Sermon by the Rev. Abby VanderBrug on Sunday, August 23, 2020.
Imagine for a moment that you are one of the disciples walking along with Jesus when all of the sudden he presents you with a pop quiz. He asks, “who do people say the Son of Man is?” Your faithful leader is asking what’s the word on the street, what are people thinking? The disciples act a bit like someone you might see on the news right now citing statistics for presidential candidates: most recent statistics have you at 38% thinking you’re John the Baptist, 42% at Elijah, and 14% at Jeremiah, and 8% undecided.
But this information presented doesn’t seem to be particularly helpful to Jesus, as he quickly dismisses the answers and goes on to ask his own disciples who they think he is. What would you say? Could you sum it up in a word? How about a sentence? How about a paragraph?
It’s a rather complex question and difficult to answer; sparking rigorous debate throughout the centuries, multitudes of theological writings, and often the undergirding of various Christian movements, organizations, and denominations. Who is this Jesus person we speak of? Why did he come here and what did he do here and what does it have to do with us? My hunch is that if we asked every person in this room, or on this livestream, to send in an answer, we would all submit a unique answer.
My own response would waver depending on when I answered it. My understanding of Jesus has drastically changed throughout my life, depending on my own development, circumstances, and surrounding influences. I am glad that the white-bearded, puppeteer, man in the sky is no longer an image of Jesus that I cling to, but at one point I would have argued for its truth.
This does not just occur on the individual level, indeed throughout history, Jesus’ primary image has evolved and shifted. The Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in a book called Jesus through the Centuries, describes many of the different images of Jesus that have captured the Christian imagination. At first Jesus was a teacher and a rabbi. Soon after his death, people began to call him Lord and Savior. A century or two later, he was seen as ruler of all creation. And still later he was understood as the crucified one suffering for the sins of the world. This was only the beginning. In recent history, Jesus has been seen as philosopher, moralist, personal savior, a granter of wishes and wealth, a Mr. Rogers figure, capitalist, pacifist, and socialist, democrat, republican, the list goes on. 
We have attempted many times to fit Jesus into a box or label that makes sense to us and in our context. But does this really answer the question who Jesus is? Does it really give us the answer we need? Or, have we watered down and compartmentalized our understanding of Jesus so much throughout history that we are left simply with a Jesus who we believe confirms our political and economic stances?
In 2005, the book “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” released some fascinating research based on a study conducted on over 3,000 American teenagers. The result was that most American Teenagers believe in what the researchers labeled as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which is not a religion like Christianity or Buddhism, but more of a melting-pot set of beliefs from a variety of sources. Within this belief system, God is a cosmic therapist and divine butler; he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, and professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves. He does not become too personally involved in the process, but is ready to help out when needed. He exists but really isn’t a part of our lives. We are supposed to be “good people,” but each person must find what’s right for him or her. Good people will go to heaven.” 
To be clear, this is not an insult on our youth, but rather an illustration that maybe we have watered Jesus down, compartmentalized, and confused the identity of Jesus so much that our young people have received this misconstrued message from us.
A woman, Kendra Creasy, was on the research team for this project labeled it as “one of the most depressing summers of my life” and went on to further the research after the conclusion became clear. Creasy later published her own research in a book called “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.”
In it she writes, “The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe, namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people.” 
Imagine again being among the disciples when Jesus asks who they think he is. Can you imagine giving this answer? Ironically in the Gospel story, only one of the disciples gives an answer, Peter, when he says “The Messiah.” Correct, Peter, right answer! Which is pretty huge for Peter because more often than not, Peter is constantly doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing.
Peter is the disciple who wants to build little houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah at the transfiguration. Peter is the disciple who refuses to have his feet washed by Jesus. He falls asleep in the garden of Gethsemane. He denies Jesus 3 times. In other words, Peter is by no means an A+ student of Jesus and certainly does not present to us a picture of perfection in his relationship with Jesus. And yet, this one right answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, is enough for Jesus to name him as the rock upon which I will build my church.
I believe that there are 3 lessons we can learn, and are learning, from Jesus giving Peter this role that can be helpful to us in gaining more clarity about how we are answering this identity question and what it has to do with being a church .
- The symbols in our church point us to God, they give us direction, images, hints, guesses, wonderings, and inspiration about the holy mystery of Jesus Christ. The symbols: light, books, stories, table, bread, wine, water, oil, are all fairly simple things, things I think most of us could find in our kitchen cupboards, but when we put these signs and symbols together in a ritual with fellow believers, we find ourselves in an experience that says something authentic and reliable about who God is, and so says something true about ourselves and about our world. But we are mistaken to think that this experience solves or finalizes the question about who Jesus is. Rather, we pointed towards the mystery of this faith as we worship together.
I find it so fascinating that Jesus chose a rock, not a shiny piece of gold, not a fancy piece of silver, but the simplicity of a rock – not even the best rock! It is in the ordinary that we are pointed to the extraordinary.
- The second lesson I think we can learn from this interaction with Peter and Jesus is to listen to a variety of voices about the identity of Jesus.I am one to think that Episcopalians, specifically the Episcopal churches where I have been on staff, have all the answers about who God is and how to worship and what good liturgy is. Some would call this being a snob, and they would be right.
I never knew how wrong I was about this until I went to Emory University for seminary and learned amongst a whole host of denominations, cultures, and backgrounds who told stories and shared real experiences of the divine that were vastly different than mine. My very best friend in seminary was a Nazarene whose ordination vows disallowed her to drink or dance, and in many places preach, but I learned more from her than any of fellow Episcopalians. I learned alongside African Americans in the Baptist tradition that taught me an incredible amount about what it means to believe in a God who liberates us.
All of us only have hints and guesses about the divine. No one group or person has access to God and if we choose to stifle the voices who say that they have something to say, we only hurt ourselves.
- And finally, we would be wise to remember that God chose Peter (a human, a perfectly flawed human) to build a church – not a building. There has never been a more clear reminder for us than now. Yes, our doors are closed, but there is a dedicated group of people who pray for you every day at 8am. Yes, we are closed, but we continue to feed hungry people (9,600 meals just this summer). Yes, we are closed, but still we unite our voices to stand up to injustice. Yes, we are closed, but you can find children calling parishioners asking if they can read them a story. We love our churches, and their beauty, for good reasons, but clearly the work of Jesus goes way beyond any walls, and does not need them.
Yes, we are closed but we continue to believe that God is still saying something to us. That God can continue to work through us. That our faith has powerful implications for our world and we are ready to be a part of it. This is the Jesus that I want to pass down to my children and the church that I think this broken world so desperately needs.
2 | Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist. Denton. Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2011.
3 | Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. Oxford University Press, 2010.