Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Who He is defines us . . .

     But who do you say that I am?  It is a question which still causes much consternation and discussion even to this day.  Like the people of Jesus’ day, people today have varying opinions of who He was.  In those days, some rightly associated Him with John the Baptist because He also preached a message of repentance.  Of course, He also preached a message of forgiveness with authority that His herald in the wilderness could not.  Some rightly associated Jesus with Elijah.  This, too, is not surprising when one considers some of the similarities of their miracles and some of the expectations surrounding Elijah.  Remember, Elijah did not die.  He was carried up into heaven by the fiery chariots.  Some thought he would return, not unlike, say, the King Arthur myths.  Unlike Arthur, though, Elijah had fed people with very little, had raised the dead, and even cleansed the kingdom of some 400 of those meddlesome priests of Ba’al who were misleading God’s people.  Jesus’ miracles were no less significant, and His authority was even more astounding than Elijah.  Others just consider Jesus one of the prophets.  Remember, prior to John the Baptist’s ministry, God had been silent for generations, since the time of Micah.  Now, Israel was blessed to have two prophets among them!  So don’t read disappointment into their statement.  They really are not sure who He is, and so speculation abounds.

     But who do you say that I am?  Jesus, naturally, will not let the question drop.  Too much depends upon a proper understanding on the part of His disciples.  These men and women are the ones who have seen the amazing miracles, they have seen Him walking on water and calming the storm, they have seen Him cast out demons, they have witnessed His handling of the Temple leadership’s assaults on His power and the authority that He claims, and they are about to hear Peter’s confession in the very heart of idol-worshipping Philippi Caesarea.  Simply put, it is not enough for them to think He is merely another like John the Baptist.  It is not enough to think He is merely Elijah.  It is not enough for them to think He is one of the prophets.  His ministry is as unique as His person.  Peter’s testimony is correct, but do they understand what it means to be God’s Anointed?

     Mark relates that Jesus had to teach the disciples that the Anointed was not what they had been taught to expect.  They had been taught that God’s Anointed, the messiah, would come as a conquering hero.  He was destined to be a hero who rode at the front of an army that would be used to cast off the Roman oppressors and to restore Israel to its glory under Solomon.  Jesus teaches them openly that their understanding was wrong.  He explains that the Anointed must suffer, must be rejected by the very people who should know best of all His identity, must die, and would be raised from the dead after three days.  Peter takes His Master aside and encourages Jesus to reconsider.  Jesus responds that Peter has His sight set upon worldly things and not on God.  Though Peter means well, he does not want His Master to suffer or to be humiliated in any way, Jesus rebukes him for focusing on what he thinks is best rather than trusting God.  We can hear Peter’s complaint.  The splash gets a lot more attention than the scenario Jesus has described.  Jesus, why suffer at all?  Just ride in with us and angels at Your back.  Work a couple miracles and everyone will come to our side.  Peter has no idea what he is asking.  He is simply unaware of how he is tempting our Lord.  No doubt Peter was stung by our Lord’s rebuke.  It was an honest mistake, but a mistake all the same.

     Who do you say that I am?  It is a question which resonates throughout time.  Who do you say that He is?  It is a question that is put to us not only by Him but by many of those whom we encounter during the course of our lives.  Not insignificantly, the word used to describe is psyche.  It appears four times in these verses.  In Greek, it means life, but today we use it to mean mindset or outlook.  Put another way, how we think determines how we live.  Nowhere is that question more important than in one’s consideration of the Lord Jesus.  Who we think He is informs our decision making processes, calms our fears and nerves about the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life, and testifies to the world the joy and hope we have.  Quite simply, it determines the shape and future of our lives.  Our answer to His question defines us.  I was reminded of that this week in two different areas of our congregational life.

     Last week I was asked to visit someone in the ICU.  He was not doing well, and there was a sincere worry that he might pass away.  I asked him while I was there if he wanted or needed permission to die through Last Rites, or did he want to be healed.  He responded that he wanted to get better and get out of the hospital.  So I prayed for healing.  As I was ending the prayer, I found myself praying the last collect before Anointing during the Healing Service.  You all know the prayer: The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: Be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.  For whatever reason, I found myself ending with that prayer.

