Ezekiel 47:1, 6-9, 12; Matthew 16:13-20
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. He has already asked them who others say that he is, and they’ve responded with “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets;” but then he asks them who they say that he is, and Peter responds with, “the Messiah, the Lord.”
We’ve already said some things about who Jesus is this morning in the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed was originally compiled from statements people made at their baptism. They would confess loyalty or belief in God the Father and Creator, God the Son in Christ, and God the Holy Spirit— three persons, one God. And eventually, these confessions got put together into a creed (after a lot of arguing about what should be in it!) Did you notice what we confess about Jesus? We call him Lord— stating the authority he has in our lives; we state that he is the Son of God; we state that he was born and that he died and that he rose again. And that’s a lot. But isn’t it curious that his entire life is signified only by a comma? He was born of the Virgin Mary, comma, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried... If we didn’t know anything about him, we may think that he died as a child since there is nothing in there about his life or his ministry— about the Way that he established.
This would’ve been shocking to the Gospel writers. There are four Gospels in our Bible, the four books that tell about Jesus’ life, and in the synoptic Gospels— Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the whole focus is on the way of life that Jesus establishes. The whole focus is on the Kingdom that Jesus keeps pointing out. The whole point is that Jesus has come to help people see the God that he knows so well and wants us to know too. Those early disciples after Jesus died and rose from the dead were known as “People of the Way” because they followed the example that Jesus had set out for them. They called Jesus “Christ” and “Lord” because they were reorienting their lives around Jesus— around his teachings and understandings of the Kingdom of God. In Acts, a book written by one of the Gospel writers, we see this picture of the early church as its getting formed and people are feeding the poor, sharing their resources, and visiting those in prison. The whole focus is on living with God’s Kingdom here and now. Rita Nakashima Brock, in her book, Saving Paradise, points out that for the first 900 years of Christianity the focus of the early Christian community is on paradise that can be found here and now— on God’s Kingdom come to earth among us, and working with God to make that Kingdom come to life even more by taking care of one another and the world. Jesus taught his followers that God’s Kingdom turns everything upside down including our expectations of who God is. Think of the beatitudes where Jesus told the poor among him that they are blessed in God’s eyes; that the meek right in front of him will inherit the earth; that the peacemakers will be called children of God.
Think of what Jesus proclaimed as he preached in his home synagogue— that the words of Isaiah were being fulfilled in their presence— that he was there to proclaim release to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; to let the prisoners go free. This is The Way that those early followers of Jesus, the disciples and the apostles, were trying to live out with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And because they were breaking down every social norm, every political barrier, because they were challenging the powers that be of their time, they were deeply oppressed and even in their oppression they kept proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here and now— that paradise is for us today— found in community. And they gave their lives to following the Way of Jesus.
And yet none of that is in our creed.
In the Gospel of John, the latest written Gospel, there had been enough time to build a theology around Jesus— to express what those first followers hadn’t put into words yet. In the Gospel of John Jesus is the Word— the breath and life of God that has been present since the beginning. Jesus is the one in control, the one who has everything perfectly planned out. The Gospel of John is filled with signs and wonders, revealing time and again that Jesus is the Christ. You can see this very bluntly on the cross. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus calls “Why have you forsaken me?” when he is in agony on the cross. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus, on the cross takes the time to tell a disciple to care for his mother; tells the soldiers he is thirsty in order to fulfill the Scripture, calls out “It is finished.” Everything is for a reason. Everything is for a purpose. Everything is planned out by God and consistently Jesus says “I Am” as a constant sign that he is one with God.
And yet little of that is in our creed either.
And so, as 21st Century Christians, we are tempted to ask, “Which one is more accurate? Which Gospel writer got it right? Which one is correct?” But that would be an unhelpful question; because our Church Fathers, as much as they wanted something concise and specific, like the creed, were wise enough to keep four of the Gospels— four ways of telling the story; four ways of understanding Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. They had different understandings of whether heaven was here already or something in the future; they had different notions of exactly who Jesus was and is for us today.
Some of you who are reading the book, If Grace is True got to the last two chapters and wondered if I have lost it completely. The authors of our book redefine what it means for them to call Jesus Savior and Lord and they take a wide step outside of mainline Christianity. So I want to say this as plain as I can— when we read a book as a congregation, we are not reading it as though it is our United Methodist Catechism. We are not engaging a topic or a conversation because I want you to go home and memorize it and claim it as your own. In other words, I am not having you read something because I am dictating to you what to believe. That is not what this is about. If you want to come to a Methodist 101 class or a church history class or something else, then I can lecture to you. But that is not why we have a church book read. Instead, I see the reading of these books as a church to be a time when we can explore what we believe; when we can question things about our faith that maybe we’ve never questioned before; when we can hear someone else’s ideas about what their faith means to them. My hope is that you’ll gain from those conversations. It is never my intention to take something away from you. So hear me when I say, that just because we read a book as a congregation, that does not mean that I expect you to agree with it or that we as a United Methodist Church agree with it. It’s meant to begin a dialogue so that we can talk about what we believe in and what we don’t and why that matters.
