Year A Proper 16
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
It seems to me that just about every couple of months someone comes out with a new book on the identity of the “real Jesus”—on how we answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Part of it, I’m sure, is that the publishing industry knows all too well that so-called “answers” to this question leap off the shelves and turn a healthy profit (just think of The Da Vinci Code, or Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth). But another part of this phenomenon is less crassly opportunistic and reveals something about the nature of the person of Jesus—he cannot be contained, the living, effervescent, and zesty mystery of his being cannot be exhausted, by a single answer (even a correct one like Peter’s Confession, or the tortured, tongue-twister syntax of the Chalcedonian definition). Please understand, I’m not saying that we don’t know who Jesus is—in many important ways we do. Thanks be to God that God has revealed Godself to us in the person and work of his Son. Thanks be to God that in Jesus we see what the shape of love looks like in the world. Thanks be God that in the life and ministry of Jesus we see what boundaries need to be crossed, what borders traversed, what invitations extended, what calls answered—that all might sit at the banquet of divine welcome and eat the meat of unconditional love. Thanks be to God that, mistaken for a gardener, our Lord has trampled down death by death and has shown us how to live without fear, how to live from abundance, from those living waters gushing up to eternal life.
To say that Jesus is an inexhaustible mystery doesn’t mean, then, that we cannot know anything about him. That would be entirely counter to what we believe about the power of Holy Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to witness to the life of Jesus, and about the Eucharist as Christ’s real presence. Word and Sacrament. To say that Jesus is inexhaustible mystery is another way of saying that there is an endlessness to our journey into our union and communion him, a bottomless depth to our knowledge and love of him. There is no point at which we can stop, wipe our hands clean of the whole Jesus business and claim to have understood him once-and-for-all. That would turn Jesus into a possession, a piece of intellectual property that we own, control, and master. Mystery, and the endlessly revealing nature of who Jesus is for us, to us, and in us, is a control against this type of idolatry, a way of protecting against taking the person of Jesus and turning him into a nicer, gentler, more bearded, barefoot, and soft-spoken version of ourselves.
Indeed, if we look at the portraits (both literal and literary) of Jesus down through the centuries, we discern one thing very clearly: each age has its own favored version of who Jesus is: Christ the Rabbi to the early Jewish Christians, Christ the King of Kings in the era of Caesar in Imperial Rome, the Cosmic Christ under the influence of Platonic thought, Christ the Monk Who Rules the World during the rise of monasticism, Christ the Poet of the Spirit in the Romantic Era, Christ the Liberator throughout the social justice struggles of the twentieth century. Every age’s portrait of Jesus tells us as much about the age as it does about Jesus. Each age looked down the long well of history and saw its own face reflected in the bottom and called it Jesus.
Again, it’s not that there is necessarily anything wrong with perceiving Christ as the Monk Who Rules the World (although I daresay the food would stink and we’d be getting up a lot earlier), or Jesus as the Poet of the Spirit, as long as we recognize and honestly acknowledge the ways in which our culture conditions us to see what want to see, and don’t think of these images as final, fixed, and settled articulations of who Jesus is. Like turning a kaleidoscope to get a slightly different view, each image of Jesus, each answer to the question “Who do you say I am?” gives onto a different vista that opens up new possibilities for discipleship and avenues for faithful reflection while closing off others. Each view is just that, a view, never a complete picture that we can possess and control. Jesus is a question that can never be answered finally and completely. Jesus is a question that calls us into question and opens us up to the possibility of something new—like love, forgiveness, peace, justice and reconciliation—slipping in under the radar of the same-old same-old in unexpected ways.
In today’s gospel, we see a similar dynamic going on between Jesus and the disciples. Up in Caesaraea of Philippi—an Imperial Roman captial the equivalent of “Caesarville”—Jesus asks the disciples mid-way through their journey with Him, “Who do people say that I am?” Just as with the answers to this question down the ages, the disciples offer up some of the common images that are floating about in the cultural soup—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. What do all of these responses have in common? They answer the question of who Jesus is by looking to the past, to received knowledge, and previously existing frameworks. They perceive Jesus through the lens of what has happened, not through the lens of what God is doing now and in the future.