     It was at this point that I was interrupted.  “You pray that like you really believe it.”  What followed was a conversation regarding some of the healing miracles that I had witnessed.  One that we discussed may or may not have been a healing.  It is talked about in that hospital as it is one of the “good outcomes.”  I suppose it depends upon one’s perspective.  Was it good medicine and skill, or was it God’s sovereign hand? Why couldn’t God it be both?  Who had conspired to have those hands and knowledge present during her ordeal?  We had quite the conversation about healing.  It was then that we were interrupted.

     Then why did He not heal this guy, if He is so powerful and so good?  Both the ICU nurse and I turned to find a stranger poking his head into our conversation.  I asked him to repeat his question, and he went on to explain that he did not mean to eavesdrop but that he had heard our talk following my prayer.  If God is so good and so powerful, why didn’t he heal the member of your church?  He has.  No He hasn’t.  He’s laying there unconscious.  Ah, you missed the beginning of our conversation.  I beg your pardon.  She had asked me why God didn’t seem to be active and doing miraculous things like He did in times past.  Her pastor’s answer had left her wanting more.  What was his answer?  She told him that it was basically the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be His name and that we were not to question His ways.  You think that’s the right answer?  What followed, of course, was a more lengthy discussion of trusting God and knowing that He weeps when we die.  But why didn’t God heal your church guy to glorify His name in front of me and to satisfy her?  I replied that I wasn’t absolutely sure, but I was pretty convinced it was for both of their benefits.  When they both asked what I meant by that, I asked if they would have ever asked these questions and engaged in a 20 minute conversation about important questions such as these if Pat would have gotten out of bed and headed for the exit.  To my new nurse friend I pointed out that the work of God was all around her, in this place of healing, yet the scales had gotten in her eyes over the years.  Maybe Pat’s continued state was not the healing I had prayed for; maybe it was hers.  Maybe God was allowing His disciple to suffer to reach her.  Knowing Pat and his love for God, I was quite certain that Pat would grumble about it, but grumble with awe in his voice.  And with respect to the gentleman, it was clear he was in a desperate situation regarding a loved one.  Maybe the healing that God was giving them was this “one on one time” with Him.  And again, were Pat to be in front of God about this, he would gripe a bit that the pain hurt, but he would thank God for using him to reach another who is struggling or lacking in faith.  What about this guy’s family?  Won’t they be said if he’s not healed?  And how can you be so sure how he feels or would feel?  Of course, but they also know Pat has already been healed.  As we say in our funeral service, whether we die or whether we live, we are the Lord’s.  Do you think God would allow Himself to be dishonored by leaving Pat to the grave?  No.  Neither does his family.  They will mourn his death, but they will celebrate that He will live forever, healed of sin and death, and be with His Savior forever.  That is His promise, and that is their hope.  As for Pat, he once explored a call to ordained life.  He, better than many to whom I am called to minister, knows how God works.  He understands what is meant by self-denial and cross-bearing.  Were he conscious right now, he might well complain and whine on the outside, but on the inside he would be leaping like Mt. Hebron.

     The nurse thanked me for speaking with her and not being condescending about her questions.  I reminded her we learn a lot less when we don’t ask questions.  She laughed that a nursing teacher had said similar words.  I joked that her teacher had obviously learned that from God.  The man, though, lingered in the room.  Do you think he will live or die?  In this body, I’ve no idea.  But not to sound crass, I really don’t care.  Howso?  I told him a bit about Pat and his life.  I shared some of his sufferings now that the body was getting older.  I told him that while I would miss teasing and being teased by Pat, I could relax and celebrate because I was certain He would live for ever and that, God willing, I would see him again even if he died this very second.

     We experienced one of those long silent pauses that some people dread.  Truthfully, I used feel like much needed to be said in those silences, but I have learned slowly that it is in those silences when God speaks the clearest.  The man grabbed my hand and shook it and thanked me for letting him interrupt.  I asked if he wanted prayers over his loved one.  Not right now.  But you’ve given me a lot to think about.  Besides, I get the sense that I might see you fairly often in here.  As long as he is here you will.  Feel free to grab me for prayer or conversation.  Thank you.  I will.  And now one in our life and work is left to answer Jesus’ question.  Who He is to this man is no longer an academic question, it is a matter of eternal life or death, a matter of resignation or promise, a matter of despair or of unimaginable joy!  Who do you say that He is?  If, like Pat, you believe Him to be God’s anointed, then we have every reason to hope.  If he is anyone or anything else, then we should be pitied.

