United in Jesus Christ
￼“Oh, you are Presbyterian? What kind of Presbyterian are you?”The very question should convict us all of our inability to get along with one another. We are the denomination, that more than any other seems unable to get along with one another.
If we are going to rediscover our voice, if anyone is going to care who we are, we had better find a way to stay together...
If we can’t get along, it won’t matter what kind of Presbyterian we are. If we can’t find unity, one day the sign on the front lawn in front of all our churches will finally read the same...
Humor too is a gift of God. With that in mind, the following story is courtesy of The Reverend Dan Hagmaier, my colleague in ministry and my friend.
Four women were sitting around at a retirement home in Florida, knitting together and bragging about their sons.
The first woman says, “My son is a Lutheran pastor, and when he enters the room all the people stand up and address him as “Reverend...”
That’s nothing, says the second woman, “My son is a Bishop in the Episcopal Church,
and when he enters the room all the ministers stand up and address him as “Most Reverend...”
Well, says the third woman, “My son is a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, and when he enters the room, all the Bishops stand up and address him as “His Holiness...” Then there’s silence. The three women glare at the fourth woman. “Well...”
Finally, the fourth mother says, “Well, I don’t like to brag. My son is a Presbyterian minister; he’s tall, dark, and incredibly handsome. He wears tailored suits, and drives a convertible. When he enters a room, all the women stand up and say “O My God!”
Now I can’t say that has ever happened to me upon entering a room. Nor can I say there
is any truth in any of the characteristics describing the Presbyterian minister. But this little joke does illustrate a question many of us have been asking our ministers and our denomination in today’s world.
Who do you say that I am as a Presbyterian? Who do you say that I am as a disciple of Jesus Christ? As they prepare their hearts and minds to make the journey to Jerusalem in Matthew 16, this is the question Jesus is trying to get the disciples to answer long before Presbyterianism has even been invented.
Jesus comes right out and asks; “Who do people say the ‘Son of Man’ is?” The phrase, “Son of Man” is one of the most debated of the New Testament. In the Gospels, it is only found on the lips of Jesus himself. There are many theories on what Jesus is referring to when he uses it. Some think Jesus is referring to himself. Others think it was an apocalyptic term, used in first century Judaism, to mean the one who would come and redeem Israel. Scholars suggest that in Matthew 16, Jesus is avoiding the politically- charged term Messiah by using “Son of Man”. No matter what view one takes on the term, there is no question that Jesus is asking his disciples who people trust to be their savior. Who do the people, Jewish in this case, trust as the one who would redeem them and restore them on the judgment day.
We must be careful. We sometimes make a mistake in thinking that all first century Jews
thought the same when we look at a passage like this one. We somehow think that disagreement
and division in the church is somehow a new thing; maybe even a new Presbyterian thing. But make no mistake, it’s not! The truth is that the people of God, no matter where they are, have always struggled to find harmony; and first century Judaism was no different. Look at the answers Jesus receives in response to his question.
The disciples have an answer. They say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah. They
begin identifying who in the history of Israel they think Jesus most represents. They are comparing Jesus to an ancient prophet. But it’s a little more complex than that. This is my own theory and should be treated as such. Maybe it’s worth a cup of coffee, if you bring the coffee.
Perhaps the disciples are identifying some of the divergent opinions in first century Judaism as to who had the people’s ear. Who did Jewish people think had the keys to the kingdom of God? Maybe, it was John the Baptist, they say; the radical member of the Essene community, who lived and preached a message of drastic repentance and severe deprivation. John would say that all the religious people of his day had it wrong and needed to get back to a faith of simplicity. He might represent the independent, community church if he were in our day, rejecting all the bureaucracy of the mainline church for a simple more ascetic practice of faith.
Then they say Elijah, a favorite prophet of the Pharisaic community, who taught of resurrection; that God would return one day. The stories of Elijah in the Old Testament centered on new ways of doing things such as religious meals outside the temple that sustained the people or a practice like the Passover meal where a seat is saved for Elijah upon his return. Those who followed the teachings of Elijah were all about hope for a new future in the church, a changed church. If we could translate it to today, perhaps these would be the liberal denominations or liberal side of our denomination.
￼Blessed are the flexible, for they will never get bent out of shape.
Finally the disciples say Jeremiah. What do we know about Jeremiah? Scholars think he may have been a member of royalty in Israel. He was most like the Sadducees of Jesus’ day, and would have identified most with worship in the temple. He taught of no community feasts, no worship outside of Jerusalem, no resurrection of the dead. Jeremiah was concerned first and foremost with the purity of the church, and condemned to judgment those who did anything that detracted from the high merit of the temple. These are all gross simplifications of very complex issues, but in today’s world perhaps Jeremiah would have represented the more conservative faith traditions.
In response to Jesus’ question, I believe the disciples answer with the conventional wisdom of all the religious opinions of their day. They summarize it all, making sure they leave no one out. They use the important catch all; “or maybe some other prophet we haven’t been smart enough to name.”
But Jesus isn’t satisfied with the conventional religious wisdom. He seems to want to know what they think. Who do you say that I am? He challenges them to something beyond the conflicting religious opinions of his day. Perhaps it is why this conversation is taking place so far to the north, in Caesarea Philippi, on the borders of the community. Maybe Jesus takes them out of reach of most of the religious institutions of the day to ask them “Who do you say that I am?”
