Who Do You Say that I Am?
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. Matthew 16:13-20
At this point in the gospel story, Jesus has spent nearly three years with His band of disciples. By day they have walked many dusty miles together and they have bedded down many nights under the stars. They have endured many hardships, suffered many insults, faced much opposition, shared many meals and have laughed and cried together on many occasions.
They have bonded and become intimates in so many ways. He knew them and He sought to have them know Him. Along the way He endeavored to leave no stone unturned in sharing with them, both in the words He spoke and in the actions He took, the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, as it had drawn near to them, in its height, in its breath and in its depth, in His person, in His friendship and in His love.
And so at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus put Himself to the test of their recognition. He puts the hard question to them. After all you have heard and seen during these past three years,“ Who do you, say that I am?”
After a few futile attempts by several of them to identify Him as one of the great prophets returned from the dead, Peter musters the courage to blurt out his confession of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Wow!
This was the single most powerful identification that could be ascribed to Jesus. It was Peter saying, “You are the One for whom the world has been waiting since its creation. You are the One in whom the patriarchs hoped. You are the One whose coming the prophets foretold. You are the One for whom the people have longed, yearned and desired. You are the Promised One. And as I gaze upon you, I believe, with all my heart, mind and soul, that promise has been fulfilled in you.”
Peter makes his confession of faith, and from that moment his life is necessarily changed forever. Though he falters and stumbles along the way, and at one critical juncture he sins the great sin of his denial, in the end, Peter too, will be crucified – his love too will ripen to that place of total self giving.
It is impossible to genuinely confess faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God and to remain unchanged by that confession and not have the cross appear on one’s personal horizon as a real possibility. Oh, it is possible to mouth the words of faith and to make no real commitment. But it is impossible to genuinely believe in our hearts that Jesus is the Anointed One and go on with business as usual.
When faith in Christ is confessed for real, some streets are most definitely closed but gracefully some boulevards are wondrously opened. There are some paths that disciples of the Kingdom cannot and do not choose. And there clearly are ways forward that they are bid and even constrained to go. For to give one’s heart to Christ is to live in and from a radically new place. It is to live from a place that the world simply does not understand, does not value, and even opposes, often, with the greatest vehemence.
We are here to be once again bathed in the love of Christ in Word and Sacrament. And we are here to offer an ever more deeply committed response of “love in kind” to that love with which we have been loved. We are here to renew a genuine confession of faith in Christ and to be sent forth to do the work that we have been given and gifted to do.
At each celebration of the Eucharist the question once put to Peter is put to us. “Who do you say, that I am?” And if we dare make his response, our response, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God,” then paths close and boulevards open and life is changed forever.
Sometimes Christians don’t seem to get this. They want to hold on to the world, its wisdom and its ways. But to put on the mind of Christ and to have our hearts beat with the very same rhythm as the divine heart is to set aside the world’s way of thinking and the world’s self limiting capacity for love.
And love is, was, and will always remain, what it is all about. No matter what the circumstances in our personal lives or in our communal lives, our confession that Jesus is the Christ will always inform our response, in the direction of self-giving love, no matter what the cost.
Each day, as I drive to church, I take a left hand turn off Route 32 at the Alms House. The street along which I then proceed is lined with houses sporting signs that protest RUPCO’s plans to develop that property into lower income housing. Given the Kingston demographic, I would have to imagine, that the majority of those houses are owned by white middleclass homeowners who, if they identify with a faith community, would identify as Christian. The city’s demographics also indicate that nearly one third of Kingston’s residents live below the poverty level and that the need for low-income housing is not being met. If polled I am sure the residents who oppose the development would agree that low-income housing should be made available, however, not in their backyard, and not at the feared cost of a reduction in the valuation of their own properties.
That the gospel underlines God’s preferential option for the poor cannot be disputed. That the gospel also enjoins upon the church and its members a responsibility to serve the needs of the poor, as a priority, is not also up for debate. “I was without a home and you gave me shelter”, is one of the benchmarks that Jesus sets for the final judgment in His parable of the sheep and the goats.
