It’s a great question

You are in for a treat. Often in the Sunday Morning Forum we open the First or Second Lesson or the Psalm appointed for the Sunday. Often our preacher takes up the Gospel Text. Today, The Rev. Troy Mendez (Associate Rector for Pastoral Care at St. Margaret’s) shares his sermon from Sunday, August 21, 2011. He begins with a story and finishes with an exhortation we can accomplish—with God’s help. ~dan

Are you Jesus?

Sermon for Proper 16A by The Rev. Troy Mendez
Associate Rector for Pastoral Care at St. Margaret’s in Palm Desert, CA 
 

Let the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In his book, The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning tells us a story about five business colleagues who travelled on a day trip from Chicago to Milwaukee.   All of these 5 people had evening engagements back home, and so they planned their business meetings so that they could be back in Chicago for dinner.  Well, just as you’d expect, the meetings in Milwaukee ran way late, and there was no time to get on the train to Chicago.  As each of the friends ran towards the platform, one man raced through the station and kicked over a large basket of apples that a 10 yr old boy who had been standing by was selling.  As all the other friends ran-on because the train was leaving, one man stopped and felt compassion for the boy whose apple stand had been overturned.  He told the group to go on ahead, and he’d call and push back his evening dinner.   He ran back to the makeshift apple stand and realized that the 10-yr old boy was actually blind.  The man saw the apples everywhere and gathered them up….but he noticed something.  A lot of the apples had been damaged …some were bruised or split….so he reached into his wallet.  He said to the boy, “here’s $20 for the apples we damaged.  I hope we didn’t ruin your day.  God bless you.”   And as the man started to walk away, the blind boy called after him …..called after him wanting him to stop, and finally the man – already well on his way – came back towards the boy, and the boy asked “Are you Jesus?[i]

Are you Jesus?   One can only imagine what that man felt when he was asked the question.  We have no idea how he responded.  But when I re-read this question at the end of the story, I was a bit taken aback, because the story itself ended differently than I had predicted.  But I think the boy’s question is insightful, and calls us to explore what he asks.  Are you Jesus? Who is Jesus?

Now I realize scholars have written volumes about this very question, and so I want to narrow the context of the question to our gospel reading today.

Just like the business people in the story I just told, the disciples in today’s gospel reading have been travelling with Jesus – they had been up in the far north, actually near Sidon in modern day Lebanon.   Much like the distance between Milwaukee and Chicago or Los Angeles and San Diego, Jesus and the disciples were going back from Sidon back to Galilee.  Now remember from what we’ve heard over the past few weeks – Jesus and all the disciples in attendance had witnessed amazing things….Jesus healing a foreign woman, feeding miracles,   teaching in countless parables , continuously turning the world upside down, about the meaning of the Kingdom of God.

And the story today brings us to the region of Caesarea Phillippi….a place still in the far north.  This city pre-dated the Roman empire by several hundred years, and it was a cross-roads for all sorts of religions.  So in Jesus’s time, even though it was known as the Roman City of Caesarea Phillippi, the site where our story takes place had been an ancient place of great sanctity for a myriad of generations, a myriad of cultures, each with their own Gods – this city — at the source of the Biblically important  Jordan river, was a modern Dallas of Deities, an Indianapolis of Images and Statues—a Garden of the Gods – a Pantheon of Polytheism…And yet this is the exact place that Jesus and his disciples visit, and Jesus’s true identity is named and affirmed in such an unlikely locale.

One can only imagine what brought about the question Jesus begins to ask, but he starts very tactfully and asks the apostles, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?  To which they give a myriad of examples of what people are saying.

But then Jesus gets personal, and he looks for an exact answer when he asks, But you – you who have spent all this time with me, you have seen all these things with me, you who realize the Kingdom of God is literally bubbling up from every surface – you — who do you say that I am?

And this time, Peter gets it right.  He responds immediately by saying, “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  Notice his choice of words about God – not a god of somewhere else or a God of a temple on a hillside, not a static god, no —  but the living God –a God who is alive.   That one God that the people of Israel knew – not the Pantheon of Ceasarea Phillippi—but that one God who lives and is truly merciful—seeking to rescue us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us—the  God who sets us free to live and move and to learn how to love one another.

