Fr. Larry Parrish
August 27, 2023
St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Jesus’s disciples had been with him awhile when the story told in our Gospel text begins. They had listened to his teaching and tried to understand what they were hearing. They had witnessed miracles at His hands and tried to understand what they meant, too: miracles of healing, a couple of major miracles involving feeding a rock concert sized crowd using somebody’s lunch and had witnessed him walking across the water of Lake Galilee in a storm and then stilling that storm in an instant. Now their teacher had given them a pop quiz. He suddenly asked them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” --referring to Himself. The disciples, who had stood in crowds gathered to see Jesus and had been listening to people talk, came quickly back with some answers: “Well, some say John the Baptist; some say Elijah; Some say Jeremiah . . .or one of the prophets.” “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, who had the inclination, that some of us today share, of putting his mouth in gear before his brain was fully engaged, blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Playing with this passage—which by the way is a perfectly acceptable way of studying a story from Scripture—I can see the disciples doing eye rolls—“Ah! Peter just put his foot in his mouth again!” But this time ..Peter was right. Jesus (maybe hugging Peter) exclaims, ”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, (Greek for “rock—his Jewish name was Simon, which means “rock”) and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
The thing about Scripture is that it is a living document. When Jesus talks to his disciples in a Gospel story we can’t keep him at a 2000 year’s arm reach back in time, he is talking to us who say we belong to His Church today. When Paul writes a letter to the Church at Rome, he is writing to St. Mary’s, 13th and Holmes.
Jesus asks us both the question, “Who do others say that I am?” and “Who do YOU say that I am?” The answer matters, and it matters whether or not we answer both of these questions, and how we answer them.
The figure of Jesus looms so large in world history and people have been trying to make sense of the impact of his personality and actions, as well as His crucifixion and resurrection for the past two millennia. In fact, He is the reason we talk about two millennia, as it has been said, “He has split our calendar,” so that we talk about B.C. or A.D. Before Christ, or Year of our Lord. Pre-Christian Era and Post-Christian Era. He cannot be easily categorized, and there are some ways He cannot be categorized at all.
And even those who claim to be Christian and call Jesus “Lord and God,” cannot truly say just anything they want about him. Throughout history, well-meaning people, and not-well-meaning people have tried to superimpose on Jesus their own ideology and agenda. His Name has been invoked to reinforce the power of leaders of religious cults and personality cults. He and His movement have been invoked to subjugate anyone who isn’t white, straight, and male, justify slavery, and overturn governments with force or chicanery.
Throughout recorded history, It has been a human characteristic to define God as an extension of ourselves, and, accordingly, Jesus, as the human face of God, as well. It is not a new phenomena. As a wise priest I know, and am fond of quoting*once said, “God created us in His image, and we have been trying to return the favor ever since!” -Fr. Robert Layne.
It was an issue in the early days of the Christian movement, as Paul wrote his letters and mailed them to the new Christian community in Rome. He was reminding them that they might be Roman citizens, but that they weren’t to adopt Roman attitudes, ethics, and religious values as the way of Christ. In the letter read from today, he pleads with them, and us, to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. What we THINK is important. We are to give our bodies, i.e. our hands, feet, talents, abilities, to God so that we might love others as God has loved us, and that includes our minds, our intellects and our discernments, too. We are to THINK, really think—not blindly assume—about who God is and who we are in relationship with Him doing the best we can—“by the mercies—grace—of God” “according to the measure of faith” that God gives us. We are not alone. We are not without resources in doing this.
A good many of the resources are at hand every time we gather for worship. The reading of Scripture, the Church’s Book, is one. I think that the Sunday morning study here on the texts for Sunday is very beneficial to those participating. I think you have noticed that we are printing the texts of the readings in the service leaflet now. I like that, even though you can now more easily question me on what I didn’t say or whether you can’t see how I got what I said from what was written! I welcome after-sermon conversations!
Every Sunday after the sermon we stand and recite the Nicene Creed. It is a compilation of hard thought and hard fought- -for answers to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am.” It keeps us from reinventing the theological wheel each Sunday. The same wise Episcopal priest I quoted earlier once said, “We say the creed right after the sermon, because no matter what the preacher just said, we still “believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty . . . etc”! It centers us in the faith we proclaim. That doesn’t mean we have to understand every word of it—questioning and honest doubt are part of the thought processes that God has created in us to come to a deeper faith.
United Methodist Bishop, Preacher and Teacher of Pastors, (and, I think, closet Episcopalian!) Will Willimon tells the story of a time he invited an Orthodox Catholic bishop to speak to a class on basic Christianity he taught at Duke University. One of his students told the Bishop that he couldn’t recite the creed because he didn’t understand or believe all the parts of it. The Bishop told him, “Young man, it is not YOUR creed. It is the Church’s creed. You keep saying it until you come to understanding and belief!”
Then there are the stories and collects we find in our Lesser Feasts and Fasts book told and prayed at the weekday Masses here. We get acquainted with those who knew God and how they lived out of that relationship.
In the Mass, our souls are fed and our minds renewed by the Body and Blood of Christ that digests within us and courses through our veins. This is another great mystery that I have given up trying to understand and instead let myself experience. I learned a long time ago that there are some things that are true that can’t be shaken up in a test tube or proved by calculus.
This is a good place to mention an Anglican tradition of discerning who God is and who we are in His life: It’s an image of a “Three Legged Stool”. One of the legs is Scripture and another is Tradition. The third one is Reason. We are to apply our reasoning and what we know about what is true in the world, to interpreting both Scripture and Tradition for exploring who God is and who we are. Anglican priest and unintentional founder of Methodist, John Wesley, added a fourth leg, Experience. We use our life experiences and those experiences of God that seem to come from “outside” of our experience and yet manifest themselves “within” us, (Wesley’s “Heart strangely warmed” experience of grace and the love of God, for instance.) That is sometimes called Revelation. Jesus’ response to Peter’s blurted out affirmation was “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.
There is another great resource for continuing to think through, and continuing to affirm who Jesus Christ is for us, and we all sit in the midst of it this morning:
In the passage from Paul’s letter this morning, he goes on to describe the community of faith, the Church, as a body, as “one body in Christ and individually we are members one of another,” in which “all members do not have the same function” but each of us have a gift or gifts—abilities or talents—to share with others. Taken in the context of “the renewing of our minds” earlier in the passage, and further in the context of Jesus asking for responses to his question of ALL of his disciples, I see an extension of the usual definition of this image beyond pooling our talents and abilities to make the church “work” for God and others: I see it also as an affirmation that in any gathering of Christians, the members not only have abilities to share, but thoughts, insights, learnings and experiences of how God has become real in their lives, and how they experience what it means to be in Christ. I see this especially true about this church, St. Mary’s KCMO, and all of you who are a part of it. You not only have multiple abilities and gifts to share in the ongoing operation of this church, you also have knowledge and thoughts to share about the nature of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and how you have experienced the reality of His presence and the power of His love in your lives. All of the rest of then, can be gifted with your insights!
Who do I say that Jesus is? (Remember, “no matter what the preacher just said” I still believe . . . ! –and all insights need to be tested by Scripture and Tradition). I say that the Jesus of the Gospels is not just the Jesus of History, but God in Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The one who appeared in our shape and form to inhabit our humanity so that we could share in His divinity. As part of His shape and form we are His body, in this location here at 13th and Holmes, (but not limited by this location, this parish, or this denomination), to show forth His love and power, and the reality of His presence in the lives of those of us who proclaim him Lord, to others that are not only still struggling to answer the question, but to those who have yet to hear the question!
In the name of The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.