Akin to protecting our real estate assets are the arguments made for securing our borders. Geographic isolationism and economic protectionism are not gospel values. A secure border is not a priority of the Kingdom of God. The safety and well being of the human person, in this case the immigrant or refugee takes precedence over any interest in national security. Compassion for immigrants and refugees is an essential for Christians. Its alternative is never an acceptable option. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”, is another one of those benchmarks for the final accounting.
Two Saturdays ago I received a call from a friend for some assistance for a stranger. My friend asked if I might drive to the Salt Point Exit on the Taconic and help a young black man by giving him a ride to the Poughkeepsie train station. He had been stopped by a trooper as he was driving north on the parkway from his home in the Bronx. He was neither speeding, nor was his automobile safety-compromised in any way, as he was not ticketed for either such offense. The officers detained, questioned and search his car for two hours. They discovered that the automobile insurance was not in his name. They had the car impounded and left him in the parking lot of the Agway store, where my friend found him in tears. His only way out would have been to do something illegal, namely, hitch-hike to Poughkeepsie. One could easily suspect the stop to have been a case of racial profiling.
As I explained to the head of the division when I telephoned last week to report this incident, I was no so much concerned that the young man had been stopped, or even that his vehicle had been impounded, if this is ordinary police protocol. What distressed me was the sheer lack of basic human decency in the officers’ not discerning whether or not this young man, who was clearly out of his element and a great distance from his home, had any way to get home. It seems to me that we almost daily receive information that must move those who confess Jesus to be the Christ to take whatever actions we can to see to it that law enforcement agents of every stripe are made to engage the public from a posture of respect as they discharge their essential service.
This week, here in Kingston, there was a report of yet another incident of the police using excessive force against an unarmed young black man. The young man was handcuffed, taizered and pepper sprayed and wrestled to the ground for an open container and littering and, so far, no other identified actions. While he was breaking the law the police response could easily be seen as over the top. And this event happened, as Pastor Modele Clarke observed, after two years of police/community forums. “I was a victim and a prisoner of racial hatred and you interceded for me.”
There are roads to be closed and boulevards to be opened everywhere.
One of the sentences used to introduce the Offertory during mass is a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “I appeal to you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” “Present your selves” or, in other words, “be present to others”, as a living sacrifice. May God give us the faith inspired courage to go where a confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, invites and even constrains us to go?
Dogs or Children
[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”]
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
To say that we all have a dark side should come as no surprise to anyone. We use to speak about sin as the expression of our dark side. We once acknowledged with some frequency the truth that we are all sinners in need of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. In recent years, while that word sin has come to be disowned by too many, the behaviors that make sin so horribly visible have certainly not disappeared from sight.
Last week our dark side, and the sin of which it is capable, once again raised its ugly specter in Charlottesville, Virginia. This sin – the sin of racism, the sin of anti-Semitism, the sin of nationalistic xenophobia – do not seem to die. It is a virus that resists extinction. It exists in the best of us in the form of implicit white bias, and religious or national exceptionalism, and in the worse of us, as white supremacy, religious intolerance, and the deformed patriotism that parades itself in those pick up trucks that fly oversized American flags in their beds.
The dark side in its many expressions does not need to be imported from the outside as some public voices have opined in a futile effort to explain the happenings in Charlottesville. While some white supremacists may have traveled from elsewhere to join the hate rally in Charlottesville, there was certainly a base already present in that city, as there is in every city and town in this nation.
And let’s be clear, it is not a matter of another rational opinion, or another point of view, or another philosophical expression that has a right to air itself in the public square under the protection of the first amendment.
Hate speech, borne of a pathological mind and malformed conscience, that seeks a venue to express itself, or a license to parade itself or to rally in a public square, must be judged through the lens of historical experience to have no rights and should be dealt with accordingly.
We place ourselves in the greatest peril if we forget the Holocaust and how it too began with speech. Whether it was the vilification of Jews from the pulpits of Christian churches as Christ-killers, or the rhetoric of political leaders in the public square who branded them as enemies of the Arian nation, the hate speech and the killing words found receptive soil in enough German hearts and in collaborators throughout the world, to cause the genocide of six million innocent men, women and children. We can sin and sin grievously by our thoughts and words, in addition to our deeds. And in the order of things, our thoughts and words ordinarily precede the evil deeds we do. As Jesus said, “It is what comes out of our mouths that defiles us.”
