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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 9/13

          “Who do you say that I am?”  Let’s just think about the question for a minute.  Picture yourself asking someone that.  Depending on who you ask, it could be a rather risky and embarrassing question especially if you added, “And tell me the truth; don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear.”   It’s a little risky and the answer depends on who you ask. 

          For example, if I asked one of you that question, your answer would probably be different than if I asked Kathy.  She knows too much, all those less than admirable things about me that I manage to keep hidden from most people and of course the same is true for you and those who know you best.  We’re all a mixed bag of good and not so good qualities and some know more about us than others, but then, even they don’t know everything.  There are things about each of us that only we know.

          The answer to “Who do you say that I am?” would also be different depending on who you ask because all of us are different things to different people and because of that our expectations about who they are are different.  Time and circumstances affect the answer too.  On this first Sunday of the NFL season, if Brett Favre asked a Packer fan and a Viking fan “Who do you say that I am?” the answers would no doubt be different, and very different than they would have been if he asked the same question two years ago.

          Anyway, the point is that on the part of Jesus, this was and still is a loaded question, a risky question.  It’s risky for the person asking the question but it’s also risky for the person answering.  There are many possible answers and many factors involved in how one answers and the answer might change over time; it probably should change.  Regarding Jesus, the church and the creeds have provided us with the “right” answers, and those answers are helpful; but what happens if you have to go beyond just reciting what you know are the right answers, or what happens when the right answers don’t work anymore? 

          There was an article in the latest issue of the Christian Science Monitor magazine about a guy named Geoffrey Canada.  You may never have heard of him although he has received a fair amount of national media attention in the past few years; he’s been a guest on Sixty Minutes and Oprah, he’s been on Today and all the other morning shows for being the president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone which provides education and other opportunities to disadvantaged, inner city youth, a program that President Obama sees as a model community project that he would like to see replicated in other cities because it has been remarkably successful.  Still, my guess would be that you never heard of Geoff Canada until now and I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard or him or paid much attention to him either except for the fact that he and I were in the same college class.  We weren’t close friends or anything but we did play basketball together for part of one season. 

          Anyway, in the article that I read he talked about how one of the saddest days of his childhood was when he was nine years old and his mother told him that Superman wasn’t real.  He was a fan of superheroes and up until then he thought that Superman represented immediate and dramatic salvation and hoped that someday Superman would arrive and fix everything that was wrong with the South Bronx neighborhood he grew up in, like he did on TV and in the movies, like he did in the comic books.  When his mother told him Superman wasn’t real Geoff burst into tears but he cites that experience as part of what made him want to be someone who changed things.  If Superman wasn’t going to do it, someone else had to.

          Reading this article though, made me think that for many it seems like their answer to Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am question?” isn’t all that different from who Geoff thought Superman was.  Loss of faith for many people stems from the fact that Jesus hasn’t flown in and fixed everything, he hasn’t healed every unexplainable illness, he doesn’t fly around the earth so fast that it causes the earth to rotate in the opposite direction thus reversing time and undoing bad things that have happened.

          What do you do when Jesus doesn’t fulfill the expectations of who you believe him to be?  In today’s gospel that’s kind of what Peter experienced.  It appeared that he had the right answer when he said, “You are the Messiah,” but in just a few verses he hears Jesus say to him, “Get behind me Satan,” because while Peter’s answer may have been correct, it wasn’t correct in the way that he thought it was correct when he said “You are the Messiah.”  All the talk about suffering and dying didn’t fit. 

          To be sure, Peter’s scenario is a little different than Jesus failing to perform like Superman, but maybe it’s not all that different.  Both are examples that shatter expectations and thus create questions, doubts, skepticism and disillusionment.  So what do you do?  One response, and it is the response of many, is to walk away from Jesus.  If he’s not going to perform the way I want him to, the heck with him; what good is he?  Another response, sometimes joined to the first response is like Geoff Canada’s; that is, if Superman, Jesus, isn’t going to do what we think he should, I guess we have to. 

          There is some legitimacy to that response.  The ELCA’s slogan these days is “God’s work; our hands” so there’s nothing wrong with concluding that you have a role to play in doing God’s work, in being Jesus’ hands in the world.  Faith isn’t just a call to worship; it’s a call to action too so that is a legitimate and useful response.

          Peter’s response though, represents another way.  To be honest I guess we have to say that we don’t know what Peter’s response was to Jesus’ rebuke of him following his own rebuke of Jesus because he wasn’t the Messiah Peter envisioned.  All we really know is that this wasn’t the last chapter for Peter.  It’s clear that he was disillusioned by Jesus’ words about suffering, rejection and death; he was no doubt hurt by Jesus’ rebuke; but that didn’t end it.  Peter didn’t walk away.  There are lots more stories about him, some favorable, some not so favorable; it’s a pretty bumpy ride for Peter but the journey wasn’t over and as the story finally plays out in the book of Acts, Peter becomes one of the leaders of the early church.  Despite his disappointment in Jesus, despite Jesus’ disappointment in him, the relationship continued.

          Part of what happened to Peter though is that he must have recognized that there were things that he didn’t know about Jesus, things that he couldn’t know.  I think that is an important part of any life of faith.  Like Peter we all have what we think is a correct answer to Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” question, in fact we would probably all agree with Peter’s answer, “You are the Messiah” although each of us may have different ideas about exactly what that means.  But if part of “You are the Messiah” means that Jesus is going to be like Superman, at some point you’re going to face disappointment.  At some point Jesus isn’t going to jump through all the hoops you set up. 

          Jesus is the Messiah, Peter was right about that.  What that means to me is that Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection is the one who tells me that I’m OK, that I’m a beloved child of God, that I’m forgiven even for the things about me that only I know or only Kathy knows.  The other thing it means to me is that Jesus reveals a God who brings about new life, new hope and new possibilities even from situations that seem hopeless, like death on a cross. 

After that, there’s probably a few more things I know but there is much that I don’t know.  I don’t all the hows of what I just said, I don’t know how it all happens but I believe it’s true and I’m thankful for the answers the church fathers and Luther and other theologians have come up with regarding the hows.  I can live without answers to all that I don’t know but I also know that I can keep asking, even pleading with Jesus to be the Messiah I want him to be.  Taking what I don’t know and what I don’t understand I can still be in relationship, endlessly in relationship with this Jesus, this God who doesn’t fit into any of the boxes we build for him, who doesn’t behave according to any set formulas, but who will in time, sooner or later surprise us with something new.  That’s what I know.

Is that the right answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  For me it is, right now, but you may have another answer.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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