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August 23, 2020
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
For the last six months or so, we’ve been talking about this being an unprecedented time in our world’s history. It started with the pandemic and the “stay home, stay safe” campaign to contain Covid-19. And things continued to shift with the worldwide demonstrations after George Floyd’s murder.
Pandemic restrictions have lifted somewhat, but not for everyone; and people are starting to feel the effects of prolonged isolation. People are stressed because of the economic situation. And in cities all over the US, there are people actively protesting systemic racism.
And underlying that is a longing for things to return to normal – whatever that might be. And alongside that is the fear that, at best, normal is a long way off; but the deeper fear is that it’s more likely “normal” has changed forever, and we don’t know what things are going to look like – or when they’ll settle down again.
And as we grapple with all of that, it can sometimes be hard to know what to hold onto because it feels like everything is changing so fast. But in times like that, we go back to what we know. And as people of faith, what we know is Jesus.
We get glimpses of who Jesus is throughout Matthew’s gospel. Early on, we’re told that he is “God with us,” and throughout the gospel we learn more about what that means in terms of God’s love for us and commitment to the world. But in today’s reading, things come to a head when Jesus asks the disciples a couple of questions.
In biblical times, Caesarea Philippi was a dangerous place to be for anyone who didn’t go along with the ideals of the Roman Empire; it was near a trade route, there were buildings and temples dedicated to Roman leaders. And there were also sanctuaries and other places of devotion for the Greek god, Pan.
So, for their own safety, anyone there who was against Rome was encouraged to be quiet about it. That included not talking about who Jesus was and the things he was doing.
So as Jesus and the disciples approached that city, the questions he asked makes it sound like he was trying to trap them. But Jesus knew that, despite the political situation, people had been talking about him. And he assumed that the disciples had joined in at least a few of those conversations.
So he wanted to know, “Who are you saying that I am?” In other words, “What are you saying about me behind my back?” When Peter answered, he spoke the truth with such certainty that Jesus blessed him and named his confession as the foundation upon which the church would be built.
In his declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, Peter identified not only who Jesus is but also who he is. That is, he named Jesus’ love and compassion and mercy as the source of his identity as a follower of Jesus. And that was something Peter and the others held onto until the end of their lives.
It guided them through the rest of Jesus’ ministry on earth. It carried them through what we call Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, through that long weekend to the Day of Resurrection to Jesus commissioning them to go and tell others about him. And then it shaped their own ministry and witness.
We know that the disciples didn’t always get it right – they made mistakes. But they never stopped confessing Jesus as the Messiah – even when they messed up – and they didn’t only confess it where it was safe. Some of them even confessed it in places and at times when it cost them their lives.
But their faith and their witness strengthened the faith and witness of others in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Placing their trust in Jesus as the source of their identity freed them from worrying about what could or could not happen, either in the world or to them. Because Jesus never changes.
When we think about what it means to confess Jesus as the Messiah today, I think a lot of times we think about the Creed that we say every Sunday. But to confess Jesus as the Messiah is more than just saying some words on a page, or saying them from memory. And if we aren’t careful, our confession can become a symbolic action instead of something that shapes who we are and how we live our lives.
When we confess that Jesus is the Messiah, we name Jesus’ love and compassion and mercy as the source of our identity as followers of Christ. And that takes us beyond any words we might speak on a Sunday morning. It’s a statement of trust – specifically a statement that says we trust who Jesus is.
That trust shapes the way we live our lives, how we treat each other face-to-face, and what we say about each other. It guides our way of thinking, and transforms us, and encourages us to make the world the place it ought to be – the world Jesus showed us is possible and that God wants for us.
Identifying Jesus as the source of our identity is something we can hold onto no matter what happens in the world, no matter how much or how often things change. Placing our trust in Jesus frees us from having to worry about any of that, because Jesus never changes.
There are still a few places in the world today where it’s dangerous to name Jesus as the Messiah – but the US isn’t one of them. But in our society, there are a lot of things – and people – competing to be the source of our identity. Fighting to be that thing or person in which we place our trust.
And if we aren’t careful, Jesus gets bumped out and the source of our identity shifts to whatever takes his place. And then that is what shapes how we live and respond to what’s happening around us.
We see this happening in a lot of situations, like when material things are prioritized over people. Or when we become so consumed with making sure we have enough for ourselves that we overlook or ignore the needs of others. And we see it in the social structure where people are either favored or discriminated against based on their skin color.
But when we claim Jesus as the Messiah, when he is the source of our identity, his love and compassion and mercy free us from the fear and worry that lead to these behaviors and ways of living. It gives us the courage to trust his love and embody it in the world.
And then instead of doing something like buying enough toilet paper for a year, we leave some on the shelf for other people – and encourage others to do the same. We host a group like CFH here for an extended term when we’d only committed to a month.
And we stretch beyond our comfort zone to learn about ourselves as we work towards making society equitable and safe for everyone.
When we confess Jesus as the Messiah, we do more than say we believe he is the Son of God who came to redeem the world. We proclaim to ourselves and others that Jesus is God with us; that he loves us and is committed to us throughout our lives. We, then, commit to living in such a way that we share that love and commitment with others to shape the world into the place that God wants for us.
When we confess Jesus as the Messiah, we claim him as the source of our identity. We declare our trust in him. And that frees us from worrying about what anyone might think, and whatever may or may not happen. Because Jesus never changes. Thanks be to God! Amen.