August 23, 2020

Pentecost 12A

Smitten and Bitten



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 roads together, and most nights they have slept out under the stars.  They have known many hardships, suffered many insults, endured much opposition, shared many meals and experienced much laughter and many joys.

They have bonded and become intimates in so many ways. Jesus knew them, and He sought to have his disciples 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 breadth, 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 had 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 the ancient promise of a Savior 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 and betrayal, in the end, Peter will live fully into a disciple’s destiny.  He, too, will be crucified.

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. 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.   As one of my dear classmates is fond of saying, “You can be an admirer of Jesus or you can be a disciple of Jesus.”  Admirers can keep Jesus at a safe distance.  For a disciple Jesus takes up residence in, and makes His dwelling place, that person’s heart.

When faith in Christ is confessed for real, some streets are closed but gracefully vast boulevards are opened.  There are some paths that disciples of the Kingdom cannot and do not take.  And there clearly are ways forward that they are bid and even constrained to choose.  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.   To be smitten by Christ will often result in being bitten by the world.

We are here to be once again bathed in the love of Christ through 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 this is really our only reason for being here.   We are here to go to that place that Jesus assures Peter He will go.

Remember how, in that post resurrection encounter, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?”, and then told Peter, “When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old, you‘ll stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.”  In his gospel account, John tells us that Jesus said this to let Peter know that he too would be crucified.  And then Jesus commanded, “Follow me.”

At each celebration of the Eucharist the questions once put to Peter are put to us.  “Who do you say, that I am?”  and “Do you love Me?”  And if we dare make his response our response then some streets surely close, some boulevards certainly open, life is changed forever, and the place to which we journey is the cross.

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. We must ask ourselves, “Is my life contoured and defined by the world’s self-limiting capacity for love?”.  

This past week as I was leaving Best Buy, I noticed a thirty-something sporting a tee shirt that read: “Family, Faith, Friends, Flag and Firearms”. 

Family is a local street that can only take us so far.  The human family, however, is a kingdom boulevard that will always provide opportunities for greater access to all those whom God has given us to love as sisters and brothers.

When faith in Christ occupies second place in any list of priorities, discipleship is reduced to admiration.  Jesus Christ is a disciple’s first love.   When we love Christ first, all other loves are thereby empowered to reach their fullest potential.  For when we love God first, we love both ourselves and each other best.

Christ chooses all to be His friends. Do we save this identification for a chosen few?

There is probably no false god and no idol worshipped with greater, more misguided and unquestioned devotion than a nation’s flag.  Upon its altar countless innocents have their lives sacrificed.  At the very beginning of our faith story, Abraham was provided a ram so that he would not have to sacrifice his son Isaac. Yet we continue to offer our sons and daughters to be slaughtered in pointless wars, that, while deadly for most, remain profit centers for the same few, who have so structured things so as to realize substantial gain, even from human misery, tragedy and loss of such magnitude.

And yes, if the line-up printed on that tee-shirt represents the ordering of one’s priorities, then the power of guns must necessarily be preferred to the power of love.

This week the owner of that house on Clifton Avenue that had sported a Trump flag since before the last election and replaced it with an American flag several months ago, is once again flying the Trump flag.  What does it take to recognize the moral bankruptcy evidenced in such stunningly misplaced loyalty?  How can any human being be so blind as to march to the beat of a fascist drum?  How appalling it is to share space with misguided enablers of and cooperators in both those verbal and actual crimes against humanity that violate so many innocent lives.  As the pandemic continues to demand center stage, and take many lives, children are still in cages and families are still being torn apart.  How do I love those whom I find so inimical to the reign of Christ?  How do I love those who wittingly or unwittingly make themselves enemies of God’s reign?

Our only way thru this is the way of the cross.  The cross boldly suggests the contours of a Christ-like alternative evidenced in willingness to love even those who hate and to a willingness to place oneself in harm’s way between the haters and the hated.  To go where we don’t want to go and to stand in solidarity with and offer service to those who are being afflicted.

In Christ, God has pitched His tent and camped out with those who are oppressed in every generation.  The Lord has given us incredibly powerful gospel witness. May we find the faith and courage to be and do as God is and does.

The kingdom boulevard is always to be preferred to the road of a knee jerk response that would choose violence to counter violence.  Some Christians, remembered by history as The Righteous, chose this boulevard during the holocaust when they hid Jews in their homes. Confessing Christ is to risk living outside the comfort zone.

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 yourselves” or, in other words, “be present to and for others”, as a living sacrifice.  May God give each of us the faith-inspired courage to go where a confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, bids us to go?


The Rev. Frank J, Alagna

August 23rd, 2020