This is a rough transcript of a sermon given on August 23, 2020, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois. This sermon, like most I deliver, is given extemporaneously–that is, prepared in advance, but delivered without notes or text. For me, this allows more room for the Holy Spirit’s influence during the delivery and helps the message to be more conversational and contemplative, though at the expense of the readability of a transcript.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Who do they say I am?” That’s the question that Jesus asked his disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning. I’d like to turn that question around and ask, “Who are you?” “Who are we?” “Who am I?”
We live in a world full of labels. Everything is labeled, including people. We’re labeled by our gender. We’re labeled by our race. We’re labeled by where we live. We’re labeled by our income. We’re labeled by our talents. We’re labeled by our strengths, and we’re labeled by our weaknesses. Sometimes, we’re even labeled by our sins. Those labels come from society at large and from the people that we are around, but they also come from within our own hearts.
Today, Jesus asks, “What’s the label that they put on me?” And they said, “Some people think you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or some other prophet.” Jesus then asks a much more important question, which isn’t, “Who do others say that I am?” but, “Who do you say I am?”
I find it ironic that Peter is the one who answers this question, and he answers it so succinctly, and so strongly, and so correctly. It’s the “correctly” part is the part that impresses me the most because if you read through the Gospels and you read about the disciples’ interactions with Jesus, I think you can’t help but conclude that for twelve people that hung out with Jesus every day for three years and heard everything he said, they get the answer wrong–a lot. But not in today’s story. In today’s story, Peter hits the nail on the head! He says, “You are the Son of God. You are the Messiah.” Think of all the things that Jesus was labeled in his time–whether it was people thinking he was the return of John the Baptist or Elijah, whether it was people who thought he was an amazing rabbi, or that he was a rabble-rouser, whether it was people who thought he was just a healer or a miracle worker, or the people, like the Pharisees, who entertained that he was of the devil–there were all kinds of labels put Upon Jesus. But there was only one that had any real importance: “You are the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah, the Savior.”
There’s a lot that we can learn about the labels that we apply to each other and to ourselves. I think that is of particular importance in our world today. We are in one of the most tumultuous times in recent history. We are in a time of health uncertainty, of economic uncertainty, of political uncertainty, educational uncertainty. We’re not sure when the next shoe in 2020 is going to drop! We can be concerned about all those things and we can worry about the differences that we see in ourselves and in others, how we classify one another. The label that we should all be most concerned about is that we are each “a child of the Living God.” Not just that we as individuals are children of the Living God, but that every other person that you see here today is a child of the Living God–and they are every bit as good and, yes, as bad, as you are and as I am. And not just the people here, but throughout the entire world! Humanity was created in God’s image and each and every human person has that same “child of God label.” So when we interact with each other, do we do so using a label that we or someone else has assigned that person? Or do we interact with that person in the context of the most important label, that they are “a child of the Living God?” Under that label, we are all equally condemned by God’s Law and we are all equally redeemed by God’s grace and forgiveness.
I don’t say this to minimize the differences between one another here in this Beloved Community, or within the community at large, or throughout the world. Differences are what make the human tapestry so beautiful and so wonderful. As Paul talks about that in our reading from Romans today–he speaks of how each person has been gifted from the spirit with something unique, that each of us is a part of the body of Christ. And all the parts are important. The part of the body that is the mouth or brain are not more important than the foot or the little toe. They are all needed. Take a part of your body away and you will miss it no matter how minor you thought it was. Take away a person who is a part of the body of Christ in the whole body suffers there as well.
There is no question that we live in challenging times collectively as a Community of Faith and individually. There’s plenty of stress, there are plenty of worries, and there is plenty of blame. Ultimately, just as when Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter said, “You’re the son of the Living God, the Messiah!” so we are called to see ourselves as children of that living God. And regardless of our differences, regardless of the labels that we apply, we are to see others as beloved Children of the Living God.
At the end of the Gospel, Jesus turns to Peter and says, “On this rock, I will build my church.” It’s often understood that when Peter is told this, Jesus is referring to Peter himself as “The Rock” on which he will build his church. It is not surprising that people understand it this way because Peter’s name literally means “rock.” (If he were around today, we might call him “Rocky.”) But I often think that it is Peter’s confession upon which Christ builds his church. It is the confession that Peter gave when he said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” It’s that same confession that we all repeat together each week that is the rock upon which Jesus builds his church–that confession that he is the Messiah.
That, my friends, as it is every Sunday, is the Good News that we share. We could have had a god who looked down, saw a humanity that was wholly imperfect, and turned their back and walked away. Yet our God said, “No–they’re still worth loving. They’re still my children, and I will be their God.” When we have times of doubt, we can look to Isaiah who tells us to seek the rock from which we were hewn, where it is we come from. We are followers of Christ. We were hewn from the same rock that the disciples were hewn from. And that, my friends, is the label that we should care most about: Children of the Living God.”
May God’s peace that surpasses all understanding be on your hearts and minds.