I remember an old creative writing teacher of mine—a brilliant man with a giant, dome of a forehead pasted with scraps of greasy hair arranged in a precarious salt-and-pepper magpie’s nest—who used interrupt you after ten seconds with the phrase, “That reminds me of the time…” and launch into a shaggy dog story at the end of which I’d never remember what I’d even started to say. Of course, we do that with people as well. We don’t ask who this person in front of us is. We don’t see them as a question to ponder, to cherish, and honor. Too often, we don’t see people as invitations to celebrate with them the adventure of the unfolding mystery of their being in God. More often than not we’ve already got them figured out—“I’ve got you pegged, Mister!” as my mother would say. Pegged. Pinned-down. Trapped. Imprisoned. Dead. Oh, you’re just like so-and-so. How many misunderstandings, I wonder, have been caused by the simple misperception that not every woman is one’s mother, nor every man one’s father? How often do we imprison people in our stale images of them and how they acted in the past without allowing for the grace-filled possibility of something new coming down-the-pike?
After hearing from the disciples about what they’ve heard about Jesus, Jesus ups the ante, with the question—“But who do you say that I am?” It’s all well and good what other people say about me, but who I am to you? Without relying on what you’ve heard, without the distortions of the past and all those pre-packaged answers, who do you say that I am?” We might even push this a little farther to get a sense of the power of this question. What if Jesus is saying something like, “Forget what your priests told you, what your theology textbooks told you, what your Sunday School teacher told you, what you heard from the pulpit last week, or what you learned in Confirmation class… Forget all that. Those are other people’s words. Who do you say that I am? Who do you say that I am when your heart has been broken and the previously familiar, comfortable world seems like a foreign land? Who do do you say that I am when you get a bad diagnosis, or you are all alone in a room full of beeping machines staring death in the face? When the least of these are made the playthings of powerful elites—drowing in boats and dying in the deserts—how do you say that I am? In the eyes of the homeless mother and child in the McDonald’s drive-thru with a shakily-lettered sign “Anything helps”—who do you say that I am? In the silence and stillness—who do you say that I am?
My point is that I don’t think Jesus gives a hoot about us having the correct mental picture of who he is. Soren Kierkegaard says that, “The name of God is the name of a deed,” and by that he means that ideas without action, faith without deeds, is dead. Ideas of who Jesus is don’t help us, and don’t help those around us very much. What spreads love is how we answer the question of who Jesus is with the very fabric of our lives. The real trick is to let the question “Who do you say I am?” seep in the bedrock of our soul and let our lives, guided by the Holy Spirit be the answer. That’s what the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke is getting at in Letters to a Young Poet when he writes,
Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
That, to me, is how to hear this question of Jesus. We let it drop into our hearts and whisper itself to us. We let ourselves be inconvenienced by its blunt, hard-nosed awkwardness. In the middle of an argument—“Who do you say that I am?” Stumbling to bathroom in the middle of the night—“Who do you say that I am?” In the midst of a swirling torrent of hatred, fear, and racial violence—“Who do you say that I am?” We let Jesus’ question call us into question. We let Jesus’ question show us all the ways we say who Jesus actually isn’t with our actions.
How we live out the answer to that question is going to be different for each one of us. That’s what that beautiful passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us of. When we let ourselves be transformed by the renewing of our minds, when we drop the old images and allow the inbreaking reality of Christ’s presence to claim us at the center of our being, and confess Him as the shaping, defining reality of our lives, then the answer to Jesus’ question takes its unique shape in each of our lives. We live the answer day by day, moment by moment, without ever putting its inexhaustible demand and call upon us to bed. The diversity of the ways of living out the answer to this question in our lives enriches and expands the scope and splendor of the body of Christ of which we are each a part. Love is a many splendored thing. Different strokes for different folks: there’s more mercy in more different ways for more people. If Jesus is a question, perhaps we, too, at our very core are a question as well. What will love look like in your life? How will you shepherd the Good Sheperd into being? Live the answer and let the answer be the quirky, unrepeatable shape of love your unique gifts call forth.