The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.
Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.
It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.
One question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.
And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.
We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”
And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.
This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”
I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.
Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.
Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.
I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.
But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.
I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.
But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.
If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.
But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.
And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.
But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.
I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.
We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.
For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.
We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”
Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.
I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.
I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.
It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.
So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.
And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.
I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.