     Another illustration provided this week was the confluence of a couple of our ministries.  I will not mention their real names, but you have met them if you have served Community Meal, at Angel Food, or in Human Trafficking.  We will call them Bill and Fred.  One of those whom society ignores found out I knew some other homeless people in the community.  He asked me the names of some of those I knew.  As I was sharing the names of those for whom I often pray, I came upon a name that caused him to interrupt.  What do you think of that a-hole?  Shocked that someone would describe Fred in that way, I asked Bill why he would say that.  Bill went on to recount how Fred had stolen a couple things from him a few months back.  They were not particularly valuable, but there was sentimental value attached.  I asked if he had said anything to Fred, and he had not knowing it would do no good.

     Flash forward a couple weeks.  We are serving Community Meal.  Fred is eating and his normal thankful self.  I ask him if I can ask him a question.  Fred is excited.  It is a big switch; he usually has questions for me.  And so I ask if he knows Bill.  The head drops, he turns to the plate, and refuses to make eye contact.  How do you know Bill, Father?  Let’s just assume if someone is homeless or marginalized in this community that I have met them and served them.  I heard a story that you may have accidentally removed some items from his stash.  That couldn’t be true, could it?  Grumble.  Grumble.  Why would you take those items?  They couldn’t be sold.  More grumbling, like my kids when they are in trouble.  You want me to leave?  Why would I want you to leave?  Because I was bad.  Were you?  He nodded and finally made eye contact.  What I would like for you to do is to return the items.  And if you no longer have them, an apology would be great.  What good will an apology do?  It will remind you that he, too, was created in God’s image, just like you.  Begging forgiveness from him will, hopefully, remind you of what God has done for you and for him.  Better still, it might set right your relationship if he forgives you.  Why do you care?  Because both of you, for better or for worse, have been given to my charge.  I would be doing you and him a disservice if I did not remind you both of your sins and of your need to forgive, just as I would fail any of my parishioners in the same situation.  We’ll see.  He doesn’t want me near him any more.  Who would?  What?  Who would want you around?  You were willing to steal from someone who has nothing.  Who would want you around?  The world shits on you and forgets you.  Would you want someone like you around adding to your misery?  No.  Do you think he will forgive me?  It depends on whether he wants to be forgiven himself.

     Fred popped into church this week, beaming.  I ran into Bill this week!  Really?  How did it go?  He apologized to me!  I am so sorry he no longer had the items.  No, no!  He apologized to me.  I heard you.  I had hoped he could return the items.   Na.  But this was even better.  Howso?  Bill came up to me and I wasn’t trusting him.  He said he was kinda friends with you and that you had suggested that he owed me the items or an apology, that you hated the idea that he was stabbing me in the back when the world was shitting on both of us.  I knew then he really knew you.  Great.  Anyway, he said he had thought about it and needed to apologize.  He was really sorry he had taken my stuff, even sorrier that he no longer had it, sorry it had taken so long, and basically . . . well, he was just sorry.  So, are you guys good?  I’m not gonna leave any money laying around with him or anything like that, but yeah, we’re good.  Can I ask you a question?  Yes, Fred.  Why did you do that?  Apparently, you and God have decided that you are part of my flock.  My vocation is to bring people into right relationship with God.  You two could not be in right relationship with Him were you unwilling to forgive and he unwilling to repent.  And by repentance and forgiveness, both of you are restored to right relationship with Him and a better relationship with each other.  How did you know he would apologize or that I would forgive?  I know you both.  I was betting that there was no way you two could not repent and forgive, knowing what God had done for you in Christ.  Thanks.  Don’t thank me.  Thank God who forgives our sins and teaches us how to love Him and others.  You know, you will probably never know what this meant to me.  People spit on me, insult me, make fun of me, steal from me, harass me, just fuck with me to make my life miserable.  And out of the blue, Bill apologized.  I can’t remember the last time someone said they were sorry to me.  It’s kinda like the other side with God.  Other side?  Yeah, we all go to Him to complain and whine, but we almost always forget to say thanks.  It’s the same way with people like me.  Too few people are willing to say they are sorry when they hurt us.  It beats you down or weighs on you, ya know?  It sort of makes you feel worthless.  But an apology . . . It’s like, like someone saying “you matter.”  Fred, you understand that you do matter, don’t you?  Right now I do.  And thanks for reminding us both that we do and that even on the streets we do.

