.
The answer goes to the heart of our relationship with God; it goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves; it goes to the heart of how we lead our lives; to the heart of the relationships we have amongst ourselves and to the heart of the very motives which drive our lives and our decisions.

Do you see Jesus? Not just the broken form of His body on the cross but the Risen Lord with the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and side standing before you alive today as the Lord of your death and life and asking you: “Who do you say that I am?”

So, who do you say Jesus is? Has your sight of Him grown dim? Have your ears been closed to the sound of His voice? Come to the altar today with empty hands. Take hold of the foundation and the Author of Life itself as He comes in bread and wine to take away your sins and mine, to fill us with the power of His endless life!