Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 21A)
Sunday, August 23, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (Minute 22:20)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“Do you believe in God?” That was the question one of my new softball teammates asked me early in this year’s softball season when he found out I am a pastor. I should note: our softball league has taken many Covid precautions as we play ball: we have to wear masks or face coverings at all times and there are no high fives with the other team when the game is over.   

I have played softball for nearly two decades and I’ve received lots of questions when people find out I’m a pastor. Most of the questions are public in nature:  What’s a Lutheran?  What do Lutherans believe? How similar is it to Catholicism? Fewer times, have I been asked about my own personal faith: “Do YOU believe in God?”

I didn’t sense any malice, judgment or agenda in the question, as if the question was “How could you believe in God?” Rather, I sensed it was coming from a place of curiosity, interest, surprise, as if my new friend’s social circle didn’t include people who made faith part of their life. Just as I don’t feel judged, neither am I judging my teammate for that.  If you look at the religious preference polls of younger people, increasingly the world we live in will be one where fewer and fewer people will have any relationship with the church.  It will fall upon the church to teach the faith in new, patient, and loving ways. 

But, my new teammate wasn’t asking about what others believed about God. Instead, he was asking me as Nathan, softball teammate, about my faith, about what I believed.

We find a similar question in today’s Gospel reading.

Today’s gospel reading marks what one commentator suggests is a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. “At this point,” the commentator writes, “Jesus turns away from interaction with the crowds, and the increasingly hostile leaders, to concentrate upon the formation of the disciples.” Another commentator notes this story is in the midst of several that “relate to the formation of the Christian church.”

Common to both observations, is “formation” that this story, and its central question, is about formation of disciples / formation of the church. The central formation question was this: “But, who do you say that I am?”

This was actually the second question Jesus asked the disciples – the first question was who the crowds said that Jesus was. At this point in his ministry, Jesus was being followed by crowds, people were talking about him, and people were forming opinions and judgments about who he was and what was going on. The crowds, however, didn’t get it quite right … John the Baptist … Elijah … Jeremiah … one of the prophets.

Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that the crowds got it wrong, because in a way they got it right: they sensed Jesus was a significant religious leader. And Jesus himself didn’t linger on the crowd’s wrong opinions about him, he just went on to the next question – the disciple forming, church forming question central to the story – But who do YOU say that I am?

Peter responded. And though Peter often got things wrong, this time Peter got it right: “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God.” In response, Jesus named Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church …”

One commentator suggests the possibility that Jesus’s response is less about Peter as a person, and more about the confession of faith. The church is not built on Peter as a human, just as the church never rests upon one person, one pastor, one committee. Rather, the church is built on the confession of faith that came from Peter’s mouth: the confession of Jesus Christ as Messiah, Son of the living God, on that confession, there the church – as the people gathered – is built, and that confession was prompted by the question:  “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Friends, the question of Jesus to the disciples comes to each one of us today.

The question comes to us to form and shape us as disciples and as church. For upon our response to that question, “Who do you say that I am” our lives as disciples, and our life together as church, is built.

What others say about Jesus is there for us to learn from, and it is important. The Holy Scriptures, the historic Creeds of the Church, the Lutheran Confessions – they all provide answers to the question of who Jesus is, and they are available for our edification, nurturing and formation. I post my sermons on my blog, we have two bible studies each week, we have a Word in Season daily devotional available – all of these are resources for you to learn who others say Jesus is.    

And while these are all important witnesses to which Christian disciples should learn from, at the end of the day, I wonder if less of the church is built on this public proclamation, and more of the church is built on personal testimony like Peter’s. On disciples answering the question, in lives of love and service: “Who do you say, that I am?”

I have had brilliant professors, pastors, and teachers who have taught me the faith and I give thanks for them. At the same time, the personal testimony of my Grandfather – who never talked about Jesus, but nonetheless on Sunday morning left the overalls he wore the rest of the week in the closet in order to put on his slacks and dress shirt to go to church; the testimony of my Dad who read to my brothers and me from a Children’s story bible when we were kids; the testimony of my Mom who insisted we needed to go to church every Sunday; the testimony of friends along the way who shared encouragements from their heart.