Then Peter steps up! When he enters a room, everyone stands up to cheer for “the Rock.” Peter has a different answer. He says, “Jesus, you are the one who saves us. You are the Messiah”. He has no problem using that term, politically charged or not. Peter also says, “You, Jesus, are the one all of Judaism, and all the world has been waiting for since time began. You are the Son of the Living God!”
In that moment, Peter cuts through all the disharmony and differing opinions in his faith. He unites the disciples who may have been torn as to who Jesus really was. He gives the answer that Jesus knows could have only come from one place.
“Blessed are you Simon Peter!” says Jesus. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And on your answer, on this revelation from God, I will build my church!” And we know that His church has been building for over two- thousand years. A church started in the midst of religious diversity and differing views, and one that continues to exist in our own diversity and disharmony; in spite of Peter’s confession.
While I was in seminary, I worked for a non-profit organization in Richmond, VA called Boaz & Ruth. Boaz & Ruth, just less than two years old when I was there, worked with three missions. The first mission was to restore ex-felons and substance abusers to a new life, offering job skills and emotional competency that could ensure their success. The second was to restore a blighted urban neighborhood with new businesses and better housing. Finally, to bring racial harmony to a community of the “Old South” that has experienced some of the worst discrimination in the country. More slaves were brought into Richmond VA than any other community in our nation. All these missions are incredibly necessary in Richmond, and were being accomplished in little bits, day by day.
These missions are being accomplished in an amazing way. Even though it was started by a Presbyterian lady and a Presbyterian church, it embraced the whole of the Christian faith in a way I have never seen before. In my time there, I worked with Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Unitarians, Assembly of God Pentecostals, Baptists of every kind and probably other denominations as well.
When I first started there, I struggled with staying faithful to my theology and beliefs while trying to serve, in a meaningful way, three missions I believed in with my whole heart. Then I discovered something again. I discovered again the rock the church has always been built upon, Peter’s confession!
Every person I worked with at Boaz & Ruth answered Jesus’ question the same way. “Who
do you say I am?” And they responded, regardless of whether they were liberal, conservative, or in between. “You are the one I trust for redemption. You are the Messiah, the one who my hopes and the hopes for the world are built upon.” That confession was the key to the kingdom at Boaz & Ruth, and I believe it is the key to ministry in all places of need and hopelessness.
I want to share a little secret with you that is really not all that secret. Today, our church is at war with itself. Not just the Presbyterian Church, although those are the battles with which we are most familiar. The whole church is fighting amongst itself as to who has the right understanding of Christian faith. The battle lines have been drawn for some years now.
Sometimes it is understood as liberal vs. conservative. A member of our church shared an article with me recently that characterized these battle lines as progressive vs. evangelical. I believe it goes even deeper even than those labels. It is truly a theological issue, there is no question about that, but the issue is also mystery vs. certainty.
Some people want to look at faith in Jesus Christ as mystery. They want to understand
that God is so fully incomprehensible that we can’t understand. Even the work of God in the world is a mystery, in things like complete and total grace of Jesus Christ for all people and all ideas. To these people, mystery equals tolerance. Nobody really has the answers anyway.
￼You don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note.
These two positions seem to be at complete odds. How could they ever function together, when they seem to be so different? Thus our church stays in conflict with itself and people live firmly on their side of the theological fence, never able to cross over to the other side.
The answer to finding our way into the future as a church and as individual disciples, who might struggle at times, is in the very character of Jesus. In Jesus Christ there is a mystery, beyond our ability to understand. Sometimes grace is available in ways we don’t fully appreciate or are able to tolerate as human beings. But we must also say to those who only want to embrace mystery, is that, in Jesus, there is also certainty. We know that Jesus Christ is life and wholeness and for those of us who proclaim Him as Lord over our lives, there is even salvation.
What Jesus teaches us through His questions to Peter and the other disciples is the perfect character of God in our world. Jesus is mystery but Jesus is also certainty. Jesus can gather us all in and invite us to the table together as disciples.
We look forward to finding the voice of our church. A church that we all know is embroiled in diversity and divergent opinions. How will we answer when the nation and the world needs us the most? Will we be effective at relieving suffering and providing hope to the hopeless? Will we find our purpose and our voice in modern day Christian circles?
Perhaps if we aren’t sure, we might look again to the proclamation of Peter, “the Rock”. He is the one who cuts through it all, and unites us as disciples of Jesus in mission. It is our confession of Jesus as Savior and Lord that will enable us to work side by side for purpose with every believer in Christ. This is relevant ecumenically, but even more relevant to us as Presbyterians.
We can no longer afford to diminish our Presbyterian voice in the world by withdrawing
into small minded groups of theological similarities. The world is a complex and diverse place, filled with infinite mystery and yet absolute certainty in Jesus Christ. Our diversity as Presbyterians is actually a powerful voice in the world telling others that people can disagree over the details and yet remain focused on the main point.
The main point, according to “Peter, the Rock,” is Jesus Christ and upon that “Rock” the
Presbyterian Church and every other church is built. If we are to discover our voice in the world again, we must reclaim our unity.
There is no evidence in the story from Matthew that everyone agreed on everything once Jesus finished the questions. What we do know is that they moved on from that day and went about Jesus’ important mission and purpose.
As we continue to search for our voice, we can no longer be divided. If we are really going to demonstrate our faithfulness to Jesus, we must figure out how to get along. If we remain focused on what makes us the same, I believe our differences will fade. And what makes us the same is Jesus.
Presbyterians unite! Your church is built on the hope and promise of Jesus Christ. In Him, we are given our call to go and make disciples of the whole world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them everything Jesus taught us!