August 23, 2020 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16A
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
A Christian. A believer. A disciple of Jesus. A follower of the Way. A member of Christ’s Body. Born again. We use lots of different labels to identify the followers of Jesus. Which one of them fits you? Maybe all of them. Maybe none.
I don’t know where you are on that mythical spectrum of conviction that reflects the breath of our congregational life. I don’t even know how one could express the complexity of the Christian faith in a rhetorical device as simplistic as a scale from 1 to 10. You might think of yourself as a Christian. Or maybe you think of yourself as a seeker. Or perhaps you’re just tuning in because you like what this church does in the community or because you have found this to be a friendly and welcoming congregation. Regardless, you’re here, and I’m glad you’re here. I trust that you’re here because you want to be, and, no matter why you’ve decided to join us, you are most welcome. You don’t have to be a Christian to take part in our worship, but today I want to talk about the ways in which being a Christian—in which being a follower of Jesus—affects our lives.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we see that when someone recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that person’s life begins to change dramatically. Jesus looked at his disciples and asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied with a range of options: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” In other words, the crowds were so impressed by Jesus that they likened him to the great religious figures of their tradition. But then Jesus turned the question back on them, and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” After that, everything changed.
This was a turning point, not only for Peter and the other disciples but for the entire Gospel narrative. This was the first time that a human being had identified Jesus as the Messiah—as God’s anointed one. For the first half of the Gospel account, Jesus had spent his time teaching, preaching, and performing miracles in order to show his followers who he really was—the one through whom God’s fullness had come to the earth. But, now that Peter had put all of the pieces together and recognized Jesus for who he really was, Jesus’ focus shifted.
From this moment on, Jesus began preparing for his departure by equipping his followers for what they would do in his absence. Notice what he said to Simon Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” With those words, Jesus began the process of handing over his authority to his followers. As soon as Peter identified Jesus as God’s Son, Jesus began giving him new work to do. And the same is true for us.
There comes a point in a Christian’s spiritual journey when that person’s focus shifts from trying to figure out who Jesus is to trying to figure out what that person is supposed to do because of it. For some of us, the realization that Jesus is the Son of the living God comes to us the way it came to Peter—in an instant. But, for many of us, coming to faith is an awakening that unfolds gradually over time. Regardless of how we get there, however, the result is the same. When we recognize who Jesus is—when we grasp that the one who ate with sinners and outcasts and wrestled with the powers of his day and proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign and died upon the cross and was raised from the dead is the one whom God sent to transform this world into the paradise that God has in store for us and all people—then we can no longer afford to think of Jesus as a great religious figure. In pursuit of God’s fullest dream for us and for our world, we must proclaim him as the ultimate authority of our lives, to whom our every thought, every word, every action, and every impulse belong. In other words, once we, like Peter, recognize who Jesus really is, we can’t go back to the way things were because we, like him, now have important work to do.
And what is that work? What does the life of one of Jesus’ followers look like? What do our lives look like when the reality of who Jesus is takes over? For each of us, the Christian life may take on different pursuits, but, collectively, that life is characterized by sacrifice. In particular, it looks like “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” The part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that we read today is his appeal to them that they might live lives that reflect the fullness of their faith. He has already outlined the significance of who Jesus was and what God has accomplished through him, and now he shows them what it means to live a Christian life: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
How often do you think of your relationship with God as one of sacrifice? Not the bloody, violent kind that is designed to appease an angry deity, but the generous, self-giving kind that is, at is heart, a full cooperation with God’s purposes. Think about the kind of sacrifice that a baseball player makes, when, instead of swinging for the fences, he lays down a bunt, knowing that he will get out but that, in the process, one of his teammates will get closer to home. Or think about the kind of sacrifice that a chess player will make—not as a trick to fool an opponent but as an intentional giving up of a piece in order to secure something more valuable in return. If Jesus really is the Son of the living God—the one through whom God’s fullness has come to the earth—what part of your life wouldn’t you give over to him, knowing that, whatever the outcome, it is in Christ that your best future lies?
If we believe that Jesus is who we proclaim him to be, our lives are no longer our own. You cannot agree with Peter—you cannot share the faith of Paul—you cannot proclaim Jesus as the Son of the living God—and only give back to God a part of your self. To believe that Jesus is God’s anointed one—the one through whom God’s purposes are being fulfilled—is to make more than a commitment of your intellectual or emotional capacity. It asks more of you than ten percent of your income or one day of your week. This faith we share consumes your whole being. If you think that that is asking too much, don’t give up yet. Keep exploring the Way of Jesus Christ. Walk that path until you discover where it leads—until you see fully who it is that beckons you to walk beside him. Because, when you do, when you recognize who Jesus really is, you’ll want to give him everything.