Sunday, August 21, 2005

Built upon this Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Human One is?"
14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

15 Jesus said to them, "But you? Who do you consider me to be?"
16 And having answered, Simon Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
17 And having answered, Jesus said, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I also tell you that you are Peter-Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.

19 To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you may have bound on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you may have abolished on earth will be abolished in heaven." 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ.

Prayer, from Psalm 138

LORD GOD, Ruler of all Creation, we celebrate Your love for all creation; above everything and in every time, Your Name and Your Word remain supreme.

When we call upon You, You answer us—sometimes with silence and sometimes with speech, but always in mercy and love. Even though sometimes we walk in the midst of trouble, You preserve our lives.

God, because Your justice and righteousness endure forever, You will continue to fulfill Your purpose for each of us.


Built upon this Rock

But who do you say Jesus is? John the Baptist? Elijah? Some other prophet? Simply a generic man from Nazareth in Galilee, son of the carpenter Joseph, the son of Mary?

In our particular time in the history of the world, so very well we know the concept of individuality and idea of the individual person; in fact, just as frequently as we refer to someone as a person, we're likely to call them an individual.

In the first-century Mediterranean world into which Jesus was born, lived and died, that now-familiar construct of individual was completely unknown. In fact, in that time and place, to know someone meant to understand their position in the unyielding system of caste and social stratification; to know a person meant to understand what society, government and religion expected of them.

If you'd ask about someone's identity, the only imaginable answer would have included place of birth or origin—usually the current residence; it would have included parents, siblings, spouse and occupation. In addition, in the case of an outlander, you'd mention the person wasn't one of us—that would warn the listener the person probably had different customs and norms and practiced a different religion. To sum up all of this, the expected answer would describe someone's position in a strictly arrayed society.

We're talking about completely predetermined, essentially unchangeable and totally stereotyped roles for each person, parts in the drama of life they were born into, lived tightly confined to, literally died and buried into!

It is difficult to not typecast someone according to information we have about them and especially tricky not to make assumptions based on first impressions, since first impressions truly tend to be lasting ones that inform our future perceptions and interpretations of whatever someone may do. Highly structured social orders: do we perceive and function according to such a system? Do we place people into our own predetermined boxes? Do we even stratify Jesus into our narrow categories?

Let's begin thinking about Jesus! Who do we say Jesus is, and most importantly, what does our behavior tell others about our claim about Jesus, or maybe that needs to be Jesus' claim on us and on our lives?

It's commonplace knowledge that some folks acknowledge Jesus as helpful teacher of useful platitudes, or how about Jesus the Life Coach, one of today's most popular categories of helping professionals? Oh, Social Activist Jesus remains always-popular - a full century after the dawn of the Social Gospel - and, without a doubt, Jesus, opponent of established religion and above all, that Big One for mainline American Protestants: Jesus, Champion of Radical Left-Wing Politics.

Lots of people do not want to take the risk of being perceived as an enemy of Jesus so they'll include their Jesus in one of those groups, but the same individuals definitely do not want anyone to consider them a religious fanatic, as in declaring Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God! Would that not mean seeing Jesus and subsequently living not according to reason but according to the irrationality of faith? How about us?

But next, think about the way we perceive, greet, include or exclude any stranger, any outsiders who may wander into our lives or into church. But maybe that one isn't so hard—after all, we have been taught so thoroughly and preached to so incessantly about welcoming the stranger in our midst being equivalent to welcoming God-among-us, most of us carefully avoid at least the appearance of openly excluding outsiders and folks not quite like us. If we're uncomfortable or would prefer them to leave, we wouldn't dare say anything openly, so we don't.

Matthew, gospel-recorder and theologian so well knew the culture and norms he wrote about; when Jesus' disciples speculated maybe he was Elijah's reincarnation, a prophet or possibly even his cousin John the Baptist, they sort of did get the idea that Jesus was way outside the predetermined social structures of his day, but still they were looking into the past for old understandings, rather than reaching outside themselves and beyond themselves for something new, radical, different and revolutionary. (However, since Jesus already had told the disciples John the Baptist was his Elijah, making Jesus into either of his forerunners was unusually illogical!)

The disciples knew the Hebrew scriptures well and easily could relate the astonishing salvation-saga of God's primal people, Israel, whose God persistently remained free, elusive and completely outside of any-containerized God; they knew all about the Jerusalem temple; nonetheless, while removing Jesus from an identity of only a Nazarene carpenter son of Joseph, (though of course Jesus always remains the man of Nazareth) they placed him into one of their other typical categories, the ultra-religious one! In spite of seeing different possibilities in Jesus than people in the world outside Jesus' inner circle were able to see, they stayed stuck with what they already knew.

Doubtless the common people saw Jesus as son of Joseph, but the followers of Jesus had spiritual vision, so they considered he could be a prophetic challenger of the political and religious establishments. But Peter, also known as "Rocky," first got it right: Jesus was not simply a prophet, foretelling the future Sovereignty of Heaven, but the One who, in human flesh, fulfilled the prophecies of the prophets; with eyes of faith, Peter saw and he confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God—as the here-and-now embodiment, the living incarnation of the Reign of God.

But for us! Do we bridge the gap from thinking of Jesus as purveyor of platitudes or consider Jesus a life-improvement guru, as supreme Social Activist, or Jesus, agent of radical, exclusively left-wing politics? Many are okay with including their Jesus in one of those categories, but do not mistake them for religious fanatics, as in declaring Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God! Would that not mean seeing Jesus and living our lives not according to reason but according to the irrationality of faith?

And in faith...have we crossed the chasm from stereotyping not only Jesus, but other Christians and not-Christians, too, according to carefully containerized expectations, and have we started seeing our sisters and brothers as daughters and sons of the Living God? Does not moving outside the usual social categories into which the world places people and beginning to perceive and embrace others as sons and daughters of God require the same extraordinary eyes of faith and risking trust as it does to announce Jesus, man of Nazareth, son of Joseph the carpenter, as the incarnate Christ of the Living God?

Jesus replied,

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. You are Peter, and recognizing my divine sonship is the rock upon which I will build my Church; the power of resurrection will overcome, overtake and forever prevail against the gates of the city of death!

As the church, we belong to the community baptized into the risen Christ, the One who has conquered death; we live in the Reign of Life, the sovereignty of Heaven. Often it looks as if the rest of the world will remain in the sovereignty of the death it seems to adulate and adore, but this heavenly reign embodied in Jesus Christ and now in us, the body of the Risen Christ, cannot remain confined to the boundaries of the church, but the life of the death-defying Spirit of the risen Christ overflows into all the world, embracing and covering the entire earth!

Then Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ—more accurately, the Greek reads not to tell anyone he is the Christ; maybe because Jesus didn't want people trailing after him the way they sometimes mindlessly follow a magnetic leader? Not revealed to you by human flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

Just like Peter the Rock, only with the gift of eyes of faith given to us by God can any of us announce Jesus of Nazareth as Christ of God; only with the God-granted vision of the saints can we see and claim all humanity as beloved children of God. May God grant us the eyes to see and to believe the Reign of God is here, now, in our midst and overflowing into all the world!
The Word of Life—


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