Who do YOU say Jesus was and IS? – Matthew 16:13-20

“Who do you say that I AM?” Jesus’ question has been preoccupying me for most of my life. Indeed, my professional life requires me to spend hours and hours, week after week, month after month, year after year, and dare I say it, decade after decade, trying to figure out just who I think Jesus was and is. Your very presence here watching this video, suggests to me that 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 had 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 led me into deep friendships with folks who were determined to practice what Jesus preached, as we proudly sought to be the kind of people who, “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, which comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller which 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 gatekeeper precisely because possession of these keys gives him the power to decide just who will and who 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 that at your baptism, you, that’s right you, were called to the ministry we all share, which is known as, The Priesthood of All Believers. You, I do mean you, 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 which in his day, had led to the abusive sale of indulgences. But not even Luther could put an end to the Church’s zealous clinging to power which 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 Christ which is the Church. But we would all do well to remember St. Paul’s caveat which precedes those 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 in Christ, you are indeed also 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?”

I have been blessed to serve as pastor alongside a progressive bunch of members of the Priesthood of All Believers for 21 years. At Holy Cross, we have 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 MYSTERY which we call God,  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, when we no longer see Jesus as a blood sacrifice? 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 21stcentury thinkers. The reality that the anonymous gospel storytellers, together with the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther himself, and many of the generations who 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 which 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-teller’s 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 which 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, there are 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 in some distant celestial home, “when the roll is called up yonder!” 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 understandings of the LOVE which Jesus embodied in life. Jesus’ life and death bear witness to the LOVE which we call God in ways that most of us are only beginning to comprehend.  Jesus gave new expressions to that LOVE which continue to challenge each and every one of us to be that LOVE.

Jesus never asked his followers to worship him. Jesus only asked his followers to follow his Way of being in the world. To follow Jesus is to embody here and now the LOVE which Jesus embodied. As those who seek to follow Jesus here and now, our embodiment of the LOVE which IS the DIVINE MYSTERY is all about being LOVE in the world.

Today, the world is suffering, and I can’t think of a time in my lifetime when the world needs the LOVE which IS DIVINE MYSTERY more than it does right now. Nearly 800,000 people have suffered and died as a result of the coronavirus. Over 9,000 of these deaths have occurred in Canada. There is no end in sight to this pandemic.

In many ways this pandemic has drawn into clear view the perils of the status quo. While many long for a return to what some call “normal.” The virus has proved without a doubt that normal simply wasn’t working. The divisions between rich and poor, privileged and powerless, black, brown and red, verses white, and even male and female genders have been accentuated by the pandemic. The statistics both medical and financial point to ways of being in the world which do not provide enough for far too many of the world’s population.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died proclaiming a notion of peace which can only be achieved by the kind of justice which ensures that everyone has enough. This Way, Jesus’ Way of being in the world is born out of the LOVE which is DIVINE. As those of us who seek to follow Jesus, struggle to come to terms with what our world might look like after this pandemic, it is crucial for us not to rely on old doctrines or dogmas which have perpetuated a world which relies upon hierarchal notions of order to separate people into categories. We must move beyond the so-called “normal” ways of understanding if we are to discover just who Jesus is, was, and ever more shall be.

We must have the courage to embody the LOVE which Jesus’ struggled to embody, the LOVE which threatened the powers that be, the powers of normalcy if you will, who rather than embody the LOVE which is DIVINE, strove to hold on to power by executing Jesus. We can choose to try to go back to normal, knowing all the while that normal only worked for the privileged few or we can seek to embody LOVE in the world.

Who do you say, Jesus IS??? This is a question which each of us, you and I, fellow members of the Priesthood of All Believers, we must wrestle with if we are to learn how to embody the LOVE with is God in the world. I believe that the transformational power of the LOVE which Jesus lived and died to embody, is the power we members of the Priesthood of All Believers are called to be in the world, right here and right now.

May the ONE who IS LOVE live and breathe in, with, through, and beyond us, now and always. Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Who do YOU say Jesus was and IS? – Matthew 16:13-20

  1. I am appreciative of Pastor Dawn telling us her story, a story similar to the story of many of us. I am reminded of St. Francis daily praying “O God, who are you and who am I?” And I appreciate Teilhard de Chardin’s words, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally impatient in everything….” And he didn’t live in a culture of addiction to cell phones and i-pads! I like the prophet, Micah’s words to us all: “to seek to do what is right, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with God.” In so doing, we may find ourselves on a similar path that Jesus took. We may even experience his very real presence in/with and under everything we touch and are touched by in the world today. We may even discover the ability “to love our enemies” and do a little good in this world. Pastor Jon Fogleman

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