What is the true gospel? What is the false gospel? What are the false gospels? We have an answer to those questions in today’s gospel we have Peter’s famous confession at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about Him. It’s a kind of true or false question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Before we get to Peter’s inspired answer, let’s look at the word on the street. The various answers say as much about the way we – even now – misunderstand who God actually is.
The first guess is John the Baptist. This is a little strange because people had seen Jesus and His cousin John together at the beginning of Jesus’s ministries. But, both were itinerate preachers, both had disciples, and both said some pretty extreme things. And, peoples’ minds were probably on other things – sports or politics or keeping up with the next-door neighbors. So, perhaps the misidentification was forgivable.
The deeper confusion between Jesus and what John the Baptist embodies remains today, however. John came out hot out of the gate thundering for repentance and moral exactitude. If you want to get right with God, then things better change. People asked him, “What shall we do?” It’s the perennial question: what things do I have to do – and keep doing – to be at peace with God. John answered them in concrete ways: share your clothes and food, make sure that your finances are honest, do your jobs with integrity.
John, like almost everyone else then and now, is trying to use the Law to solve the world’s problems. The Law is shorthand for knowledge/education. If people just know the right thing to do, then they will do it. The response to the coronavirus is the latest evidence that the Law does not work. Telling people to wear masks, wash hands, and social distance does not automatically result in mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. UNC students were back on campus for less than a week, before they shut down and went totally virtual.
Why doesn’t the Law work? Because people are people. And people like to do what they want to do when they want to do it. Or they do what they are bound to do, even if they wish they would do something else. And by people, I mean you. And I mean me. For some strange reason, humanity just will not learn that the Law does not work.
Recently a friend was explaining how to use a fancy new zero turn lawn mower. When his instruction didn’t immediately take, he decided to repeat the information at higher and higher volumes. Yelling is always an effective way to communicate, isn’t it? It’s like the classic American stereotype of the tourist screaming English to Parisians, thinking that finally they will understand the language with the volume turned up to 11.
The Laws does not work to solve the problems of the world. If it was going to work, it would have worked when Moses brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. Jesus even said that John the Baptist was the greatest of those born of women – and yet he too failed to bring about lasting moral reform. Still, we remain eternally resistant to that truth and equally optimistic in our own abilities.
The interchange between P.D. James’ hardboiled detective Adam Dalgliesh and Sergeant Martin, his more sanguine assistant tells the story. Dalgliesh had “seen and heard enough in thirty years of police work to have shattered most men’s illusions, but (Martin) was of a tough yet gentle disposition and could never believe that men were as wicked or weak as the evidence consistently proved them to be.”
The second guess is Elijah. I won’t spend much time on him. He was known for his miracles. Jesus performed miracles. He healed people. When you are looking to God to be your miracle worker, then any miracle worker will do. Just like one plumber is as good as another if your faucet is leaking. I mean, I do agree with the Grateful Dead who sings “we need a miracle everyday.” And, Jesus did and still does perform miracles, but that is only a minor side show of the Main Act. And every time He did a miracle, He told everyone to stay mum on the subject.
The third guess is both a perennial, as well as timely misidentification: Jeremiah. The prophet was a Holy Spirit appointed defender of social justice who lived 5 centuries before Christ. Jeremiah reminded people that God cares very deeply for the poor and the widowed and the powerless and the stranger. He showed people that any authentic love for God is inextricably bound to love for those on the lower end of the caste system, those who have suffered at the hands of the strong.
In Jesus’ earthly ministry, He both taught and exhibited the mercy of God for the downtrodden. Think about the beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful. He spent his time with those well-outside the religious and social power structure. He had mercy on people who could not follow the Law. He routinely warned people about danger of riches.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that people thought Jesus was Jeremiah. But, social justice, just like moral reform or physical healing is not why Jesus came to us. You see these misunderstandings played out in today’s churches. There are churches that are all about personal and collective morality – the moral majority gospel. There are churches that are all about healing and prosperity and your best life now – the prosperity gospel. There are churches – and this is where the error mostly lays in mainline churches like ours – that are all about social justice – the social gospel. But those are all false gospels – no gospels at all.
Now we finally come to Peter’s inspired answer to Jesus’ question. And it’s a good thing we’ve finally come to it because who Jesus really is, is who we really need. We need the true gospel. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” We need a Messiah – a Savior. Not a moral instructor, not a miracle worker, not a social reformer. There are plenty of those to go around. What we need, what we need is a Savior. And there is only one name under heaven by which we are saved. He saved us – once and for all – on His cross.
Jesus is our Savior. In the end, we are all on equal footing – all of us together. Sinners in need of a Savior. I’ll close with what I believe to be the most powerful prayer in our Book of Common Prayer. Recently, I had the extraordinary privilege of being present with a man at his death bed. His loving family was gathered by his side. He was as we shall all one day be: stripped of all that props us up in life – all morality, all health and wealth, all investment in the world’s systems of justice. It was just him and God, and we were witnesses. The question – who do you say that I am – is answered in this riveting prayer:
“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”
That is a true gospel prayer for us all.