One of the things that we always have to decide among ourselves on the diocesan Commission on Ministry, as we prepare to interview those who feel a call to holy orders, is which one of us gets to ask the mighty “Jesus Question.” You know, the same question that Jesus himself asks the disciples in our Gospel lesson: “Who do you say that I am?” One of our priests in the diocese is famous for asking candidates that question with skill and enthusiasm, but it is interesting—and perhaps disturbing—that even the most well-prepared and articulate interviewees often choke over their answers to this one question, their responses hesitant or hollow, sweat pouring from their brows. Like the disciples in our Gospel, it is easy for those of us who have done our homework to be able to list what other people say about Jesus: we can quote our favorite theologians or the church catechism easily enough. But to find the right words to proclaim, with authenticity, how Jesus is for us the face of the “Living God,” makes most of us wiggle and squirm.
For a long time, I would have been one of the biggest wigglers and squirmers of all. A Christian since birth, raised in church and Sunday School in the mainline Presbyterian Church, I certainly knew the words that I was supposed to say. But I didn’t believe them. I never had any problem believing in God, but Jesus, this man who was supposed to be God, too, and who rose from the dead … I just didn’t know what to make of him. When I was confirmed in seventh grade, I remember guiltily and surreptitiously crossing my fingers when it came time to say that I believed in Jesus, reasoning that God’s wrath and disappointment over my dishonesty were certainly less immediate and frightening than would be my parents’ anger and disappointment, had I declined to be confirmed.
Later on, as I studied Christianity as an academic discipline in college and graduate school, I struggled to make myself believe, taking refuge in abstract, philosophical words that could perhaps describe who Jesus was for me. I loved God; I had a deep prayer life; I was a faithful church-goer; I even felt a call to ordained ministry …. but I could not for the life of me answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” I thought that it was an intellectual problem, one that I could figure out if I just studied it hard enough. I was ashamed to bring up my lack of faith at church, and, to cover my tracks, I became very good at the disciples’ “some say” response: “Some say Jesus is Logos.” “Some say Jesus is the Good Shepherd.” “Some say Jesus is the liberator.” “Some even say Jesus is their friend!” After awhile, I got so used to quoting others that their answers became the crutch that I leaned on to navigate the language of faith—but at the center, the language was empty. There was no risen Lord inside.
So what happened, you are perhaps wondering? While none of us are ever free of doubt, how did I at least get to the place where I can stand up here in the pulpit week after week and honestly proclaim the risen Christ? It was God’s Word—Holy Scripture, delivered with a good dose of the Holy Spirit and a good dose of life knocking me upside the head—that transformed me from within. For me, it took studying the Good News in depth, breaking open the too-familiar, yet vague, language of the Bible, to find the strange, unsettling Jesus within. But that wasn’t all. I didn’t really know who Jesus was until, inspired by Scripture, I made the leap, until I gave up who I thought I was to let God use me for God’s purposes. I wanted a safe, comfortable life, a life lived on my terms. I didn’t want to be a priest, even though I had been called, and I didn’t want to follow a Lord who would make me do scary things. But when I studied the Bible, really studied it, it became clear to me that that is exactly what God calls all of us to do, including me: to hand over all of the things that keep us from following Jesus down that path to the cross—and to the resurrection. For you see, when we confess Jesus as Lord, as the Son of the Living God, we, like Peter, are at the same time giving up being fishermen on the cozy Sea of Galilee to be sent out into the world to proclaim—and to live—the Gospel. When we define who Jesus is, Jesus simultaneously redefines who we are. With Jesus, it is not just a matter of words, it is a matter of transformation. To proclaim who Jesus is, and to mean it, is to present our very bodies to God as a living sacrifice, as Paul writes in today’s lesson from Romans. It is to put our freedom into God’s hands, to let our minds be transformed into the mind of the Christ that we are confessing: to act like him, to follow him, to risk everything, as He did. To proclaim who Jesus is, is to admit that there is nowhere else to turn. As it says in the Gospel of John: after understanding what Jesus was asking, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. [Again] Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’”
Today’s New Testament lessons are not just about individuals, however; they are also about the Church, the Christian Community. For Paul, the Christian Community is Christ’s Body, each member necessary to the others and to the functioning of the whole. For Matthew, the Christian Community is a building, resting on a firm foundation of faith that cannot be moved or destroyed. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the great Temple building in Jerusalem was God’s home on earth, their connection with the Holy One. Matthew sees the new Christian Community as the new Temple, the metaphorical one that is destroyed and rebuilt “in three days” in Jesus’ resurrection.
If we twenty-first century disciples name Jesus as Son of the Living God, what name does God then bestow on us as a Church? How are we the rock, the foundation, of Christian community? First of all, the true Church, built on the unshakable rock of our confession, is not a Church of fear. It is not built of wood, carved with crucifixes whose suffering faces resemble our own. Neither is it a Church of pure reason, a church built of cool metal and straight lines, too slippery to contain God’s complexity. The Church of Jesus Christ is built of stone, and we are the stones. I picture it like those ancient walls and buildings made of “dry stone” construction that one often sees in Europe. Jagged stones are piled one on top of the other, held together by the clever placement of different sized rocks rather than by cement or mud or mortar. It has always amazed me that these piles of rock hold together at all, yet they are strong and steady, if a bit ugly and chaotic-looking, for someone who has grown up in smooth brick houses. We Christians, whether we are counted as individuals, parishes, or whole denominations, we are the sharp-sided stones wedged into one another, the small stones, the big rocks, the smooth flat pieces, that all together make up Christ’s Church. We are not always pretty, and never neat and even, but we are stronger than we look, because the wise hand of God has placed us where we are.
And Peter, when he receives the keys to the Kingdom, contrary to popular imagination, is not posted as guard at the Gates of Heaven. There are no Pearly Gates in our Gospel lesson. When Peter receives the keys, he is made manager of God’s house. He becomes the one who has authority over his Lord’s rooms and buildings. He is given the task of interpreting Jesus’ teachings in order to lead people into that narrow path at the end of which the narrow gate opens to the kingdom of heaven. As Ulrich Luz points out, Peter becomes the Guarantor of the [topsy-turvy] teaching of Jesus. If we are Peter, then we are a foundation that lays open God’s Word and Jesus’ revelation. We are a foundation that binds and looses through the power of interpretation.
Having just gotten back from viewing our Habitat for Humanity house this weekend, the shell of a house down on West 41st Street, I would venture to say that the true Church of Jesus Christ could also be described like a Habitat Rehab House: Nestled in the depths of need, stripped of the past, members using their gifts to build something new, to correct injustice, to alleviate suffering, removing those barriers between heaven and earth, opening the way to the kingdom of heaven on earth, our actions serving as guarantors, and interpreters, of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.