Messiah?  Son of the Living God?   Who is Jesus?  Who do you say that Jesus is?  As Brennan Manning asks, “Who is this Jesus who is a magnetic field for so many people and a stumbling block for others?”  Why is it that almost every time we see this need to identify Jesus in one way or another, Jesus tries to re-define, tries to clarify, tries to deepen to shape to further our understanding of who he is.  Our world keeps getting  turned upside down.  And then we throw in his cross and resurrection and the question becomes an even greater one.

So let’s take a step back and think about the times in our lives that we have limited Jesus by the way that we perceive him.  In the story I alluded-to at the beginning, the boy asks if the man is Jesus…why?  Well, it’s obvious that the man showed mercy and kindness – true traits we know about Jesus.  But is Jesus only that?    According to Peter’s response, Jesus is Messiah, son of the living God.  A Messiah is surely much more than just mercy and kindness, even though those are great things.

It seems to be a human tendency to construct Jesus in our own terms of reference and reject any evidence that challenges our life situations.   We saw some churches express Jesus in new ways in the 60s – personifying Jesus as an agitator and a social critic—countercultural, a societal dropout.    In the 1980s, in the age of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, and Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell, Jesus was the provider of the good life…the Lord of the spa…a driven executive on a messianic mission.[ii]

But then hard times hit many people, and the TV televangelists had their own scandals, and many of us kept going with our own contextually specific terms of reference about  Jesus and we kept getting bruised and our lives got split, and so the question “who is Jesus?” looms.

I want to be clear and say that aspects of how we’ve all defined Jesus are not intrinsically wrong…some of it might not be 100% correct, however well intentioned,…they’re not intrinsically wrong, but the reality is that we have limited ourselves.  We have limited our ability to see Jesus for who he truly is….Messiah, Lord, son of the Living God – fountain of all love and mercy, forgiveness, restoration, and one who is personal — not an idea—but someone who breathed his Spirit upon his apostles after he rose and offered them the charge to go and make disciples of all nations….that means us!   We, in our many walks of life, in our varied educational backgrounds, family histories, cultures, orientations, in our talents and abilities—we’re called to be disciples of Jesus for one another and for the world.   Not to limit ourselves or to limit God, but to imagine all that God can be…and to be God’s loving presence, in our hearts, and in the lives of everyone around us!

Paul talks about this in the letter to the Romans that we read today – out of many members, we have one body in Christ – we belong to God, and we belong to one another.  Although our gifts differ, and our understandings of God aren’t always the same – that’s not a bad thing! – OK  this is Paul talking who many deem as rigid with some type of slanted agenda – read this— Paul is saying “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us – prophecy in proportion to faith; Ministry, in ministering; the Teacher, in teaching…the giver in generosity…the compassionate, in cheerfulness…..We all have a part to play.

So who is Jesus?  If we truly define Jesus as Messiah and Lord….the son of the Living God, then we have to continue to learn about Jesus together.  Peter’s confession tells us what conclusion we’re striving to affirm & reaffirm—and through faith, through prayer, and through our community life and fellowship—we’ll see the presence of Jesus Messiah among us – we’ll see the living God at work in the world around us, healing, feeding, strengthening the world, and we will help God—yes, that’s right – we’ll help God continue to usher in the fullness of creation – the pinnacle of all that God hopes and desires and dreams for us – that Kingdom of God

And so even though our American lives in the year 2011 are quite often way too hurried, there’s hope.  We often race for trains and kick over apple baskets.  But we have Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Messiah who can set us back on our feet, whether we’re the ones who kick things over or we’re the ones who get kicked over…this living God who longs to be in relationship to us, to live for us, to die for us, to rise again for us…this Lord empowers us, sets us free, to take the best that we have individually to offer—not just in Chicago or Los Angeles or Milwaukee or San Diego – but here in the desert—at this church up on a hill, and allows us to collectively, as members of Christ’s body, allows us to re-member Jesus’s presence on Sundays as we gather together, and every day of our lives.

A great book by Sara Miles, called Jesus Freak,  sums all of this up really well.  She writes:

Who is Jesus?   Jesus is real, and so, praise God are we.   Tremendous things the resurrected Jesus does on earth he does through the body of Christ – through our bodies.  You’re fed, you’re healed, you’re forgiven, you’re pronounced clean.  You are loved, and you will be raised from the dead.[iii]

Go!   Go with Jesus, Messiah

Go with the Son of the living God.

Go and do likewise.


[i] Brennan Manning,  The Signature of Jesus.  Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books, 1988.

[ii] Brennan Manning,  The Signature of Jesus.  Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books, 1988.

[iii] Sara Miles,  Jesus Freak.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  2010.

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