As we being a new academic year, there is the familiar and exciting feel of a fresh start. With the fresh start there is also the pressure to succeed. To do well, to make the right connections, to meet the right people. That kind of pressure never seems to go away and is just exacerbated by a new beginning.
The gospel reading today gives the perfect foundation for whatever lies ahead. Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” One might argue that this very question is the key question of life. All we think and say and do hinges on how we might answer this question, “Who do you say that I am.” One might argue that all our relationships hinge on our relationship with the One who asks this question, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter gives one answer to this question: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
For 2000 years now, people all over the world, people of nearly every culture and nation, east, west, north, and south; people in every different epoch and age; people in every class and material circumstance; people of every personality type and psychological temperament; people living under every conceivable political authority, whether democratic, autocratic, theocratic, tyrannical, socialist, communist, or fascist; people of every level of education and vocation – have confessed the same thing that Peter confessed that day in Caesarea Phillipi: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God has been said and is still being said in Swahili, Swedish, and Sanskrit. It has been said by slaves, sea captains, and sovereigns. It has been said in tent meetings in rural Georgia and the corridors of political power in Washington. It has been said and is being said in Russia by the Orthodox, in Italy by the Catholics, in Uganda by the Anglicans, in Brazil by the Pentecostals, and in Charlottesville, by the Episcopalians, (although Episcopalians seem slightly embarrassed by it!)
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God has been said by people in every century at the cost of their own lives. So precious is this confession of Christ that one’s very life would be forfeited at the answer. All the way from early martyrs to today’s Syrian Christians, killed for this confession at the hands of ISIS.
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Chances are good that Peter’s confession is also the confession of your grandmother, maybe an uncle, probably a teacher along the way, some of your friends, and perhaps even you. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God is quite a thing to say about a man, a Jewish carpenter, who grew up in the no-count and nasty town of Nazareth, who died at 33 as a criminal, unmarried and without children, his only legacy a haphazard and unimpressively small band of followers.
What on earth accounts for his universal appeal throughout the earth? His lure across every demographic divide blows the mind. And he lures still, even now, even today, even in Charlottesville. For us who have grown up in what Flannery O’Connor called the “Christ-haunted South”, where there is a church on almost every corner, where Christmas carols will begin in shopping malls in approximately 2 month, it never hurts to take a step back and ask the question afresh: Why Jesus Christ? Why should I, would I, could I say with Peter “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
What is it about this man that changed the world and continues to change the world, even your own world? What is so attractive about him, what is so beautiful about the one the bible says “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him”? (Isaiah 52:2) And, yet, he is the desire of the nations.
Nearly all those in the forefront of Western Culture predicted that Christianity would diminish and all but disappear during the 20th century as we became more technologically savvy. Granted, it is true that most mainline denominations are losing ground and that biblical literacy is on the wane. In fact a parishioner told me that she read 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding last weekend. You know it – “love is patient, love is kind.” Even though she introduced the reading by saying, “A reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians”, she had several people come up to her afterwards and say, “Wow – that was beautiful. Was that Shakespeare?”
That episode notwithstanding, the facts on the ground are that Christianity is exploding all over the world, especially two-thirds world – Asia, Africa, South America. Jesus has not gone away; He is not going away. Why? Why does this man from Nazareth have such extraordinary, universal staying power? What does He offer – what does He uniquely offer? What does the Christ, the Son of the Living God offer you, even right now?
The answer is simple, never-ending, ever potent, and unique to Jesus Christ. In a word, what He offers the world and will always offer the world, what He offers you and will always offer you is grace. What is grace? The standard definition of g-r-a-c-e, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense is accurate. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, all the love, security and joy you could ever imagine are yours for the taking, no strings attached. People desperately want 2 things: Absolution and Love.
As Bonhoeffer says, “The Christian seeks his salvation… in Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come … daily and anew in the Word of Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness”.
That’s the description about how God relates to us in Christ, but what does grace mean for our relationships with others? Bonhoeffer describes simply and accurately the natural state of relationships. “Among men there is strife. The way is blocked by our own ego.” Love may be patient and kind, but you and I are not. In ourselves we are destitute and dead.
But confessing Christ as the Son of the living God means that Christ comes to live in us – that grace takes up residence in us. It means that we may see another person through Jesus Christ, like a pair of glasses, glasses that see beauty where there is deformity, and good where there is bad. Grace glasses refract the forgiveness given to us by God, so that there is the possibility to see that same forgiveness toward another. Grace glasses give us the possibility of seeing life, seeing people in a whole new way, a way unblocked by our ego. Or as John Newton says in the famous hymn about grace, “I once was blind, and now I see.” We don’t just get new glasses, we get new eyes.
Practically speaking, at the beginning of this new year where the pressure amps up to perform, grace means that we may give up networking and upward mobility. Grace means that the right people may be the wrong people and the wrong people may be the right people. In fact, grace means that we are all the wrong people who have been made the right people by Christ, the Son of the living God. This is why I said at the beginning of the sermon that all our relationships hinge on the One who asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. The world is still a mess and we are still a mess. But the world would be a whole lot messier, and we would be a whole lot messier if it weren’t for grace given to us in Christ, the Son of the living God. As Peter says later when Jesus asks the disciples if they are going to leave him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Shakespeare is insightful, but he does not save.
There has never been nor will there ever be anyone like Jesus Christ. As the Irish poet calls him, He is the Original of the Species. In his own confession, Bono sings, “You are the first one of your kind / And you feel like no-one before / You steal right under my door / And I kneel ’cause I want you some more / I want the lot of what you got / And I want nothing that you’re not.”
Who do you say that I am? Other denominations have altar calls during their services as a way for people to answer with Peter “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We Episcopalians have our own version of an altar call – when we come forward to the altar rail and kneel to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. That is a perfect time to consider the question for yourself, perhaps for the thousandth time, or maybe for the maybe for the first time: who do you say that I am? However you might answer, be assured that you will be met with grace. Amen.
- Matthew 16:13 - 17