HOMILY delivered at Sunday Assembly, Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI – August 27, 2023
Text(s) – Matthew 16:13-20 and Mark 8:27-38
I suspect most of us pretty much agree that the level and tone of our public discourse in this country right now has sunk to a mighty low level. Mostly, it seems, we just talk past each other, if in fact we’re not shouting at or over one another.
So a comment I recently overheard while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store was interesting to me. “Why,” one woman asked another, “are the only people who know how to run this country cutting hair and driving Uber?” Why, indeed? The pleasure we take in a good conversation is not to be minimized. But in truth one of the nice things about “just talking” is that it is just that – “talk.” Solving all the world’s problems is fun and sometimes even enlightening, especially when we don’t have to do anything about it. Because when the “talking” stops and we have to get serious about our responsibilities and go after them, well then the situation changes and just “talk” can seem trivial, even empty.
In today’s Gospel this is precisely what happens. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” A harmless enough question, I think. What do others say about me? What’s the conventional wisdom out there on the street? Repeating what others are saying is not hard. So the disciples tell him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Almost like gossip, the names get thrown about.
But then Jesus turns the tables and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” At first blush, this doesn’t seem like such a difficult question either. Why is it so different from parroting the opinions of others?
Perhaps the difference has something to do with the difference between the gospel and gossip. What Jesus is asking has very little to do with information about him. The disciples have plenty of information; they just summarized the popular wisdom circulating about Jesus. But what Jesus is asking for is a decision, a judgment, even a taking of responsibility for what they know. “But who do you say that I am?”
Once we answer that question, we put ourselves under a kind of judgment, a judgment which wipes away any illusion of neutrality, any sense that Jesus’ identity is a matter of mere historical or social importance. Instead, answering Jesus’ question is a judgment by which we are judged, a confession in which Jesus’ identity is a matter of truth telling in which to tell it we must lay ourselves open to this particular and embodied Way and Truth and Life.
Such a judgment should scare us I think because it knocks down all the accumulated layers of our notion of who and what Jesus can be or do. It reverses things and places us in the position of following after.
But bless his dear old soul, Peter, brash and impulsive Peter, who steps in where only the brave or the foolish dare to go. I have to give it to him, Peter seems to sense that there is more at stake here than just his or other peoples’ opinions. And so he seemingly gladly and happily confesses: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This is Gospel, not gossip. It is the truth. “You are the Christ.”
But here I must pause and take issue with the remainder of today’s Matthew text as the rest of it seems to me (and in the opinion of many scholars) a most unhistorical creation of the writer of Matthew; it smacks of a backwards thinking reflection of some part of the early church. This conversation between Jesus and Peter and the rest of the disciples is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels. But what Matthew says to Peter in our reading today is found nowhere else in the New Testament, and is most notably absent in Mark, the earliest of the gospels, and the one which is pretty much accepted as the interpreter of Peter. As we know, Peter was a guy pretty full of himself. There would have been little in the way of modesty that would have prevented Peter from proclaiming that the church was built on him if Jesus had said this. And Mark wouldn’t have been so careless as to omit such a significant truth if it were in fact truth. But Mark says none of this and thus all this extrapolated “first vicar on earth” stuff is not history as it was but rather the early church crafting history as it wanted it.
In Mark’s version of this incident Jesus begins to unfold what it means to tell the truth. Listen to Mark’s account: “Then he (Jesus) began to teach them (the disciples) that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and killed…Jesus said this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’…He called the crowd with his disciples, and said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” This is truth and as Mark reports it, Jesus said it “plainly” so it could not be misunderstood.
Think about that. Peter can’t handle Jesus’ plain and blunt speech so he proceeds to rebuke Jesus for not behaving as a Messiah should behave, and for that Peter in turn receives a rebuke himself. It’s a pretty remarkable scene. What is stunning here is how unafraid Peter was of rebuking Jesus. Even more, is how incredulous Peter was of falling under the judgment of his own confession, a confession which compels Peter to hear Jesus’ even stronger rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!”
You see, believing is dangerous business. Peter didn’t fully appreciate that and I’m not sure we do as well. Faith, confession of Jesus using the political images of Lord and king to quote Borg and Crossan, opens one up to the terrible possibility of betraying the truth, of failure, of risking being called “Satan.” Jesus didn’t even call the Pharisees that! Bystanders, spectators, interested parties do not risk Jesus’ wrath; Jesus never calls them “Satan.” After all, they don’t place themselves under the obligation to the truth. Only people of faith are so foolish as to open themselves to that kind of risk.
Indeed, people of faith are often just as wrong as Peter is. The Inquisition was put on by Christians, not neutral bystanders. Witches were burned by people of faith, not disinterested observers. Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation was enforced by devout believers, not sophisticated skeptics. The present assault on the LGBTQIA+ community, especially on Trans kids, is unleashed by people of faith, not back-benchers. People of faith are removing a woman’s right to govern her own body. People of faith ban books and dehumanize immigrants. We are at our most dangerous when we believe, which is why skepticism, unbelief seems so attractive to many. It offers the illusion of not taking anything seriously enough to get into trouble or do any damage. I continue to be appalled by the huge swath of my fellow citizenry who blissfully admit to having no interest in politics or anything so binding as the truth. Yet the assault on truth is real.
As Mark suggests in his much more likely historical rendition of the Jesus-Peter encounter, truth is much more costly than mere information. And truth, while it does embarrass us, also sets us free. I’ve always preferred novelist Flannery O’Connor take on this – “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Unless and until we are wounded by it, made odd by it, like a seed might fall into the ground and die, we will never be able to bear any real fruit.
It’s hardly surprising then that Jesus also said on another occasion: “Whoever is not with me is against me.” You’re in or you’re out. If you’re not fully on board with the truth, then step aside. Follow Jesus? Pick up a cross. Confess the Christ? Be opened to the truthful reality. Were he someone other than the Crucified One, it would be a reality we could scarcely call gospel, good news.
Even so, the temptation is always to remain in the realm of gossip and neutrality, straddling the yellow line down the center of the road, never obligated to be called to account. That way, we think, we can save our lives and never do anything dreadfully wrong. Maybe just a little hand raising praise on a Sunday but never take a stand on Monday where we might be called “Satan.” Safe.
But…what if only sinners are saved? What if only those who dreadfully misunderstand the gospel are the only ones redeemed by it? What if Luther was right, “Love God and sin boldly”?
What if the true judgment on the Inquisition, on the burning of witches, on segregation, on the assaults on trans kids and LGBTQ+ folk and immigrants crossing the border is not a studied neutrality but by the gospel itself?
There are worse things than being called “Satan” evidently, and one of them is the illusion that the gospel is not worth confessing, not worth living and dying for. To quote the British theologian Donald English: “We are not called only to observe the cross of Jesus: we are to carry our own. Our discipleship is not simply honoring him for giving his life: it is to offer ours. We are not only to be grateful for his self-denial: we are to deny ourselves…The saving events took place apart from us: but we are not saved apart from them.” Or as Barbara Brown Taylor put it more succinctly: “The important thing is not only to say what we believe but also to live what we believe….”
Peter, in both his triumphs and in his painful failures to understand and follow, suggests to me that there is dignity in being a sinner, to live as Luther said, loving God and sinning boldly.
Affirming, confessing, professing are all well and good, but if we do not actively care for all of God’s creation, if we do not join in movements of liberation, if we do not take our politics seriously, if we do not become instruments of reconciliation among a people divided by walls of hostility, if we do not suffer in the world for the children God loves, all our affirming, all our confessing or professing are but a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.
But who do you say that I am, Jesus asks? How will you answer?