Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Glimpsing The Big Picture
On Friday, the church remembers and celebrates the Confession of St. Peter, the moment when the rock on which Jesus would build his church first became the foundation that Jesus saw within him. "Who do the people say that I am?" Jesus asked his disciples. "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets," they replied. "But who do you say that I am? Jesus asked. And Peter's answer wasn't just a correct assessment of who Jesus was; it was a miracle, a God-inspired epiphany that we stop to remember. And it is the source of that recognition that makes Peter's confession something to celebrate.
Have you ever tried to convince someone of something they didn't want to believe? Maybe you pursued a romantic interest who didn't share your feelings. Maybe you tried to teach a child that, even though you needed to discipline him, you did so out of love and the best interests of your child. Sometimes we want someone to see what we see and know what we know but, no matter how hard we try, we cannot get that truth into their heart and mind and spirit. Hopefully, in time, that truth becomes clear--in part because of the foundation we have laid but also because of that spark that comes to that individual through experience and insight and, occasionally, divine inspiration.
When I was first ordained, I joined a team of parishioners from St. John's in Montgomery, Alabama, on a mission trip to post-Katrina New Orleans. At that point, no one was rebuilding, but many homes needed to be gutted--stripped to the studs. The City had declared that any unoccupied homes that were not gutted were presumed to be abandoned by the thousands of people who had fled the Crescent City with no plans to return. Many of the residents who intended to stay, however, did not have the physical ability or the family or economic support structures in place to help them rip out all of the moldy plaster, moldy carpets, ruined wiring, and broken appliances they needed to get rid of in order to keep their homes. So our team of eager volunteers went down to work with the Episcopal diocese to help out.
One evening, after a long, hard, hot day of work, we were closing up a job site before we quit. Tools needed to be picked up. Floors needed to be swept. And window openings, which had been uncovered to allow ventilation, needed to be boarded back up. I stretched my hands above my head to try to nail a sheet of plywood over an opening, but it was a little too far to reach. The women on either side, who were standing on ladders, holding the board in place, encouraged me to go inside and get a step stool so that I could reach. But I didn't want to do that. Someone else was probably using it. And it was time to go. And I could almost reach it. So I told them to hold it steady and I would stretch as far as I could and drive in the nail. I reached back with my 16oz claw hammer and swung it toward the nail and hit my thumb with all the force I could muster. "Son of bi***!" I yelled out instinctively, forgetting for a moment that I was a newly minted clergyperson surrounded by two parishioners. I blushed. They laughed. I apologized, but one of them said, "Please don't apologize. You've been so uptight that no one felt like they could have fun. It's nice to know you're not perfect."
It didn't matter how much I wanted people to relax around me. Actually, I'm a funny guy who enjoys inappropriate jokes and blurring the lines a little bit between priest and friend. But no matter how much I wanted the people around me to know it, it took a curse word to break the ice and get that point across in a way I couldn't on my own.
Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do the people say that I am?" By this point in Matthew's gospel account (Matthew 16:13-19), Jesus has done almost everything he can to show his followers who he truly is. Miracles, sermons, parables, and daily interactions all pointed to his identity as the Son of God, but no one could see it yet. After the disciples gave him a range of possible answers, Jesus narrowed the question and pointed it directly at them: "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Peter got partial credit for that remarkable answer--for being the first person to make that connection--but Jesus let them know where that answer really came from: "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, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."
Who do you say that I am? Peter had an answer, but it didn't come completely from him. God had revealed the truth to Peter, and Peter, as a vessel for that revelation, became the rock on which the church was built, the one to whom the keys of the kingdom were given. And where did that foundation come from?
God uses us not because of what we know or what we see but because of what God can show us. As vehicles through which God's reign becomes manifest on the earth, we are the ones who are charged with enacting the transformation of this world into the kingdom God intends it to be. But how in the world are we going to do that? We can barely dream it, much less make it a reality. The answer is by following Jesus. Like Peter, we follow him because we know that he is leading us into truth even before we can see the whole truth. In him, we see the powers of death and darkness overthrown. In him, we get a glimpse of what our lives and the lives of those around us could be. We don't have to see the whole picture because seeing the whole picture isn't up to us. That's God's vision. Our job, like Peter, is to pursue that vision through Jesus Christ until God reveals it to us.