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“Who Do You Say I Am?” Can We Be Honest? (Aug. 27, 2017)

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

There are two questions that Jesus asks in this text. “Who do others say I am?” and, “Who do you say I am?”

I think we’re good at answering the first one, and not as good at answering the second.

The first question, “Who do other people say I am?” includes what we’ve been taught about Jesus, what people we respect say about Jesus, and what is generally accepted about Jesus. This question is often about doctrine, where there are right and wrong answers. We’ve become so reliant on what others say about Jesus that we have a hard time answering for ourselves. In the old days, if someone answered this question incorrectly, we would burn them at the stake.

We don’t do that anymore. Instead, if someone disagrees with the correct doctrinal position they simply burn in hell. Because we’re no longer uncivilized barbarians.

We’ve been trained over the centuries to have the “correct” answers to all things Jesus. We’ve had the ability to answer the second question, “Who do you say that I am?” frightened out of us. We’re so afraid of being wrong that we simply go along with everyone’s answer, assuming they are right. We’re no longer willing to go out on a limb, do a gut-check, to discover something new about Jesus. It’s as if all there was to know about him was discussed in the first few years, the question was called, the debate was closed, and a vote was held. No more discussion. No more discovery. No more sharing of eye-opening personal experiences with one we claim has risen from the dead. It’s all about what other people have said about him.

It’s important to note Jesus’ questions weren’t “Who do others say that I am?” and then, “OK, now what’s the correct answer?” No, he asks the disciples who Jesus is for them. He asks for their honest speculation. He asks them to take a risk, venture out, be vulnerable, and answer for themselves.

All the disciples are silent. You can hear crickets chirping, feet shuffling. Then Peter, who can’t stand awkward silences, opens his mouth and says something. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus praises him for answering. And we’ve assumed all these centuries that Peter is praised for having the “right” answer, even though Peter proves in the verses immediately following today’s text that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (come back next week!). It’s true that his answer has become the doctrinally correct one—the answer we are now supposed to use when asked who Jesus is. But in reality, it’s still probably what other people say Jesus is.

The church, at our heart, is a community where we ought to listen to what others have said about Jesus. We should hear what wise and deeply spiritual people have experienced him to be. But that cannot prevent us from discovering how he encounters us now, how he opens our hearts to God today, how he moves us in our own growth as disciples. What others say about him matters because it can open us up to possibilities, but it can’t be the final word for us.

We know all the “correct” answers. We know what is proper doctrine. We know what the first Christians voted on and approved as the right answers. But unless we are encountering the living Christ, we are only able to quote what other people say about him. Until we’ve answered for ourselves, based on our experience with the resurrected Christ, the best we can do is be silent like the rest of the disciples.

So here’s my question today. Why not answer Jesus’ second question, “Who do you say that I am?” What’s wrong with being honest about who Jesus is for us? What’s stopping us from sharing our own experiences, our own heart-events with him? Others might say our experiences are wrong. Some might even want to burn us at the stake because we may not be doctrinally correct.

But Jesus still asks, “Who do you say that I am?” In your spiritual journey, in your life-experience, who is he to you?

Because he has encountered you. If you haven’t recognized him, it might be because you’re only looking for the Jesus that other people have described. That may not be the way he comes to you. If you’ve been moved to acts of compassion, might that be the risen Christ? If you find yourself desiring mercy—given or received, couldn’t that be Christ moving in your life? When you are generous, kind, gracious, when you serve others, can’t we consider the possibility that it is Christ who has met us and moved us there?

Who is Jesus for you?

For me, at least today, Jesus is the one who reveals what God is like. He is the one who inspires me to live differently, generously, boldly. He is the one who makes me realize that those I tend to ignore are just as worthwhile as those I pay attention to. He is the one who moves me from judgment to listening. He is the one who brings out the “image of God” in me. It is in these ways that he is the Son of the Living God for me.

Feel free to disagree. You can call me a heretic or believe I’m on my way “somewhere” in a handbasket. But when Jesus asks who I say he is, I need to answer him.

Who do you say he is? I’d love to hear how you answer that!

