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August 23, 2020
Matthew 16: 13-20
Who do you Say I am?
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
This summer I have been taking an online course in Franciscan Theology with Father Richard Rohr from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The title of the course is “Beyond the Bird Bath.” That’s because if we are familiar with St. Francis of Assis at all, we have likely come to associate him with his love of nature, of birds and animals in particular. This association has resulted in a plethora of concrete statues of St. Francis of Assis gracing the backyards and bird baths of homes across the world. I myself happen to have a statue of St. Francis in my own backyard garden.
But St. Francis and his understanding of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and all creation, including humanity is far greater than anything that could ever be contained in a concrete statue made in his image. This summer, I am grateful to be learning more about St. Francis of Assis, this well known, yet not well understood influencer in the Christian tradition.
One of the things I have learned about St. Francis in this course, is that unlike most Christians who emphasize the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection or the Easter event as we sometimes refer to it, St. Francis stressed the importance of the incarnation, in which formless Spirit, or the Divine, materializes. For Francis, Christmas was more important that Easter because at Christmas, we celebrate the way that God, the Spirit was made manifest in human form, when we gather around the story of Jesus birth. Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of Jesus.
St. Francis would say that the incarnation didn’t just happen when Jesus was born, that it happened 14.5 billion years ago when we believe the Universe came into existence, but for our purposes today, I’m going to talk about the incarnation as it relates to Jesus and as it relates to you and me.
Something Franciscan scholar, Fr. Richard Rohr says about humanity and our understanding of God, is that we really can’t fall in love or have an intimate relationship with energy, or a concept of God as a moral force, or as consciousness itself. What the incarnation, the experience of the Divine in human form gives us, is God with a face, a presence with which we can have an intimate relationship. In Jesus, what we have, is a face that looks like us and talks like us and walks like us, a presence we can relate to in an intimate way.
The scene that is painted for us in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a picture of a very intimate relationship between Jesus and one of his closest followers, Peter. The conversation begins with Jesus asking Peter who people are saying that he is. Peter responds well some people say you are John the Baptist and other people say you are one of the prophets. And then, in our mind’s eye, we can almost see Jesus leaning in a little bit closer to Peter and asking him “But, Peter, who do you say that I am?”
One of the things I love about this encounter between Jesus and Peter is that it invites each one of us to ponder that same question. Who do I say that Jesus is?
Something you may have heard me say before or you may have read on our website is that our community of faith is not about telling people what they have to believe about Jesus or God or anything else. What we are about is encouraging people and supporting people to come to their own understanding of their faith and particularly their own understanding of Jesus. The reason for that is because we believe that each and every one of us has the capacity to have the same kind of intimate, face to face relationship with Jesus, with God in human form, with the Divine made flesh, that we see Peter having in this morning’s reading. We trust that when people are set free to have that relationship with their life of faith, what each one of us will encounter is a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.
Richard Rohr says that Jesus is the icon of what it means to be fully human and fully Divine and because of that, because of his humanity in particular, when we see him, we see ourselves. He is a mirror of who and what we are meant to be. I am what he is and he is what I am.
What does that really mean for us and the way we live our lives?
When we Peter responds to Jesus question “who do you say that I am?” he says he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, (which by the way sounds to me a lot like a text book definition of Jesus.) Then Jesus responds to Peter by saying something to the effect that Peter doesn’t know this because of anything anyone else has told him about Jesus, he only knows what he knows because God has revealed it to him. Another way of saying that might be to say that whatever Peter knows about Jesus, he knows because God is at work in him (Peter.)
If you were to ask yourself, where do I see God at work in me? or, how is God being revealed to me in these days, where do I see God at work in the world, how would you respond? For some of us our response might be an inner knowing or even a way of being, in the way we are are able to be gracious with others for example or the way that we’ve found ourselves being able to do something we had never thought was possible. Others will more readily see God at work it in very concrete experiences we have had or witnessed in our lives or in our world: in compassionate care for those in need or in other acts of service.
That’s the beauty of being created in the image of diversity. There are many, many different faces of Jesus and how that face is revealed to us is almost as unique as each one of us an yet there are some very common features.
When Peter responds to Jesus question about who he is he really didn’t know what he was saying. He really didn’t know what it meant to say that Jesus was the Messiah. In the verses that follow this particular piece of scripture we soon see that to confess Jesus as God’s chosen or anointed one is to follow a very costly path, a path that Peter had a hard time following. To confess Jesus as the Messiah is to stand up to the forces of evil in the world, to choose love over fear, it involves letting go of everything that is familiar and cherished, one’s greatest hopes and deepest dreams, in order to put one’s entire trust in the goodness that created us.
In so many ways, Peter didn’t have a clue who Jesus was even as he stood face to face with him looking him right in the eye as if looking into a mirror. And the same is probably true for most if not all of us. And yet, Jesus still bestows upon Peter in that intimate moment a purpose, a mission, to be the church, to be the face of love and justice, the face of peace and goodwill in the world, to be who Jesus was and is and not to count the cost. He calls him to do that even though Peter really doesn’t know what he is doing.
It’s what happens when we come face to face with the truth about who we are. We find our greater calling, we are reminded of who we have been created to be.
I wonder how Jesus is calling you to be the face of love in the particular circumstances that is your life. I wonder if you are willing to come close enough to find out. I wonder how he is calling us to be the church is this time when we are being called to be the church like never before and it often feels like we don’t really know what we are doing. I wonder how he is reminding us that we too are love made flesh, Divine beings in human form.
One way we will discover the answer to these questions, is to keep spending time, like Peter, face to face in the presence of love as it has been made known to us in Jesus, whether that be through engagement of the scriptures, through worship, through acts of service or through everyday encounters with ordinary people in whom we see the face of Christ reflected back to us, as we respond to his question to us over and over again “Who do you say that I am?”