12 Pentecost A—8/27/17
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Pr. Scott Kramer
I have here a receipt that proves that I recently shopped for groceries at Fred Meyer. Nothing unusual: bread, cheese, fruit, milk, cereal. But down near the bottom of this receipt—and every Fred Meyer receipt I’ve seen recently—is this message: Tell Us How We Are Doing! The company provides a link to a survey which enters me in an online sweepstakes for gift cards ranging from $100 to $5000.
I have here another receipt, this time from McLendon Hardware, across the street from Fred Meyer. At the bottom of this receipt is a similar message: We Value Your Opinion. Win $500! Take our 3-5 minute survey for your chance to win! They also provide a link to the survey.
Not a week goes by that some business or organization isn’t asking my opinion! Whether it’s online, phone, or “snail mail,” someone is constantly offering me a poll or a survey, usually with a request for money or, an offer of riches for myself!
One day Jesus asked his followers, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Well, what’s going on here? Is Jesus just ahead of his time, taking the pulse of the public to find out what message sells? Is he just another politician testing the winds so that he can say the right thing to win public approval?
He was asking the right characters! Jesus’ disciples knew and cared deeply about what people were thinking! For example, you remember in last week’s reading how uncomfortable they felt in response to Jesus’ public teaching: “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”
Yes, his disciples knew what the Pharisees were thinking; they knew and they cared about what people were thinking! It was not a difficult question for them to answer: Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
Well, it’s easy to hide behind polls and surveys, to form one’s opinion and even identity around what other people think. Who among us doesn’t constantly gauge the opinions and beliefs of those around us so that we can create a favorable impression on other people? The person who says they don’t care what people think is probably a liar or a sociopath, or both!
We do care what employers and colleagues and teachers and family and friends think of us. Those especially who seek power and promotion are in the business of creating a public image and they know the right things to say. Polls and surveys help them know what people want to hear!
Mindful of all this, Jesus asks another, more difficult, question: But who do you say that I am?
Polls and surveys can be seductive. They can lead us to believe that our personal opinions and beliefs are the most important thing! We are flattered to think that some high-profile institution or person really cares about me and what I think. But even if no one asks our opinion, millions of us are more than ready to register our beliefs through online message boards or social media. We would do well to take to heart the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading: Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgment…
“Sober judgment.” How would you answer Jesus’ question with sober judgment? Who do you say that he is?
Peter’s answer is this: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
The power and danger of Peter’s answer is mostly lost on our modern minds. Peter’s answer sounds to us like a pious spiritual response, good theology, sound Christian doctrine. Peter was less than perfect and he messes up quite a bit but at least in this moment, he seems to us to have his religious ducks in a row!
But Peter’s answer would not have been heard as merely a spiritual response. Jesus and anyone else within earshot would have heard it as a political response! If you were a Jew and said that anyone except the Roman emperor was the Son of God you would end up in prison or, more likely, along with thousands of other people, nailed to a cross. Peter’s answer was not tailored to be acceptable either to the Romans or to the religious communities. His answer was not formed by any poll or survey. It came from somewhere else.
And how does Jesus respond? Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.
Over the centuries millions of Christians have interpreted this short verse as the basis for a powerful religious institution called “Church.”
But what if Jesus’ intention is very different? What if he is not describing divine assent to popes and cathedrals and empires? What if he’s not talking about Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox institutions? What if Jesus is pointing to the kind of personal faith that has saving power in the world? What if he’s pointing to Peter’s statement of faith as a model for the rest of us to build our own personal faith? If that’s the case, what might such a faith look like?
Well, here’s a start: What do you believe about Jesus Christ that might get you thrown into jail? What do you believe about Jesus that could get you killed? I’m not talking about a hypothetical situation in which you live in North Korea. I’m talking about here and now. What in your statement of faith would be heard as a political statement that threatens the powers that be?
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Gulag Archipelago, speaks harshly not only of the Soviet regimes that imprisoned millions like himself and killed millions more; he criticizes ordinary Soviet citizens, as well. If ordinary people had not behaved like “rabbits” (as he calls them), silent and afraid, but risked unpopular public words and action–resisting evil early on before it was too late–evil would not have gained a foothold.
But we are a people addicted to polls and surveys, and maybe a bit too concerned about what other people might think. If our faith is so watered down, if we are merely “rabbits” who cannot take risky public stands when it is relatively safe to do so, how well prepared is the Body of Christ to be the Living Christ in more dangerous circumstances?
St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern [not what is the opinion of the crowd but] what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
To what extent are we truly disciples of Jesus? Are we so tied to the traditions and beliefs of those before us and those around us that we cannot see clearly the times in which we live? In response to Charlottesville and the voices of hate, do we still cling to notions that we are a “Christian nation?” Evil rears its head, as it always has, when it receives permission and encouragement from presidents and kings and generals? Do we remain publicly silent?
Dear friends, who do you personally believe Jesus to be? A great teacher, a spiritual leader, a personal friend, the key to a happy afterlife? To what extent re you conformed to this world, unable to separate your personal beliefs from polls and surveys and what you want to believe? Do you believe what you think people want to hear, or is your mind being transformed by the Holy Spirit in ways that become public?
The prophet Isaiah calls not for some “spiritual” response from God’s people but a living faith with a price tag attached that leads to personal consequences: Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look [not to polls and surveys but] to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Polls and surveys will be with us forever. At least for a moment, Peter reminds us that Christian faith is based not on what other people might think. It is the courageous public work of imitating Jesus, the “rock from which we were hewn,” that for the sake of the world God loves we might become a “chip off the old Rock.”