The authors of our book, If Grace is True, stepped outside of my own theology. They question the necessity of Jesus being divine, while I firmly believe in Jesus as the Son of God. But I still think it’s worth reading. And I’ll tell you why. Because as people of faith who want to share the Gospel, it is important that we know what difference Jesus makes in our life. We are followers of Jesus, Christians— which means “little Christs.” And whether we are following in Jesus’ Way or whether we are following Jesus the Christ, both paths give Jesus authority over our lives. And for me, that’s what matters the most— that Jesus comes into my life and reorients everything to line up with God’s Will; that when Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” I am able to say, “My Lord and my God” because my life has been transformed through Christ. And it is by living my life as a reflection of Christ’s life, that I am able to see who I truly am and to know that I am loved.
And if I am truly loved, then by God’s grace, I can trust that whatever comes next will be a gift from the God who made me and loves me. Never for a moment do I think that my salvation rests on my own belief or my own faith or my own works— after all, look at who Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom to.
Peter is the only one who has the boldness to respond to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?” And in that instant, he responds by saying, “You are the Christ;” but Jesus doesn’t let him have his gold star, even in that moment. Jesus tells Peter that the only reason he knows this is because God has shown it to him— not even knowing Jesus is Christ came by Peter’s own efforts. And then Jesus says to him, “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom. Anything you fasten on earth with be fastened in heaven. And anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” And then, ironically, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anybody that he is the Christ.
Over the years, this passage has been translated as I will give you the keys to heaven. So that in every joke about going to heaven, the set up is always that we meet Peter at the gate. It seems like a promotion for Peter, an honor. Jesus calls him “the Rock,” the one on whom the church will be built. And it seems impressive at first, until you remember that this is Peter. Peter is the one who’s always got his foot in his mouth. Peter is the one who asks Jesus to let him walk on water too and then freaks out when it happens. Peter is the one who suggests that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus should build houses on the mountain and stay there. Peter is the one who doesn’t want Jesus to talk about what’s going to happen to him and so just four verses after calling Peter “the Rock” Jesus calls him Satan and tells him to get behind him for looking at things from a human perspective instead of from God’s perspective. Peter is the one who will deny Jesus at least three times. And maybe, as we wonder why Jesus picked Peter, we can be a bit relieved because it’s Peter, after all. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus gave him the keys because he knew that he’d have to let the rest of us in. Maybe it was because later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection when Peter is trying to be the rock, to build the church, to carry on in Jesus’ Way, he has a dream and God tells him that the Kingdom of God isn’t just for Jews at all and Peter relearns what it means to follow Jesus— to follow this God that turns everything upside down.
Ultimately the reason I wanted us to read this book, is not so much about heaven at all, it’s about how we’re going to follow Jesus here and now. But I think the two are inextricably linked. There are some people that are motivated by the idea of hell, and they go around sharing the Gospel because they believe they are saving people from hell. I know this because a few of them have tried to save me too! That’s never resonated with me. Maybe I don’t fear God enough. All I know is that I trust God completely, and that’s not just about this life. I trust God completely with whatever happens to me after I die.
So my motivation isn’t about saving people from hell. I’m comfortable leaving that job up to God. What I’m not comfortable with, is that I find that if we feel we can judge who’s going to heaven and hell, than we also feel we can judge who is right for our church. Once we begin closing the door for people and their eternal lives, than often what we do is we begin closing the door on them in this life. And I don’t want to be a part of that. I want this community to be a place where all are welcome. Whether you are a saint or sinner today, you are welcome. Whether you believe or have grave doubts, you are welcome. Whether you are living the life you’ve always wanted, or you are looking for something else because you can’t manage it on your own, I want you to know that you are welcome here and that you are loved. Because I can’t manage it on my own. I don’t have enough grace for those I have a hard time loving. I don’t have enough forgiveness on my own or enough patience for my kids. I need Jesus. I need God to intervene in my life and extend grace to me, and help me extend grace to others. And I want this to be a place where grace runs rampant in the aisles; where we err on the side of grace, because we know deep down that we need that grace too and that ultimately God loves us no matter what.
There are enough places in this world that keep people out; that build walls to divide us; that shame us and tear us down to live as a shell of who we are created to be. Jesus came to break down those walls and to bring us together. And to bring us to God.
In the book of Ezekiel, God shows Ezekiel a vision of what God desires for us. In this vision Ezekiel sees the Temple— the place where the people believed God lived; the place people went to gather and worship as we have come today. And from that Temple was a river that flowed out of the Temple. Wherever that river flowed, what he saw was life— trees blooming, crops growing, people drinking from the water, life flourishing.
As God’s church in this world— as the body of Christ, we are to be connected to the stream of living water; and we are also about connecting others to that same stream. Christ desires for all of us to have life. Christ desires for all of us to know we are loved. Christ desires for all of us to be one with God as he is one with God so that we can have life— in this world and the next.