Last Sunday during our offertory at the 5 o’clock service Sam and Kathryn sang, “You Are Not Alone” and I started welling up with tears. Crying in church is pretty common; in fact some people tell me that they are hesitant to even come to church because they cry so much. Something about a sermon or hymn or prayer, or just the beauty or stillness of the space will touch a deep place of hurt or need or yearning. I’ve got just as much hurt and need and yearning as any other sinner, so last week when I heard “You Are Not Alone” being sung, I heard it as God’s special word for me, God speaking directly to me.
God’s personal address to me, to you, to each person as an individual is one of the beautiful and outrageous marks of our faith. In classic evangelical language we are invited into “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
We see this in our passage from Mark today. I always like to pay attention to the questions Jesus asks. As Jesus is walking along with his disciples toward Caesarea Philippi, He asks, “who do people say that I am?” What are you hearing about me? What is the word on the street?
The disciples answer, some say John the Baptist and others say Elijah. In other words Jesus is identified with a prophet who preaches the law (John the Baptist, who demanded ethical purity) and a prophet who does miracles (Elijah, who called down fire from heaven). These answers indicate common current conceptions of God – conceptions that don’t really touch on His personal connection to us.
Who do others say that I am? John the Baptist, or God as Lawgiver – God as a set or moral rules or an ethical code to follow is really common. It was kind of written into America’s DNA with our Founding Father’s predominant Deism. He is the God who winds the world like a clock with order and morality, then lets it go without interference.
We see the God of the Law in Islam as well; recent events in Tunisia show us that people feel quite strongly about upholding and defending the God of the Law. But we don’t see God’s personal, intimate connection with us. We see an ethical code rather than a loving relationship between God and sinners who cannot and do not uphold the Law.
Who do others say that I am? Elijah or God as Miracle Worker – God as the one who does interfere and intervene but only on command is just as common, but in the end not really more personal. God, heal my son. God, fix my depression, God find me a parking place. God, do this and do that in this way and at that time. God becomes a kind of cosmic gumball machine: in with the request and out with the Double Bubble of Blessing.
Not that everybody believes that God operates in a miraculous way, of course. The little boy Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes comic strip fame, tells Hobbes the Tiger, “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.” In our darker moments we want Elijah to call down fire from heaven on our set of certain people.
Now, God did give us the Law and God does still do miracles, but His relationship with us goes way beyond what He tells us to do or what we tell Him to do for us. This is why Jesus asks His next question, a question that goes from the abstract to the personal. OK, this is who others say that I am, “but who do you say that I am?”
That’s what really matters to you personally, of course. Who do you say that I am? God is not an abstraction or a metaphysical idea. He is a personal being who desires a living relationship with us – the very ones He created in His own image. We are created to be in an intimate relationship with God.
That God addresses us personally, desires to be in relationship with us is a tough sell for some. And there are definitely some worries and pitfalls when a person talks about his or her personal relationship with God. I confess to being a little suspicious when someone (including myself!) opens a conversation with “God told me to do this” or worse, “God told me to tell you to do this.” The worst Christian dating break up line, “I’ve been praying and I just really feel God doesn’t want us to be together.” Doesn’t really leave much wiggle room for conversation.
I worry about this kind of language because of the basic narcissism from which most of us suffer. Voltaire once quipped, “God created man in his image, and then man returned the favor.” We will do just about anything to justify ourselves and rationalize our wishes. When we leverage God into the equation – when we just make Him into a God who looks very much like us – then the conversation gets doubly worrisome.
My daughter Hilary worked at a surf camp in Hatteras last summer and would occasionally go to a nondenominational church geared to the surfer set. Coming out after a particularly powerful worship service, she heard one guy say, “Dude, that was gnarly… I just got totally rocked by the Holy Spirit!”
Maybe the dude did, in fact, get rocked by the Holy Spirit. I hope so – more tubular power to him. But it’s also true that there is no nut quite like a religious nut. When one of our staff was considering working here at Christ Church, he talked it over with his father. He dad said, “Well, sounds like an interesting job. But remember, the only thing worse than working with people, is working with church people! Hey, I resemble that remark!
The danger of overdone spiritual individualism is one of the reasons I love the Episcopal liturgy, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. That’s common as in shared, not common as in low class. We say a common confession of sin, we recite a 1700 year old, time tested Creed, we kneel and receive communion just as countless believers of all colors and countries have since Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine on the night before he was betrayed. When it comes to our one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith, we are definitely not alone.
But the rap on liturgy and on liturgical worship is that it can get rote and meaningless. We begin to resemble the perhaps well-earned nickname for Episcopalians – the frozen chosen. We can lose personal connection and meaning with the very One to whom we are confessing our sin, the very One about whom we are saying “We believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. ”
This is why Jesus’ question this morning is so important– “but who do you say that I am?” And, maybe this question is especially important for we Episcopalians who were bred never to talk about religion or politics in polite company – “but who do you say that I am?”
I remember in high school coming back from a Young Life camp and timidly, sheepishly talking about a personal relationship with Jesus. My parents were quite alarmed. They feared that I had joined some kind of cult, or worse yet, become a Baptist! In their distress, they kept offering me beer. “Here, son, have a Heineken.” I thought I’d struck gold!
That’s a bit of an exaggeration (just having a little denominational fun!), but Jesus’ question is as pertinent now as it was when He asked it. But, who do you say that I am? Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” You are the Christ. You are the anointed one. You are the Savior.
If God is only Law Giver, then we are in big trouble, because we all fall short. If God is only miracle worker, then we are in big trouble, because we all live with hurt and need and yearning that has no quick fix. God summons us beyond Law and Miracles. He summons us into relationship with Himself as Savior.
Who do you say that I am? It’s the enduring question for you and for me. It’s the one we answer with others during the creed when we say, “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.” And it’s the question we are to answer in the quiet of our own nights, when we are feeling our need or hurt or yearning.
I do remember coming back from that Young Life camp as a 17 year old, wound tight with fear and existential loneliness and yearning. And in the night the simple words spoke to me: If I were the only person on earth, Jesus Christ still would have died on the cross for me. At that moment I knew that I would never be alone. I had a Messiah, a Savior. And if he could save the likes of me in my sin, he could save anyone. Instead of being incinerated by lightning, I was saved by a cross.
It could be that you feel removed from any personal relationship or connection with God. Well, who knows? Maybe today is the beginning for you. But whatever your situation, as Jesus always tells his disciples, “Fear not!” For if we were to turn the question around and ask God, “God, who do you say that I am?” God would look at you through the death and resurrection of your Savior and say, “I know you. I knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased. You are not alone. Lo, I am with you, even until the end of the age.”
- Mark 8:27