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Posted by on August 28, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“Experience God” Sunday (Holy Trinity), May 22, 2016

John 16:12-15

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Trinity Sunday is the only day of the church calendar devoted to a doctrine. So I tend to think it’s the worst Sunday of the year. Not because I don’t like doctrines, because I do (at least some of them), but because I don’t think our time in Sunday worship is the best place to deal with our doctrines. Classes and lectures are better suited, I think. Doctrines are what we teach, what our history has led to, the particulars as to what makes us different than other people, theological places where me might draw lines in the sand. So, yeah, deal with doctrines in a class setting. With lots of opportunity to ask questions and think and share and argue and find relevance. In that way I think doctrines are fun! But not in worship.

That got me thinking that if Sundays aren’t really to emphasize doctrines, what should Sundays be about?

When you get down to it, our Sunday worship really is more about the experience of God than the knowledge about God. It’s one thing to know God is forgiving, it’s another thing entirely to experience forgiveness. Knowing God loves you is way different than actually being loved.

Which got me thinking that maybe I’ve been going about this Trinity Sunday all wrong. Maybe instead of teaching a doctrine so we can know a theory trying to explain God as 3-in-1, maybe instead we should consider the experience of the Trinity.

That’s really where our best doctrines come from anyway: attempts to explain our experiences of God. Martin Luther’s experience of a gracious God of mercy was different than a harsh God of judgment he’d been taught. So he tried to explain that and the Protestant Reformation began.

The early church didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity–that didn’t formalize until the end of the 4th century. The problem was Jesus. It appears that his earliest disciples experienced him as divine in some way, yet every good Jew knew there was only one God. So how could they talk about their Jesus experience? It took a few centuries, but the doctrine of the Trinity was the best explanation the church could come up with. There is one God, but that one God is comprised of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.

Personally, I imagine the bishops who met and voted on this kind of walking away afterward a little embarrassed. This confusing piece of doctrine was the best they could come up with. But it stuck, became orthodoxy, and here we are.

So if the doctrine of the Trinity was the 4th century church’s attempt at explaining how the disciples experienced God in Jesus, how would we try to explain our experience of God? Doctrines start with an attempt at explaining an experience. So let’s start with our experience of God.

I can’t teach an experience of God, but I can share it. My strongest experiences of God have taken place when I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God. There have been times when everything I thought could sustain me failed. Like all at once. My friends, my credentials, my education, my confidence, my strengths, my health, my faith, and even my treasured theology all have let me down at one time or another. But when they all fail at the same time, that’s bad.

How do you hang on to something for support when it can’t support you? How do you lift yourself up by your credentials when you realize they count for nothing? How do you cling to a God that seems to have disappeared? How do you ask for help when the very people you could ask are the ones kicking you down? How do you keep from falling when there is nothing there to hold you up?

The answer is you don’t. You can’t. You just fall because that’s all there is.

And that’s when I’ve experienced God most profoundly. In the falling. Because when I come to realize there’s nothing to stop the fall, that’s when I’ve understood that I’m held in God’s hands. All my goodness, unselfishness, hard work, good theology, overcoming difficulties made no difference. I was just being held. But my vulnerabilities, weaknesses, failures, and insecurities didn’t make any difference either. I was just being held. It wasn’t about me, it was about God. This experience says nothing about me, but everything about God. It’s not about who I am or am not, but all about who God is.

So if I were to make this experience of God into a doctrine, what would it be called? The doctrine of the Big, Soft Hands? Would this be Holy Catcher’s Mitt Sunday?

Probably not. But perhaps my experience of God resonates with you. And maybe your experience of God could touch my heart, or the heart of someone else. And then together, when we share our divine experiences, we all understand God better and maybe even trust God a little more deeply. And wouldn’t we all be better off for that?

So maybe instead of “Holy Trinity Sunday,” we could call this “Experience God Sunday.” And we all come together and share our experience of being in the presence of the Holy. Wouldn’t that be exciting?!

What’s your experience of God? I’d like to hear it. I think it would be good to share it with someone. Or if you can’t do that, then at least watch for it.

I trust in God. I trust that not because I know the doctrine of the Trinity, but because I’ve experienced being held in God’s hands.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2016 in Sermon

 

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