Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Confession on Which a Church Can be Built

Grace Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
August 21, 2011—Pentecost 10
Matthew 16:13-20

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Jesus asks two questions in this gospel text—two questions that, at first, sound a lot alike.  

But these questions are really miles apart!   They’re separated by light years!

First, Jesus asks his followers, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v. 13)   In other words Jesus asks:  “What are folks saying about me?”

This first question requests information.   It fishes for the local gossip.  

You and I kick around questions like this all the time.  We love it, too--especially when we’re drinking coffee or sitting in the local watering hole or wherever it is we like to trade “the latest” on what’s happening in the lives of others.

And as we share this information with one another, we invariably spice it up a little.  A friend of mine calls that “value-added  hearing.”   Gossip tends toward becoming juicier as it is shared.

Ask me to share what I’ve heard about someone else, and I can talk your arm off.   Ask me to talk about anything—and you might not be able to shut me up.   And I bet that some of you are like that too.

So when Jesus asks this question, immediately he hears a flurry of responses:   “Some say [that you are] John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (v. 14)  I think the disciples could have gone on and on responding to this first question, because all it asked of them was to talk about Jesus.

So also, you and I love to talk about people or news or ideas.  Talking about someone or something else requires nothing of us more than a good memory and articulate speech.   Trading gossip entails no deep investment of ourselves in what we are saying—we don’t even need to think about it all that much.

But Jesus wasn’t patient enough to just let the disciple jabber on about him.  Cutting them off, he launched his second question in our text—and, warning!—it’s the second question that usually gets us!   “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15)

Now I picture a moment of silence—a pregnant pause—in the bantering of the disciples, because they know how different this second question is from Jesus’ first question.

And we would do well to pause and notice that difference, for ourselves.   If Jesus asks for information about what people are saying about him, in the first question, he is asking for something deeper, something far more potentially life-changing in the second question.

Jesus is calling his followers to look him square in the face, to gaze right into his eyes and speak for themselves.   Rather than talking about Jesus, this second question asks them to talk of Jesus, to speak to Jesus….and these small words (the prepositions!) make all the difference.

I imagine a moment of silence at this point in the story—indeed, I hope there was such a silence—because to do justice to this second question, the disciples had to take some deep breaths, gather their thoughts, and steel themselves for a worthy answer that needed to come from somewhere other than “off the top of their heads.”

In short, this second question was designed to call forth a confession—a confession that would determine how these twelve men would spend the rest of their lives and how they would probably all die, as well.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” (v. 16) proclaimed Peter, perhaps after clearing his throat. 

“You are the Messiah—you are the One we’ve been waiting for!”

And when Peter said those words, I picture them hanging there in mid-air—for just a few seconds.  And I hope that Jesus and the other eleven disciples paused, to let Peter’s words sink in.

We know moments like this.   We’re all caught up in the hurly-burly of a wide-ranging conversation….and then someone asks or says something that stops everyone dead in their tracks, because the conversation has suddenly dropped to a deeper level of significance.

That’s what’s going on here, as we can tell from Jesus’ response:   “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 Hades will not prevail against it….”  (vv. 17-18)

Wow!  Can you see, can you hear how Jesus and Peter took this whole exchange among the disciples and drove it to a deeper level?    Jesus asks his disciples to speak for themselves—and Peter does that—and Jesus calls Peter’s confession the kind of thing upon which he can build a whole CHURCH!

Some answers to questions are like that.  Some confessions we blurt out can heal our pasts and open up new futures.   

Such deep, “I-Thou” communication always includes the word “you.”   This is not talking about someone else.  It is speaking to someone—we call that “direct address.”

So in that great old Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, in the middle of a long discussion about their three daughters and the young men who are courting them….in a conversation about love…..Tevye blurts out to his wife, Golda:  “Do you love me?”    And Golda gets so discombopulated—she can barely respond.

Or you’re in the food court of your favorite mall, and it’s jam-packed with people, and the racket is so loud you can hardly hear yourself think….but then a silence engulfs the cacophany as everyone notices a young man, down on one knee, giving a very small box to his beloved, who has tears streaming down her lovely face….and suddenly everyone knows that something life-changing and world-transforming has happened, right there at West Acres.   A new life has begun.

Or you’re in your physician’s office, and she’s going through the results of labs with you, and she says:  the test came back positive—you’re going to have a baby.

Or you’re in that same doctor’s office, in the same kind of conversation all about medical tests you barely understand, and the word “cancer” pops up….and suddenly your life gets a lot more complicated.

Or you’re here in this very sanctuary….and someone brings a child to the font, someone holds out their hands at the communion rail, someone (maybe you!) names in your heart the sin that is killing you….and you hear God’s amazing promise:  all of this is FOR YOU—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is for the sake of your life, your death, your resurrection.

God specializes in this sort of speaking—a speaking that actually alters reality and creates a whole new world.  And God is mighty good at it.   God speaks and the whole universe is created.   God speaks and your slate is wiped clean.  God speaks and death no longer has dominion over you.   God speaks and you are given a mission big enough to claim your life.   God speaks and the Devil runs for cover.   God speaks—and the Cross of Calvary leads directly to the Empty Tomb, Good Friday gives way to Easter.

God specializes in this sort of speaking.   God loves this way of communicating so much that God calls you and me to enter into it, ourselves.   For this is how the Church is formed and sustained and extended throughout the world.

Jesus lays claim to others when you and I stop talking ABOUT him, and starting talking to him, and speaking of him to those we meet.   “You are the Messiah,” Peter blurted out.   “Jesus is my everything,” we stammer.   “Death doesn’t have the final word now,” we whisper in the funeral home, to a beloved one in grief.   “God has a purpose for your life,” we murmur to a young person, wondering what to do in the world.   “Your mistakes, the mess you have made of things, God has redeemed all of that.  Jesus has carried it all to his Cross and buried it in his grave.   You get to have a fresh start again, in Christ Jesus.”

Dare we speak that way to one another, my dear friends?

Yes, by all means.   God is counting on us to do precisely that.   The church our Lord Jesus Christ has built and is still building feeds off confessions like these.   God is staking everything on words that he will give to us, opening our lips, untangling our tongues and saying—loud and clear, to anyone within earshot—“this Jesus—he really is the One we’ve been waiting for, the only One we can count on in life and in death and in everything else that will ever come our way.”

In the name of Jesus.


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