21 August 2011

The Peter Principle

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven (in other words, both heaven and hell are here on earth), and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20)

While I've been away I attended worship in a few different churches in Houston. One was a mainline church similar to our own. It was a great service and included a wonderful celebration of the Lord's Supper. The other church I attended was a more modern non-denominational type church. The worship space was dark like a movie theater with no windows and three large screens framing the worship area. The screens showed images of the theme of the day which was mercy. I wanted to attend this church because I sometimes drive past it and each time I wonder what do they do in there? What do they believe? Who are they? The only way to answer such questions is by showing up. Jesus told some people when they asked him what he was about, "Come and see." So I did.

So did Jesus' disciples. They came and saw who Jesus was and what he was about. In our text today Jesus wants to know how they perceive him. So he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Notice Jesus refers to himself as "the Son of Man." That is an interesting phrase. In one of my New Testament classes in seminary, the professor made a big deal out of that phrase. He challenged me and my classmates to go find out what the phrase "the Son of Man" means. I tried and we tried but we never figured it out for sure. It seems the best answer is that "the Son of Man" may be translated as "the human being." So it seems that Jesus was asking his disciples, "Who do people say this person is?" This person in this case means Jesus himself.

The disciples answer Jesus, "Some say you are John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." In other words, they tell Jesus what other people have said. It's always easy to fall back on what others have said about Jesus. What would you say if a stranger on the street asked you who is Jesus? Perhaps your mind would harken back to a childhood church school class or a Vacation Bible School setting and you would respond: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." If so, you would be in good company. Karl Barth was perhaps the most important mainline theologian of the 20th century. He published thousands of pages about the Christian faith. He once said he could boil the whole Christian faith down into one sentence: "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so." But that's Karl Barth's answer so you can't use that one for yourself. For you see, Jesus is asking each of us, as he asked each of his disciples, "Who do ''you'' say that I am?" This is a rhetorical question, meaning, I don't expect you to answer out loud. But think about it. How would you answer Jesus if he asked you, "Who do you say I am?

Someone recently gave me the book. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. It's the story of a 4 year old boy who has an out of body experience during surgery and visits with Jesus in heaven. He describes Jesus in a literal fashion that sounds similar to the way we know him from our kindergarten church school class. Some of us would answer Jesus question: "Who am I?" like the little boy in Heaven is for Real. We would say Jesus is a real person up in heaven who rides around on a white horse and hugs people when they come to heaven for a visit. Yet I wonder if Jesus, being the earthy Jewish carpentar scriptures portray him to be, would not be wanting something different from us when he asks, "Who do you say that I am?"

Here is my own answer to the question: "Who is Jesus?" Jesus is the Christ in me, the hope of glory. That may sound a little New Age to you. My answer does connect myself to Jesus in a very personal manner. Yet, this is the very manner in which the Apostle Paul answered the question. Paul referred to Jesus as "the Christ in me, the hope of glory." That understanding of Christ could be understood as a mystical connection that goes deeper than blood kin.

This makes for interesting conversation but it doesn't answer the question of what's going on in the market today? Is my job safe? Is our country's economy doomed? How did we get to the place where we once again are staring into the abyss? Those are the questions of today. You hear the answers in the media. It's the European Union's fault, especially Greece. It's the S&P's fault for downgrading the rating of the United States. But our question for today is not about the economy it is about Jesus. And no matter how hard we may try to change the subject, we still see Jesus standing there with imploring eyes waiting to hear our answer to his question: "Who do you say that I am?"

After a prolonged silence, Peter pipes up in a moment of divine inspiration and says, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus loves his answer. Thank goodness for Peter! He is seemingly the ADD disciple with attention deficit disorder. He speaks his mind. He does what comes to him. He takes the initiative. Need someone to try walking on water? Peter is your man. Need someone to tell Jesus to lay off talking about the cross? Peter will do that. No wonder a short time later Jesus will tell this same Peter, "Get behind me Satan." This Peter is the rock upon which the church is built. That tells me God never expects or demands perfection in people or in churches. Peter was certainly not perfect but he is the one whom Jesus chose to be an example for the church to follow.

If we are to follow Peter, we will become people of action more than people of speech. We will walk the walk and not just talk the talk. We do that her at St. John's. We are all over the map in missions. We have several new mission initiatives just this summer in the Mustard Seed Grant projects. We are doers of the Word and not hearers only. Peter applauds us for that. So does Jesus. Yet neither Peter nor Jesus expects perfection in us.

Peter was not perfect and he would not have been my choice for leader of the church. He doesn't exhibit the flawless character, the intellectual profundity, the spiritual depth I would prefer in the founder of my church. Instead, I would prefer to have the Apostle Paul as the rock upon which Christ built his church. But Peter gets the nod and I will tell you this: I am really glad to hear that he is the one in charge of heaven's gates! Someone like him may understand someone like me—someone who finds answers hard to come by, who finds it easier and safer to repeat other people's answers—because I have not thought about my own, or because I do not trust God to help me with them. Or someone who goes ahead and says things and then regrets them, or makes brave promises, like, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you," (Matthew 26:35) and then loses heart, saying not once but three times, "I do not know the man." (Matthew 26:74)

If Peter is the rock upon which the church is built then there is hope for all of us, because he is one of us, because he remains God's chosen rock whether he is acting like a cornerstone or a stumbling block, and because he shows us that blessedness is less about perfectness than about willingness—that what counts is to risk our own answers, to go ahead and try, to get up one more time that we fall.

The story of Peter's last encounter with Jesus is told not by Matthew but by John. It takes place on a beach, where the risen Lord has just cooked breakfast for his disciples. As soon as the meal is over, Jesus turns to Peter ands asks him, not once but three times, "Do you love me?" Three times Peter answers, "Yes Lord, you know that I love you." And three times Jesus replies, "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17), which leads you to think that maybe the final answer Jesus seeks from those who love him is not an answer that is spoken so much as one that is lived, that the real truth about who he is for each one of us shows up not on our lips but in our lives.

The desire to reach out and share is a characteristic of Christian churches. I saw this in the churches I recently visited. Christ the King Lutheran Church in Rice Village hosts a resilient community action group called Transition Houston. The church provides the group with meeting space and the group provides the church with free yard work. Crosspoint Church in Bellaire is starting a new ministry similar to our apartment ministry but more involved as it provides 3 meals a day and a full time volunteer staff person living in a house with the cancer patients. Churches do things. We don't just talk about things. As the Epistle to James puts is, "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only."

Maybe that is the meaning of the odd ending of this text. Peter has just proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah. Then Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. I wonder if Jesus was concerned that the disciples not think that talking about it was the most important thing. I wonder if he meant for the disciples to do something about it. Perhaps Jesus wanted the disciples to build solar water systems in Haiti more than he wanted them to write theological treatises about the Divinity of Christ. Both are important endeavors but Jesus seems to prefer action to words. That's why he chose Peter as the leader of the church but then told them all to keep their mouths shut about it. Actions speak louder than words.

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