     Who do you say that I am?  If He is anybody but God’s Anointed, if He is anybody but the messiah, these kinds of ministries and these kinds of work make no sense.  The poverty that is out there is overwhelming.  The lack of perceived value in other human life is utterly depressing.  The evil that one human being perpetrates against another human being is unconquerable.  And death, death is the world’s final answer.  If He is anybody but the Christ, as Peter asserts, then all these evils, and all the ones we have left unmentioned, can only be thwarted by our own efforts.  And if you have ever tried to eliminate hunger, eliminate violence, eliminate poverty, eliminate any of these evils, you know just how powerless you are to make any significant impact against those evils.   Even if you or I win the lottery, make an incredible invention, come up with a great idea to solve a particular problem, what lasting impact can we truly make?  And behind all those evils that are left to tackle in the world stands the problem of death.  What can we do to hold off its icy grip?  Freeze ourselves?  Copy our brainwaves somehow into a computer?  That’s the best fight we have against death?

     But what if Peter is right?  What if Jesus is the Christ?  What cannot be conquered in His name?  What can we not do to glorify Him?  What?  And let’s not forget the Good News part of all our efforts.  If He has called us into a ministry, if He has called us forth to do battle with powers and principalities, if He has chosen to reach others through us and our witness, there is no chance of failure.  Even if we seem to fail to eliminate hunger, even if we seem to fail to eliminate slavery, even if we seem to fail to draw another into His loving embrace, even if the efforts to which He calls us costs us our lives, still He is glorified!  Better still, you and I are promised that we will be raised into glory with Him!  If He was and is the Christ, if He was raised from the dead, the there is no chance of failure, so long as we are faithfully obedient.  Sure, to the outside world it make look like a failure.  We might be poked fun at.  We might suffer.  We might even seem to be naive or gullible.  But that is part of the cross-bearing of which He speaks today!  His disciples carry crosses.  In their dying to self, He begins a remarkable transformation; the result of which is an amazing glorification of Him!

     And that glorification can occur in spite of ourselves and our efforts.  When I pray over each of you for healing, I confess that I always pray for that miraculous bestowal of health.  I want Bob’s vessels and nerves healed.  I want the effects of Fred’s stroke washed away.  I want Pauline not to need to become the bionic woman.  I want diabetes to be cured, backs to be fixed, mental and emotional states to be restored to equilibrium, colds to be lifted, and death to be put off.  Heck, as I stood over Pat, I was praying that he would be healed and get out of bed.  Yet, as the Lord has gently and not not gently taught me and you at times, we should always pray His will be done.  Sometimes, His will is that we bear a cross.  Pat continued to suffer that a nurse and the loved one of another patient might hear that God still acts through deeds of power and still loves every single one of us.  And though we served Community Meal with an eye towards using the meeting of material needs to earn the right to testify to the Risen Lord, who among us truly expected one homeless man to seek the forgiveness of another homeless man?  Who among us would have ever expected one to forgive another?

     Yet this day you and I gather to do the work, the liturgy, of the people.  You and I gather to give thanks to God for the amazing things He has done in our lives.  We gather together to give thanks that He has chosen people like you and me to be His ambassadors of His mercy and grace.  We gather together this day to give thanks that for a brief moment, for a day or two in our lives, He has given us an encouraging glimpse into His sovereign plan of salvation.  You and I have been blessed this week with a couple examples of how our efforts bear fruit to His glory.  Most importantly, we gather together to remind ourselves and one another that He is who He says He is, that He has the words of eternal life, and that we, like Peter, have nowhere else to turn.  So, brothers and sisters, who do you say that He is?  You answer, for better or for worse, will guide you in this life and identify you for all eternity.

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