Have you ever had the experience of pondering a question or a problem and suddenly the answer or the truth pops into your head – maybe you even blurt it out? This not about recalling facts that you have memorized, or suddenly remembering something you are familiar with but may have temporarily forgotten. It’s more along the lines of a question you really hadn’t considered before, yet the recognition of the answer comes swift and clear. You may even find yourself saying Where did that come from? once you hear yourself say it.
That’s what was going on with Peter in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus and the disciples are on the road again. It gives Jesus some time for private conversation with his inner circle. They were a captive audience – just like teenagers being driven to an event by their parents. Those teen and parent car rides can be opportunities for important questions. And Jesus does, indeed, as an important question – even a really crucial question – of his followers: “Who do people say that I am” – what’s the buzz? what’s the word on the street?
The answer the disciples gave all had to do with the possibility that Jesus was someone from Jewish history who had somehow returned: Elijah, the man of God, who was thought to be the for-runner of the Messiah’s arrival; or one of the Old Testament prophets – those who spoke God’s truth to the power structures of their day; or even John the Baptist, who had recently been beheaded by the king because of John’s outspoken criticism of the king’s behavior while he was trying to call his fellow Jews to readiness for the Messiah’s arrival. These were the responses the disciples were reporting, but it’s almost as if we can hear them say, “Yes, but we know, Jesus, that you aren’t any of those people” without actually taking the next step and saying who they believe him to be.
And then Jesus does take the next step – and he asks the crucial question: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter – out of nowhere - blurts out: “You are the Messiah;” God’s holy One, the One we have all been waiting for; the One who will come and clean up the mess, set the world to rights, vindicate God’s people in the eyes of the rest of the world. It just came bubbling up out of him, before he really had time to consider his answer. The Truth came to the fore.
This question of Jesus’ identity is crucial. It’s the core question - not about whether we agree with Jesus’ teaching or not. Because if Jesus is the Messiah then he is God’s Anointed, the Incarnate One, God in human flesh and blood, the Author and Creator of the universe in our own sphere of existence. And that raises a follow-on question: “Who am I, who are we, in relation to Jesus? What is my identity? What is our identity?” Because if we are disciples, if we are following Jesus, then his identity will shape our own.
Peter seems instinctively to have understood this, which is why he began to rebuke Jesus when the talk turned to his rejection, suffering, and dying before rising on the third day. ‘A Messiah who suffers and dies? No, no, we can’t have that. The Messiah is supposed to make everything all better, make all God’s promises come true, and I really want everything to be better without incurring any further cost on my part.’ Peter somehow sensed that if the Messiah had to undergo suffering, then he would have to, also.
And he was right. And that’s exactly why Jesus told Peter to get out of the way, if that was going to be his attitude. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” If we are going to follow Jesus, then we had best be prepared to think and do and say some of the things that Jesus did; to live as his apprentices. Jesus is not saying that being a Christian is always hard, or that we should go out of our way to seek suffering or live life in such a way that is it always burdensome. In fact, quite the opposite; Jesus invites us to take up his yoke and find rest for our souls.
But make no mistake, when we give our loyalty and our allegiance to Christ – for that is what it means when he says we are to take up our cross and follow him – then we will indeed find ourselves in dark and difficult and painful places from time to time. Jesus has come to be the Light of World, to offer men and women and children a different way of being – what our Presiding Bishop Curry calls The Way of Love. And as Jesus’ followers we get deployed into places where God needs us to go.
Sometimes God’s love and truth and compassion and justice extended through us will be accepted, welcomed, even celebrated. But just as often it will be slighted, rejected, condemned – and we as the messengers will be, also. And yet it is all part of serving in God’s mission to heal, redeem, and reconcile the world to Godself.
And that mission can take us to all sorts of places that are strange, or surprising, or uncomfortable for us – whether it’s geographical or emotional or social or spiritual territory - if we really pay attention and listen.
Yesterday morning there was a motorcycle ride that started at the Stirling Shop-Rite and ended at the American Legion Post in Piscataway. It was a “Hunger Run” to raise money, a partnership with Shop-Rite and the Post to support local food pantries – and All Saints’ is one of the recipients of those funds. When the store employee who was organizing it told me about the run and invited me to come and watch the start of it, I took a chance and asked he if she’d like me to bless the ride. She was thrilled.
Now you have to know, I have never been on a motorcycle; no one in my family rides; it’s really outside my comfort zone. But those forty or more riders were eager for my prayer. They got into a huddle and put me in the middle of it. I prayed for safety and no rain; I prayed for the folks who would benefit from the food that would come from this fund-raising. The riders wanted me to pray for family members caught in the hurricane. Their former post commander had died Friday night, and they wanted to pray for him, as well. And one of the members wanted to talk to me about having lost two of her brothers to addiction and about her father’s PTSD after having served in the Korean War. So many important feelings and stories in a very short space of time.
Will some of those bikers be in a church this morning? Maybe. Are some of them intentional followers of Jesus? I bet so. But the more important question is: Did they have an experience of God in the Shop-Rite parking lot Saturday morning? Did Jesus, through my presence, show up in visible form to say: “Well done, good and faithful servants.”? I think the answer is yes.
Jesus always calls us to show up in places where people need hope, comfort, strength, and truth. And when we follow, when we pick up our cross, lay aside our own preferences and schedule and hesitation, God will always give us the words and the wisdom to say and do what is needed – for forty people, for five thousand, or for just one other person.
Jesus the Messiah was sent into the world to bring God’s hope to fruition; and we are called to do the same, each as the Holy Spirit leads us.
Let us pray.
Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2018