No one has a right to put innocent people at risk by using hateful words that would scapegoat them and set them up as targets.
To say that the owner of the Bedminster Golf Club is guilty about this in spades would be a gross understatement.
His uncensored hate speech over these past few years has fueled and emboldened minions of the like minded to assert, claim and demand a public forum for the evil that they bear within their minds and hearts. He apparently still does not get it, as he does not get a lot of things. It is not a matter of two equally righteous and equally entitled and equal sides capable of behaving badly.
To hoist the banner of white supremacy, pseudo-Christian hegemony and perverse patriotism is evil – it always results in the abuse, persecution, violation and death of the innocent. It is as evil as branding all our undocumented neighbors as murders, rapists and drug dealers. It is not the free speech that owns inalienable rights. It is hate speech that must be brought to justice.
And if we fail to bring it to justice in our courts, if we fail to impeach this man who claims presidential privilege, it will certainly be brought to judgment before the throne of God. If the candidate, who flew into the White House on the wings of hatred, and who claims to be a Christian, and claims the Bible to be his favorite book, that he has apparently never read, and who in a stunning display of hubris, devoid of conscience, admitted that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness, is not brought to justice in our courts for inciting violence, he will certainly be brought to judgment on the last day for these crimes against humanity.
This so-called president, in being a public voice for the abuse of Muslims, women, sexual minorities, immigrants and refugees, is a blind guide leading the blind. He stretches his right to free speech to include hate speech that he directs at multiple targets. It must be called out for what it is, it must be protested in the streets, it must be confronted it in next year’s mid-term elections.
In this morning’s Gospel Matthew presents Jesus in a most appalling fashion. He does so to make a most important point. In the story of the Canaanite woman, seeking a cure for her daughter who is demonically possessed, Matthew has Jesus assume a posture with which the majority of his audience, at that time in their history, would have had no problem identifying, and embracing as their own, and doing so without apology. The faith community out of which Jesus came and the people who were his ethnic kin were a nationalistic and Xenophobic lot.
God’s chosen people had taken their election by God and its mandate to be a light to the Gentiles and servant to all the peoples of the earth by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God and turned it into a killing lie, that flew under the banner of what today we would refer to as exceptionalism.
They saw themselves as better than everyone else, as superior to every other nation, as a tribe and a race that owed nothing to anyone. They did not want to be liberated from their sins as a people, but only to have the boot of Roman oppression lifted from their necks so that they could resume the swagger of the privileged powerful.
This desperate foreigner and frantic mother comes to Jesus to beg healing for her stricken daughter. Jesus does not initially respond to her, as we would expect God to respond. Instead he responds to her first by ignoring her, then by upbraiding her and then by calling her a dog.
We can almost see him looking around at his compatriots for their active and passive endorsement of His posture in her regard. We might be taken back by what Jesus is doing. They would have taken no notice of it being anything but entirely acceptable. After all this woman was a foreigner, she was not one of the chosen, she had no rights and certainly no call to approach the rabbi with any expectation that he should give a damn about her and her daughter’s plight.
In the time of Jesus, if you were not one of God’s chosen people, you were a dog and should expect to be treated as such.
So Matthew has Jesus identify with the posture, the attitude, and the behaviors of His countrymen and from this place of identification, from this place into which his audience has been easily sucked without notice and certainly without protest, Jesus rewrites the script.
The existing order with its assumptions and prejudices about people who are other, people who are different, people who are foreigners, and even seen as dogs is jettisoned. The page is turned forever.
No one is a dog. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone has access to God. Everyone is recipient of God’s mercy and compassion. No one is better than anyone else. All of God’s children have been called to faith and all have been empowered to respond in faith. The story ends with Jesus embracing one, who has been judged by everyone in the crowd as never to be embraced.
Jesus confirms that it is not the outsider who is to be rejected but rather that way of thinking that vilifies the other or the outsider that must be rejected as not being of God.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
August 20, 2017