Homily: Aug. 24, 2014

Proper 16, Year A: 24 August 2014 There are three clergy—a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, and an Episcopalian —who all end up at the Pearly Gates at the same time. It’s St. Peter’s day off, so Jesus is filling in and administering the entrance exam. “Don’t worry,” he says, “There’s only one question and it’s really quite simple: Who do you say that I am?”

The Lutheran steps forward and begins, “The Bible says…” But Jesus interrupts him. “Stop right there. I don’t care what the Bible says; who do you say that I am?” “Well, Martin Luther teaches that…” Again Jesus stops him. “Forget about Luther. I’ll ask you one more time: Who do you say that I am?” Rather sheepishly, the Lutheran replies, “I don’t know.” And with that a trap door opens under his feet and he falls to that other place.

Then the Roman Catholic steps forward and begins, “Church teaching says…” “Hold on,” says Jesus, “were you paying attention just now? Who do you say that I am?” “The Pope…” Whoosh! Trap door opens and he promptly falls through to that other place.

Now it’s the Episcopalian’s turn, and Jesus, rather exasperated at this point, turns and asks, “Right. One chance. Who do you say that I am?” The Episcopalian replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And then, just as a very relieved Jesus smiles and gestures for the Pearly Gates to be opened, the Episcopalian continues, “But on the other hand…”

So true, so true, isn’t it? I was at dinner with a friend not long ago, a good high churchman and solid member of a parish in St. Paul, who in the course of some rather interesting conversation at our end of the table, declared himself a nihilist. Now I suspect he was using the term somewhat loosely, because essentially it means “belief in nothing.” I don’t think that’s quite what he intended. Probably he means something along the lines that nothing we do matters and that there is no sure foundation for anything. Sad, either way. To believe in nothing; to feel that nothing matters. I can’t fathom it, myself.

And yet my friend continues to go to church. I think he enjoys the familiarity of ritual and the musical tradition that so often goes with high liturgy. I hope that these things, if nothing else, give him a sense of something larger than himself and his doubts. Well, not doubts, really; his claim of being a nihilist puts him beyond doubt. Say, rather, I hope he can somehow feel something larger than his negative certainties.

I rather suspect that there are many people like my friend regularly occupying pews all over the world. Good people whose intellectual tendencies make them lightly skeptical about various church teachings, particularly the statements we profess in the historical Creeds. Or whose life experience, generally touched by crisis or tragedy of some sort, has caused them to believe that God is at the very least remote and uninvolved with human suffering if not directly responsible. So they come to church and they find that for at least an hour a week they can lose themselves in the repetition of the liturgy, the singing and the music, the renewed ties of acquaintance. But don’t ask them to examine too closely what they believe or to make any public statements about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not devaluing these people. It’s an old truism that a preacher’s role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’d like to think that our Church as well can do both. Besides, not being a confessional Church, that is, not having a series of “sign here” statements that everyone must agree to, the Episcopal church has long been known as a place where a wide variety of opinions— especially theological positions—can exist side by side. As an extreme example, contrast the writings of Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark, who doesn’t believe in either the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Jesus, with those of Bishop Philip Jones, who upholds a literalist understanding of the Bible and opposes the ordination of women on scriptural grounds. Neither man is anywhere near the center of the Church; neither is particularly representative of the average lay- or clergy-person. But the Church makes room for both, and every one in between, even if the balance is somewhat precarious at times. Bp. Jones, for example, is now part of the break-away Anglican Mission in America,

My point is that we try to be a Church that has room for questions, has room for doubts, that allows individuals to make up their own consciences and live their own lives on these issues. And yet. And yet the question remains: who do you say that I am? Some things are foundational questions. Some things are bedrock issues. I’m not about to recommend for confirmation a young person or adult who cannot say, in some language authentic to them mind you, that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Anointed One of the Living God. And who could not then sit down at a dinner party or in a small group conversation and discuss their belief.

We who gather here are, after all, Christians, followers of the Christ, or, at the very least, seekers after him as a gateway to God. We are baptized into his life and death, marked as his own for ever, and we promise to seek and serve him in all people. Surely it’s not too much to expect us to be able to define what it is we’re doing, who it is we’re really following? Again, let me be clear that I’m not suggesting litmus tests of belief or pat answers and certainly not a strict one-equals-one acceptance of the Creed, which I have to deconstruct every time I repeat it. I’m very happy that we use alternative affirmations in addition to historical ones. We can wrestle those things out for ourselves, testing where the limits of faith are, or the borders of our denominational identity, and trying it all on for size. I think that’s great. In fact, I wish more people would actually willingly engage in such discussion and reflection. Wow, how dynamic and alive the Church could be!

Perhaps it’s also that I wish for people the hope and joy that faith, solid faith and a living relationship with Jesus as the Revelation of God, can bring. I want my friend to realize that the dark negativity he dwells on is neither the stuff of God or Christ. I want the intellectuals to understand that at the end of the day our speculative questioning is meaningless unless it has served to strengthen our faith and commitment. I want those who suffer to know that far from being the cause of pain God and Christ as God-with-us are our true balm in times of pain. Look again at today’s readings; look at all of Scripture, for that matter, and what it has to say. This is our heritage, and it is faithful and true.

Who is Jesus Christ…for you? Who do you say that he is? What do you tell others, or if you do not, why don’t you? What difference does it make in your life to call yourself a follower after Christ? By the way, I think it is the ultimate irony, a delicious narrative quirk of Matthew that Peter, who today confesses, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” will swear at the end of this gospel, this good news, “I do not know the man!” The one disciple who seemingly knows who Jesus is is the one who denies him at the critical hour of his betrayal and death. The author of Matthew makes a great play of this reversal, and Peter’s confession and the denial are enshrined in his memoir as a testimony to the best and worst of the human condition. It is, likewise with us, within our capacity to know Christ as a Way to the Living God, and it is equally within our capacity to deny that we know him at all. What a difference our choice makes, to our lives and to the world.

I make my prayer with the author of I Peter, who wrote: Worship Christ as the Lord of your life, and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you.