Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The power of our confession



When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Paul’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I’m really excited to be here, because whenever you’re ordained in the Diocese of Texas they send you to Curate Camp once a month to be mentored, and Chuck runs that program and played a pretty big role in my formation as a priest. And so aside from just liking him, I have a lot of respect for Fr. Chuck and so to honor the role he’s had in my life, I decided to grow this beard as a tribute. Sadly, I spent a little more time on the beard than the sermon.

What I’d like to offer this morning are some thoughts on today’s Gospel, where Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. That’s right, Peter – who always misses the point, who speaks before he thinks, who tries to walk on water – Jesus gives Peter power. He gives him authority. He gives him a mission. Now remember, Peter’s that guy who cut off someone’s ear and denied Jesus in his time of need. And Jesus gives the keys to Peter.

You see I, too, was once handed a set of keys I didn’t deserve. It was my sixteenth birthday. And they were keys that, in theory, enabled me to exceed a speed of 100 miles per hour. And at sixteen I tested that theory a lot. But I’m not sure who was less mature – adult Simon Peter or adolescent John Newton – but I got keys to a car and Peter got keys to the kingdom – a symbol for power, authority and mission. And so here’s the question I’d like wrestle with this morning. As a church, what’s the basis of our authority, and second, what’s the nature of our mission?

Well, let’s just go ahead and be clear that our authority is not connected to our merits. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I can be pretty selfish, stubborn and sinful. And so to be a Christian is not to stand in this world from a place of moral superiority, and the people Jesus had the most beef with were the legalistic Pharisees who thought that they could. Perhaps my favorite quote of all time comes from St. Augustine, who was once asked by a seeker what to expect if he went to a church. Augustine responded, “Drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, and assiduous clients of sorcerers.” Now, I’m not saying you should put that on your website, but Augustine’s point is worth noting. Jesus doesn’t give us the keys to the kingdom because we’re good. But how do we get those keys?

Well, in today’s Gospel Jesus asks his disciples a question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And as they begin to tap dance around Jesus’ question – “some say this, others say that” – Jesus cuts to the chase and Jesus gets personal. “Yea, but I’m asking you – who do you say that I am?” You see, there’s something about this question that forces us to take a stand.

As a church, we need to always be asking this question – what are we clinging to as the basis of our authority? And if today’s Gospel tells us anything, it’s that what makes Jesus’ church a rock is not our record. It’s our decision to confess that Jesus is Lord. In fact, a friend recently told me that the words decide and homicide share the same root. And his point was that when we decide for something we at the same time have to decide against, or kill, something else. And that’s what Jesus is asking his disciples for in today’s Gospel, a decision, he wants them to take a stand, which is exactly what Peter does. “You are the Messiah,” he says, “the Son of the Living God.”

I am convinced that there is only one thing we can cling to as disciples of Jesus Christ – our confession that Jesus is Lord – that, and nothing else, is the power we take into the world. And I’m obviously not talking about the kind of power that’s so prevalent in our world. I don’t mean power that’s coercive or violent or self-seeking. I’m talking about the power that’s unique to the Christian Gospel – the power that’s revealed in a Messiah that came not to conquer but to be conquered; that came not to be served but to serve; that came not to judge but to be judged. I’m talking about the power of Jesus – a power that’s unleashed when we answer His question. Who do you say that I am?

And for the record, this is not a question that Jesus asks us only once. It’s a question that Jesus asks us every day of our lives precisely because He wants us to always be taking a stand – not so much on doctrine, but on discipleship. Because like my friend said, the words decide and homicide share the same root, which means that whenever we decide for Jesus, something else inevitably dies – like the idea that we’re in charge, or that we take care of ourselves, or that we even know what’s best for us. In other words, to confess with Peter that Jesus is Lord is at the same time a decision to confess who isn’t Lord: us.

But with that confession comes a mission. “On this rock,” Jesus says – the rock being our confession – “I will build my church.” Now, when Jesus talks about building His church, Jesus is not talking about a building, or an institution, a denomination or a club – He’s talking about a people; a people that know the power and authority that come with confessing His name, and who consistently choose to live in this world relying on His generosity, His wisdom, and His mercy and not on themselves. In fact, the Greek word translated church is ekklesia, which literally means “an assembly of people called out.” And so to be part of that one church that Jesus Christ is building is to be among the assembly of his disciples called out into the world with a counter-cultural, confession: there is one Lord, one Messiah, one Son of the Living God who is in control of my life and this world – and thanks be to God, it isn’t me.

You see, there’s a reason this confession is so important and live giving. We live in a world that’s bought into the myth of self-sufficiency, which runs completely counter to the Christian witness that we’re utterly dependent and in desperate need of the salvation – the wholeness – that only God can give. I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the line we bought into the lie that if we just work hard enough we can build the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfect life and make ourselves whole. As the late Henry Nouwen put it,

“The world around us is saying in a loud voice, we can take care of ourselves. We do not need God or the Church. We are in control. And if we are not, we have to work harder to get in control. But beneath all the great accomplishments there is a deep current of despair. Broken relationships, boredom, and depression fill the hearts of millions.” In other words, what I think Nouwen is saying is this. You and I were not meant to bear the burden of Godhood, and the first thing God asks us to give up when we confess Jesus as Lord is the burden that comes with trying to be our own.

And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I’d offer as your mission to the world. If only to yourself in the recesses of your heart, decide to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and decide to meditate on what that means for your life. Because every single time we decide to confess that Jesus is Lord there is at the same time a homicide. And what has to die in each one of us is that false notion that we’re in control of our lives, or that we’re perfect, or that we can make ourselves whole if we just try hard enough.

And so let me end by asking you this. Are you frustrated? Burnt-out? Anxious? Angry? A little tired from trying to be your own Lord? There is so much power, so much authority, that comes with knowing we don’t have to please, perform or perfect our way into the Kingdom of God but that it always comes as a gift – not because we’re good, but because God is. Like Simon Peter, God gives us the keys to his kingdom every single time we make our confession. But then again, we all must decide for ourselves. Because some say this and others say that, but who do you say that He is?

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