None of this was perfect doctrine, but it was love, faith, and hope, poured out of a sincere and genuine faith. These actions provided an answer to who Jesus was: Jesus was someone to give our time to, to learn from, to sacrifice for, and to receive love and encouragement from.  

This is not to suggest that personal opinions or experiences of Christ are more important than the public teaching of the Church. Carol Dempsey puts it this way: The common faith of Christians for centuries is Jesus understood as Messiah and Son of God, BUT the depth of one’s personal understanding of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God is a gift and grace. When this public teaching becomes our personal faith – and this personal faith becomes our public confession – that is gift and grace upon which the church is built.

In my public ministry as pastor I have preached and I have taught the public faith of the church.

I have spoken to you in this pulpit as Pastor Nathan with the authority you have given to me as a public minister of Word and Sacrament.Let me step out of that role for a moment, and answer as Nathan. 

Yes, I believe in God. 

I believe that God’s being is love.

I believe God’s love is revealed in Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ is grace, mercy, forgiveness, patience, and abundance.

Who do I say that Jesus is?  Jesus is my savior, my guide, and my grounding. Jesus is my savior, who quite literally, saved me from isolation and loneliness as a teenager, who greeted me with love, assured me of a place in his kingdom, and led me into a lifelong relationship with the church. As a teenager, I remember reflecting on Romans 12:2 (from our Second Reading today) … “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” I remember finding hope and peace in that verse – guiding me beyond the circumstance of life and grounding me in something bigger.

While I have a public call to serve the church, it stems from my private faith, and I could not imagine my life without faith. When I was on vacation in Hawaii earlier this year, I found a church to attend on both of the Sundays I was there, and I left both services filled and inspired. If I was not a pastor, I would attend church every Sunday, work towards tithing, and be an active participant in the life of the congregation.   

The reason I am passionate about racial justice is because a Jesus of love and grace could never be associated with such vile, venomous, hatred from the pit of hell racism that has been systematically, relentlessly, and satanically unleashed upon people of color in this country. Jesus as my guide and grounding challenges me to love more than I would want to love and to be more open to others than I can be in my own flesh. Jesus is love, God’s love revealed in the world. To be a disciple of Jesus is to live in love.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

This is not a test designed to produce the right answer; this is not a competition for the sake of comparison. Rather, the question is invitation: we are invited to know who Jesus is for our lives, for the sake of formation – that we would grow in peace, hope, and love as disciples; that we would grow in love, service, and joy as a congregation.   

Maybe you have doubts? Maybe you don’t quite know who Jesus is in your life? Maybe you have questions? Maybe there are aspects of the church teaching that trouble you? Maybe you don’t know how to answer that question?

To you, the Good News today, is that God wants to be known! Jesus is not some secret cult leader we have to go on a pilgrimage to find.  God’s love is revealed openly and publicly in Jesus Christ.

God’s love in Jesus Christ is made known in the scriptures, in the creeds, and in the confessions. Jesus is made known in the sacraments: in the water and word of baptism, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Jesus is made is known in testimony, in the witness of those who answer the question about who Jesus is for them. 

Today, and all days, God invites us to know God’s love proclaimed in Jesus Christ. God names us God’s beloved children forever in baptism, giving us the promise that God will never walk away from us. God assures us God’s presence with us even in those moments of doubt and disbelief, when we don’t know where God is or what God is doing.

As a gift of grace, may the Holy Spirit lead you in a fuller and deeper knowledge of God’s love in Christ. May the Holy Spirit lead you into a deeper understanding of the church’s proclamation of Christ, so that your personal understanding of who Jesus is for you may grow. With the words and deeds of your daily lives, may you echo Peter’s confession: that Jesus is Messiah, Son of the Living God. 

Thanks be to God!