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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/21/2011

Peter passed the test.  When Jesus surprised the disciples with a pop quiz Peter had the correct answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  He got it.  Never mind that every year on the Sunday after this text comes up, and it does come up every year, every year on the following Sunday Peter gets slapped down by Jesus for failing to understand; but that’s next week.  This week he’s the star with his response “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” 

Peter’s reward for responding correctly was Jesus’ statement, “On this rock I will build my church.”  That statement is important as it’s the Catholic Church’s basis for the role and the authority of the Pope who they understand to be the apostolic successor to Peter.  The “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” part of it is the basis for any jokes you’ve ever heard about meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates.  Catholic or not though and jokes aside, for all of us Peter’s response to “Who do you say that I am?” is significant in solidifying his place in church tradition. 

“Who do you say that I am?” is the key question concerning Jesus and with my teaching background I always have to note the progression of the questions Jesus asks here.  He starts with “Who do people say that I am?” which only requires the disciples to report what they’ve been hearing; but then he moves to “Who do you say that I am?” which is a higher level thought question.  With that, the answer’s not in the book as it were; you have to think about it.

If Jesus were asking questions today though, there might be one more added to the progression.  It would still start with “Who do people say that I am?” and as was the case in Jesus’ time you know that there are a lot of possible responses out there, ranging from “God” on one end of the spectrum then moving down the ladder to “almost but not quite God,” then through prophet, teacher, philosopher ending perhaps with “just another failed and martyred revolutionary,” but those are all answers to “Who do people say that I am?” 

The next question might be “Who does the church say that I am?”  Those responses would draw mostly from the creeds and confessions, statements that have been accepted as being “correct,” at least according to most branches of Christianity.  These answers are important to us.  They are what we teach as the foundation of our faith.  But still, like with the first question, to answer you just have to report what you’ve learned, what you’ve been taught.  It’s not the same as responding to the third question “Who do you say that I am?”  For that, who the church says Jesus is should be part of our understanding; that’s the foundation so we need to know what the church teaches.  But Jesus doesn’t end his questioning with “Who does the church say that I am?”  For all of us, he asks that final question which calls for more than reciting what we have heard or what we have been taught.  It means considering what we’ve heard and what we’ve been taught and determining what it means to us, personally.

As I said, Peter passed the test.  He was praised by Jesus for his answer, but also note what Jesus says after that; “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  Peter’s correct response wasn’t learned by studying or attending classes on Christian doctrine.  Jesus wasn’t giving lectures concerning his identity.  Peter’s response was about something else, something other than reason and intellect and that something is important for us too.

First though, this is really a very appropriate text for us on a day when we baptize an infant, Peter, and an adult, Joe, and on which we also give a formal send off to one of our own, Ann, as she leaves to begin seminary studies in Chicago.  In different ways, for all three the “Who do you say that I am?” question comes into play.

For Peter, today is mostly a beginning.  While it worked out nicely that St. Peter is the main character in today’s gospel, baby Peter still can’t answer the question of the day for himself.  Instead, others will speak for him in the words of faith that the church has given us.  Today is the beginning of Peter’s journey of faith and at home and in church he will begin to learn about Jesus and be in relationship with Jesus which will all have to do with his eventual response to “Who do you say that I am?”

For Joe baptism is a little different.  It is a beginning like it is for Peter, but it’s different in that you have chosen to be here, you’ve chosen to be baptized which in itself is part of your answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  At this point your formal answer will be in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the ancient baptismal creed, but just your presence here today is witness to a relationship with Jesus that has already started.  You are personally accepting his invitation to follow, not necessarily knowing where it’s all going to lead, but just by being here you are saying that Jesus is relevant for you.   You’re starting on a journey that will cause you to consider and reconsider “Who do you say that I am?” as you live out your baptism.

For Ann, I can tell you that you are about to engage this question in ways that will take you deeper than you’ve ever gone before.  In a lot of ways, with everything you do at seminary, this is the question that you’re always wrestling with.  You will deal with “Who do people say that I am?”  Even more, in church history and systematic theology and Lutheran Confessions classes you’ll deal with “Who does the church say that I am?”  You will learn about the creeds and confessions; you’ll learn what other people have said are the correct answers and what the church has declared to be the correct answers.  But you will also deal with “Who do you say that I am?” or to put it another way, you’ll deal with “What do those correct church answers mean to you?”

For you Ann, for Joe, for Peter, for all of us, that’s the question and as was the case with St. Peter, the answer may not be revealed by flesh and blood, reason or intellect. With “Who do you say that I am?” something else is going on, something more than flesh and blood, something spiritual.

We as Lutheran’s sometimes don’t do that something spiritual very well.  It’s Martin Luther’s fault; I’d like to blame him.  Luther was good at intellect and reason and study and that has become a rich part of Lutheran tradition. As Lutherans we think the faith and the path of intellect, the beauty and logic of wisdom and ideas and insight can be a very important part of someone’s faith journey.  I know it’s a big part of mine and I think to one degree or another it’s a part of many of you too; for example you like sermons that make you think, or so you tell me anyway.

Luther was helpful in allowing people to think, but despite the fact that he was deeply spiritual himself, he may have unintentionally caused us to miss out on the benefits of some other parts of church tradition. You know that Luther’s discontent with the Catholic Church was largely about the sale of indulgences, the idea that you could buy your way to salvation.  He was correct in that opposition, but that along with his advocacy of justification by grace through faith also led him to react negatively to anything that smelled of earning your way.  He was rightly suspicious of spiritual practices that were said to do that and were misused that way.  What got lost though as the Lutheran church evolved, was the fact that more properly understood those practices Luther was suspicious of were and still are valuable in getting us to a response to “Who do you say that I am?” 

An example of what I’m talking about is the kind of pilgrimage Kathy went on this spring.  In Luther’s time pilgrimages were seen as a way of “earning heavenly points” as it were.  If you saw the Luther movie that was out a few years ago you remember the scene of him making the pilgrimage to Rome and crawling up some steps on his knees, saying a Hail Mary or Our Father or something each step of the way because that’s what he’d been told he needed to do.  Seeing a pilgrimage as a way to earn your way is wrong, but seeing it as a path that could draw you closer to God and into a deeper relationship with God could have great benefit. 

I’m not suggesting that we all go on a pilgrimage across Spain, only that there are spiritual practices we can engage in that can move us toward a more personal answer to “Who do you say that I am?”  When I was gone a couple of weekends ago it was to begin a two year program that deals with this as I think it’s a need in my life.  I’m good at the thinking part, and I like it, but it feels like something’s missing.  My hope is to find ways to share what I experience in this program with any of you who might want to follow along and go deeper in your own spiritual life.

In preparing to teach the Lay School class on the Prophets for this fall I came across a quote by an old Jewish scholar named Abraham Heschel who said, “An idea or a theory of God can easily become a substitute for God, impressive to the mind when God as a living reality is absent from the soul.”  What we all want, I think, is that experience of God as a living reality, not just an idea or theory.  We can’t make it happen, but there are practices that people of faith throughout the history of the church have found helpful in encountering that living reality.

So…whether it’s Joe and Peter and Ann who are at very significant marks in your journey, or if it’s any of the rest of us where ever we are, we can draw from the experience of others as we find our own way, our own response to “Who do you say that I am?”

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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