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“Who do you say that I Am?” For most of my life I have been trying to figure out who I think Jesus was and is. Your very presence here on a beautiful summer morning, suggests to me that many of you have also tried to figure out who Jesus was and is. From time to time, I suspect that most of us have believed that we have worked it out; that we know just who Jesus is. But Jesus, just like every person we have ever known and or ever loved, Jesus keeps changing on us.
The Jesus I knew when I was a child was little more than an imaginary friend. “Jesus loves me this I know!” “Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me!” not because the bible tells me so, but rather as my friend and biblical scholar Harold Remus always insists, “because my Mommy told me so!” When I was a kid the knowledge that Jesus loved me, earned Jesus the role of my imaginary friend. Later, when I was a teen-ager looking for more love than my family could give me, I found my way into the Church and discovered, “What a Friend I have in Jesus! All my sins and griefs to bear!” The idealism of my youth turned my imaginary friend Jesus into my radical friend Jesus who understood my passion for justice, and lead me into deep friendships with folks who were determined to practice what Jesus preached, as we proudly sought to be the kind of people that “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Sadly though, after 25 years in the church, I found myself as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, with the keys of the kingdom jangling in my pockets, firmly believing that Jesus was and is, the: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It has taken years for me to get to know Jesus as something other than the sacrificial lamb of God. I stand in a long line of priests and pastors known as the Apostolic Succession. According to the story that comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew: Jesus handed the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, the rock upon which the church was founded, and in doing so Jesus handed over the authority to bind and loose in heaven. For generations, this passage has been interpreted by the Church as the establishment of the priesthood. The Apostle Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and becomes the first gate-keeper precisely because possession of these keys give him the power to decide just who will and won’t be forgiven. Generations of priests have been called and ordained, and thereby entrusted with the keys to the kingdom, holders of the power to forgive in Jesus name. When a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ presides over the rite of public or private confession, we grant forgiveness of sin, in the name of Christ. We have the keys to the kingdom of heaven. WOW…
I should also tell you, especially as we continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, that at your baptism, you were called to the ministry we all share, the priesthood of all believers. You too have the power to forgive sin. Martin Luther put an end to the church’s proprietary abusive use of the keys to the kingdom that had to the selling of indulgences. But not even Luther could put an end to the church’s zealous clinging to power that those keys inspired. So, to this very day, the church continues to perpetuate the notion that those of us who are called and ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament are somehow special and we alone possess the keys. Pointing to the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, the church chooses to highlight Paul’s description of the Church as the Body of Christ. St. Paul writes: “Just as each of us has one body with many members—and these members don’t have the same function—so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body. And as members of that one body, we belong to each other. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophecy, use it in proportion to your faith. If your gift is ministry, use it for service. If you are a teacher, use your gift for teaching. If you are good at preaching, then preach boldly. If you give to charity, do so generously; if you are a leader, exercise your authority with care; if you help others, do so cheerfully.” Together, our various gifts, talents, arts, strengths and weaknesses make up the Body of the Christ that is the Church. But we would all do well to remember St. Paul’s caveat that precedes these words; St. Paul writes: “I urge each of you not to exaggerate your own importance.” So, even though my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament entitles me to lay claim to the keys to the kingdom, I am confident of the reality that this is of little importance, because each of you dear sisters and brothers are indeed members of the priesthood of all believers.
Well now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get back to the question of the day. Let me ask each of you, as members of the priesthood of all believers, “Who do you say Jesus is?”
Together, we’ve been on quite a journey over the past few years. Over and over again, with the help of some of the most gifted theologians in all of Christendom we have asked ourselves, who Jesus was and is. Together, we have explored the various theories of atonement and discovered new ways of understanding not only the Gospels, but our own interpretations of the Gospels. Together, we have explored new images of the Divine that have shattered our images of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So, now what? How are we supposed to respond to the question of who Jesus was and is?
Forgive me, you know that you can forgive me, but for decades now, most of us have struggled to comprehend the image of Jesus as some sort of sacrificial lamb who died to save us from our sins. The notion of worshiping any God that would demand a blood sacrifice is repugnant to most 21st century thinkers. The reality that the anonymous gospel storytellers together with the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther himself and many of the generations that followed would have little or no problem with the idea of Jesus paying the price for our sins is of little or no consequence when it comes to those of us who live in the 21st century who are doing our level best to Love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our minds. Our minds cannot and must not be left out of the equation! The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus must be allowed to speak to us in ways that make sense. We must engage this character Jesus with all our hearts, souls and minds! Only, when we engage our minds can we ever hope to answer questions about who Jesus is and was. The authority of the institutional church is not, nor has it ever been, absolute. It is long past time for the members of the body of Christ to claim the keys to the kingdom. Each of us must struggle to answer the question posed by Jesus in the anonymous gospel story-tellers story: “Who do you say that I AM?”
I know that I’m fond of saying that “I don’t know is an answer.” But I always follow that up by saying that, “I don’t know is an answer, but not to every question.” Those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus and claim to be progressive Christians must answer the question of Jesus identity, with more than, “I don’t know?” We need to have the courage to face the realities that we have discovered even if those realities fly in the face of centuries of church teachings! In the words of the Apostle Paul: “If you are a teacher, use your gift for teaching. If you are good at preaching, then preach boldly.” So, as a teacher and a preacher my role in the Body of Christ, is to dwell in the questions about Jesus identity not to provide you with “the” answer, but hopefully to help you find your own answers and I do mean answers because there isn’t only one answer but rather answers.
Jesus was, is, and ever more shall be a different character in the lives of different people. There will always be some who are content to settle for Jesus as some sort of cosmic bargain with a demanding and zealous God, sacrificing himself so that they can rest easy. But for those who are willing to follow Jesus beyond the religious norms of the day, Jesus will always be out there on the boundaries calling for new and more expansive understanding of the LOVE that Jesus embodied in life. Jesus’ life and death bear witness to the LOVE that we call God in ways that most of us are only beginning to comprehend. Jesus gave new expression to that LOVE that continue to challenge each and every one of us to be that LOVE.
So, over the course of the next couple of Sundays, I want to spend some time exploring the contours of the LOVE that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection gave expression to. In the meantime, I encourage you all to dwell in the questions surrounding Jesus identity. “What do people say about who the Chosen One is?” “And You,” Jesus asked, “who do you say that I AM?”
As ordained ministers of the priesthood of all believers, you belong to a long line of teachers, preachers, and leaders. Together, as members of the Body of Christ, let us continue to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds.” Therein lies our first clues: Let us “LOVE God, for LOVE is the key to understanding the identity of Jesus. Stay tuned, next week, same time, same channel…