Pentecost 11 A: Who Do You Say I Am?

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I don’t know about you, but I think that, more often than not, I’m with the crowds. You know, the people who say Jesus is like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Oh, that’s not what I confess, of course. When it comes time to answer the question in public, I’m quick to join myself to Peter’s insight, claiming it as my own, or at least assenting to it. And each time to I do, I swear I mean it.

But if actions speak louder than words – and you and I both know they do – then I have to admit that most of my actions don’t confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Rather, they testify that he is a good man, a great man, even, an example to follow, someone to be inspired by, kind of like the prophets of old.

And here’s the thing: I suspect that I am not alone in sensing the disconnect between my public confession and my everyday actions. I think most of our people also know that there is a gap between the words they say on Sunday and the lives they lead the rest of the week. Not intentionally, and certainly with no malice aforethought. In fact, I suspect that most of us would like the words we say on Sunday not just to align with the rest of our lives but actually to matter day in and day out.

So rather than wait to the end of this letter to offer a suggestion, I’ll start right here. This Sunday, ask you people Jesus’ question: Who do you say he is? Not just say when repeating the Creed, but say with your lives; that is, with your relationshiops, your bank account, your time, your energy, and all the rest. Who do you really say Jesus is?

Now here’s the trick: it would be so incredibly easy for the sermon at this point to become something of a well-intentioned guilt trip. You know, making people admit that they don’t lead lives that confess Jesus as Lord. But that’s not what I’m after. Rather, I want us to wonder together for a moment or two what we actually mean when we say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. Or that Jesus is Lord. Or, for the theologically inclined, that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity. Or, in the words of the Creed, that Jesus is light from light, very God from very God, begotten but not made.

You see, I think it’s really hard to align our lives with our confession when we don’t really understand what that confession means. And I’m not sure most of us really do – myself included. (We can take some comfort, I think, that Peter didn’t understand what he said either, as we’ll learn next week. And, yeah, it’s okay to give a preview!) Because this whatever-it-is that Jesus was and is…it’s really hard to put into words that we can understand. And so we come up with titles and formulations and all the rest, trying to get at the mystery of what God has done in and through Jesus, and that’s understandable. But all too often I fear that those words only keep the wild and unpredictable God of love and grace at arms distance from us, and Jesus remains inspiring and exemplary, but ultimately rather tame and eminently safe, kind of like the prophets of old seem to us.

Okay, so here’s the next thing I want you to do. I want you to spend a little time before composing your sermon trying to say in plain and simple words what you mean when you confess Jesus is the Messiah. How would you describe Jesus, that is, to someone who never heard of him before. To a child…or adult…or friend…or stranger who happened to ask you about Jesus. And then, when you’ve given some thought to that and when you’ve found words that, even if they still don’t feel adequate are at least concrete and reasonably clear, share that confession with your people.

I know that can be a little scary, so I’ll go first. I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. In this sense, Jesus revealed God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and think seriously about ending their lives, a heart that is upset and angry when a young black man is shot dead for no explicable reason, a heart that is torn up in grief at the desperate situation and violence that rips apart the land we’ve named Holy, a heart that loves us like only an adoring parent can and so not only wants the best for us but is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love.

But it’s more than that, too. I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.

So there it is. Not perfect – there should probably be more about forgiveness – and shaped by some of what’s going on in the world. And a little too wordy – the peril of the preacher! – and I can imagine it changing a bit as I do. But at least when I formulate it this way I have an easier time imagining what it means for me to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Because I think it means that I try to live filled with and sharing God’s love, aware of the brokenness of the world but even more aware of God’s grace and the power of the resurrection. It means, I think, that I look at all of my life – my time, my relationships, my hopes, dreams, finances, and all the rest – through the lens of both the power and possibilities created by seeing God’s heart laid bare in Jesus.

Perhaps, Dear Partner, we can end the sermon there, inviting our people to come up with a sentence or two that describes what they believe about Jesus and then ask them to let that confession shape their lives more fully this week.

Because the thing is, I don’t think Jesus asks us to confess who we believe he is for his sake, but rather for ours, that we might be caught up in the power of his love and life. Could we imagine preaching that? That the confessions we offer about Jesus in church and in our daily lives aren’t finally words of praise to God but rather are words of power that help root us in the love and possibility that Jesus offers? No doubt it takes time for all this to sink in – Peter, again, is a wonderful example. But perhaps if we start this week, over time we’ll sink deep into those words so that they shape every part of our lives.

Thanks for your good work, Dear Partner, for your creativity in thinking about how we might confess Jesus and your courage for sharing your faith with others. Blessings on your preaching, ministry, and life.

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you’re preaching on the Genesis text this week, three years ago I wrote what became one of my favorite columns on Shiphrah and Puah and how our words and actions may just change the world.