Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Way and the Answer

In ancient times, in the first couple centuries of the Church, Christianity was often known as the Way. Rather than describing yourself as a Christian, you might describe yourself as part of the Way. In places this may have been to avoid persecution, but more importantly, it recognized that to be a Christian, to be a follower of the Christ, meant that you were going somewhere. Being a Christian is not a static or a stagnant thing.

I bring this up because in many parts of the gospel, if you read the wider story instead of just a snippet, Jesus is shown to be moving like he's on a journey and he's going somewhere. This whole conversation we saw today took place "along the way." We're supposed to see in stories like today a sense of urgency. These stories form an invitation for us, Jesus is inviting us to join him on the way.

So, urgently, let's dive into this story. The first important thing to notice, and I've said this before, is that when Jesus says "Who do people say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?", he's not taking a public opinion poll. He's not trying to find the popular opinion so he knows what he needs to conform too, because not every answer correct. Jesus is his own man, he isn't whoever you want him to be. So he's asking these questions about the people's opinions to get them thinking along the right lines, to get them thinking about Jesus's identity.

And this question that Jesus poses to Peter, "But who do you say that I am?" everything hinges on this. Remember, he's not asking for Peter's opinion. If Peter gets it right, then his life will be swept along in a new direction, along the Way, to places he could never imagine. But if Peter gets it wrong, then spiritually he is stuck, spiritually he will have stepped off from the way to let other men take the reigns. Everything hinges on Peter's response.

So we run through the popular opinions, and then we come to Peter's famous answer: You are the Christ. So let's unpack this word "Christ." The word Christ means "Messiah," it means, "Anointed One." So a Christ, a Messiah, was expected according to Jewish prophecies. And in the Old Testament, all Jewish kings were anointed, and all Jewish priests were anointed. So some thought that the coming Messiah, the Anointed One, was going to be a king to lead Israel to freedom. Some thought he would be a powerful priest figure. Some thought he would be some sort of superhuman person. But the one thing no one would do is look at this small-town carpenter who until recently still lived with his mom, who now was being a bit of a thorn in the side of legitimate Jewish authorities, and say this is the Messiah. Peter says "You're the Christ," and the only reasonable response is, "And you're crazy."

But we know that's not how Jesus responds. The other gospel accounts of this story tell us that this is the point at which Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter, which means rock, and declares that the Church will be built on him. So we have the question: "Who do you say that I am?" And we have the right response: "You are the Christ." And we have the new mission: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church." This prepares Peter to walk on the Way with Jesus, so now Jesus can tell them exactly what the Way will entail, and it's not what they had in mind.

At this point he begins to teach them this Way will involve rejection, suffering, and death, and resurrection, and then Jesus is so bold as to phrase this as an invitation and a challenge: "whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Self denial and a painful, humiliating death, well gee Jesus, who could resist? But this is the offer he extends to each one of us. He never proposed any other way to follow him, he never said, "Whoever wishes to follow me must live for himself, ignore his neighbor, and do whatever he pleases." He never said that! The only way to follow Jesus is by denying yourself and taking up your cross, whatever that cross may be in your life.

But you don't willingly suffer self-denial to follow just anybody, and so the question that Jesus proposes to Peter he proposes to each one of us. Who do you say that I am? How you and I answer that question determines whether we will actually follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, or whether we'll just follow him as long as there's not a football game on. Who we say Jesus is determines whether we'll speak in defense of the poor and the weak, or whether we quietly go along with the crowd when the world wants to kill the unborn or support some supposed right to die. Who we say Jesus is ultimately determines whether we can find 60 minutes out of the 10,000 minutes in a week to spend time with him, or whether we decide that 57 minutes is enough and we ditch out after communion in order to beat Sheridan traffic.

And remember, when Jesus looks at you and says, "But who do you say that I am?", not every answer is valid, not every answer is correct. You can't look at Jesus and say, "You are the Christ, but you understand that I'm not at Church because hey, my football team is on." Jesus doesn't understand. You can't say, "You are the Christ, the creator of all life, but you understand that some life is really inconvenient, so I want to choose which life is worth allowing and which isn't." Jesus doesn't understand. You can't say, "You are the Christ, the creator of every day of my life, but you understand that I can't find 60 minutes to give back to you." Jesus doesn't understand.

When Peter tried to turn Jesus aside from the Way of rejection, self-denial, and death, Jesus gave perhaps the strongest found in the gospels, "Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do." If we get the answer wrong, if we think as human beings do and not as God does, then we step aside from the Way that God has prepared for us. The Way that God has prepared for us leads to the Cross, certainly, but it is only through the Cross that we get to the Resurrection.

So step up with courage to the Christian challenge, step up with courage to walking the Way. Jesus looks at you today and says, "Who do you say that I am?" If you've waffled on this question in the past, face it head on now. Answer the question honestly and correctly, and accept every invitation that comes with it. The first invitation is to take up your own cross, whatever it may be, and follow him. The second invitation however, the one that makes it all worth it, is to the Resurrection. The second invitation is to eternal life with him, and you can't have eternal life without first having the cross. So answer the question, receive the invitation, and walk the Way, the Way to eternal life.

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