Proper 16a, August 27, 2017

August 28, 2017

Known By God

Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.


It’s an interesting thing to me that Jesus placed so much responsibility on Peter. Peter clearly had leadership qualities. He dared go where others were hesitant to trod, but you can’t really say he had an excellent performance record. He was almost always the first person to jump out with a response to whatever Jesus said or did, but he frequently responded in a clearly appropriate way, and these failures even escalated after this moment in which Jesus declared Peter to be the rock on which he would build the church. The fact that such a flawed character serves as the foundation of the church probably explains a lot about why the church is the less than perfect institution we know it to be. But the church hasn’t expired, and this indicates to me that once again, Jesus knew what he was doing when he appointed Peter as our founding father.


What we have in our scripture reading for today is the dialogue that took place between Jesus and his disciples as Jesus came to see that Peter was the one to whom he would bequeath responsibility. Jesus knew that his days were numbered, and he didn’t want to leave his fledgling community leaderless. What this conversation reveals is what Jesus was primarily looking for in the person that he would entrust his organization. It’s not easy to discern exactly what Jesus was looking for, but clearly there’s something more essential than perfection when it comes to following Jesus.


This is a telling conversation. Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about him, and who they thought he was. Linking him with one of their national heroes was a complimentary thing on some level. By saying that some people saw him as John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah the disciples were indicating to Jesus that people thought very highly of him. But Jesus didn’t just want to be revered by people. Jesus wasn’t wanting people to hope for a return to their perceived glory days of the past. Jesus wanted to be seen for who he was, and this is how Peter saw him. By saying he knew him to be the messiah, the Son of the Most High God, Peter was saying that he recognized that they were in new territory. Peter wasn’t looking to return to anything. He could see that through Jesus they had embarked on a new relationship with God.


There is a sense in which Jesus came to discover something when Peter said what he did. Jesus came to understand that God had spoken to Peter in a profound manner, and this was a moment of celebration for Jesus. It’s as if Jesus came to see that God was going to keep this thing going, and I’m sure this was good news to Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was asking a rhetorical question when he asked his disciples who they thought he was. I don’t think Jesus knew what they would say. They might very well have felt like everyone else – that he was just a new and somewhat improved version of someone they had seen before. I don’t think he expected Peter to pronounce him as the One whom God had sent to bring salvation to world in a new and unheard-of manner.


Peter had never had a profound grip on the message of Jesus. In fact Peter would continue to display a very flawed understanding and commitment, but what Jesus seemed to understand is that God was at work in Peter in a way that would exceed Peter’s capacity to do the right thing. Peter wasn’t perfect, but God was going to use him anyway, and Jesus could see this.


I think this is one of the best things I’ve come to discover about the Christian faith. My initial understanding was that our relationship with God depended upon our ability to be lovable and to perform well. This was probably more of a subconscious belief than an actual conviction, but in my early days I thought of Jesus as being more of an intimidating authoritarian figure than someone I actually wanted to know. I’m not exactly sure where I obtained this impression of Jesus, but it was before I actually did much examination of the way Jesus interacted with people. It was also before I met Lewis Chesser.


I’ve spoken of Lewis before. He was the United Methodist campus minister in Fayetteville when I was at the University of Arkansas. And Lewis did a wonderful job of portraying Jesus as someone that was not to be feared but to be embraced. He spoke of Jesus as someone who was much more interested in knowing us than in controlling us. Lewis made me think Jesus loved me for who I was. You might say Lewis helped me get over my fear of not pleasing God, and one way he did that was by not pretending to be a very perfect person.


Lewis was a good person, but he could be pretty salty, and he had attracted a motley crew. The people who hung around the Wesley Foundation weren’t very churchy people, but it was a place where people were able to speak freely about Jesus, and I found the atmosphere to be very stimulating and in a significant way – life changing.


It was my experience at the Wesley Foundation and my relationship with Lewis and other people that I met there that made me want to go to seminary and to learn more about Jesus. Lewis is someone I’ve remained in touch with and I continue to be touched by him and his mistakes. He told me a story a couple of years ago that reveals the lovely way in which God often uses our less than perfect selves to do some godly work.


Lewis left the Wesley Foundation while I was in seminary and served a few different churches in western Arkansas. He was the pastor in Charleston for several years right before he retired and moved to Ft. Smith. There was a couple from Charleston that would drop by and see Lewis and his wife, Mazie, whenever they were in Ft. Smith and Lewis had a hard time remembering the man’s name. His name was Don, but Lewis inevitably called him Bob. Lewis said he always had a little distress when they came by because he knew he always got his name wrong. He got to where he would never say his name until he heard someone else speak his name.


So one day this couple came by and they had gotten some bad news about the man’s health. He had been diagnosed with some kind of cancer and they were really distressed. They visited for a while and as they prepared to leave Lewis offered to say a prayer. He said they actually got on their knees and he began to pray. Unfortunately, no one had mentioned the man’s name, but Lewis felt like he needed to be specific in his prayer, so he took a chance. Among other things, Lewis asked God to provide strength and healing for Bob. As soon as he finished the prayer Mazie said, Lewis, it’s not Bob, it’s Don! Of course this came as no surprise to Lewis, but before he could say anything, Don said, That’s ok, God knows me as Bob.


There are a number of stories about the ways in which Lewis provided opportunities for God’s grace to sweep in and redeem difficult circumstances, but has come to be my favorite one. God doesn’t love us and use us because we know what to do. God uses us in spite of our ability to perform, and I’m telling you, as a preacher count on this. If I didn’t trust that the Holy Spirit is on hand to help you hear something better than what I know to say I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to show up and preach. I count on God’s ability to take whatever we try to do and to turn it in to something greater.


Peter is a great model for us. Peter didn’t understand Jesus perfectly, but he had experienced who he was on a significant level, and he was transformed by Jesus. Peter loved Jesus, and he trusted that God was at work in Jesus in a new way. He didn’t know where they were going, and he failed to be as faithful as he wanted to be, but God’s perfect forgiveness would be revealed through Peter’s most profound failure. Jesus found his perfect leader in the life of this man who didn’t always do what he should have done, but who knew to look to God to make things right. I’m sure Peter learned to be more careful about what he binded and what he loosed because of his various forms of failure and forgiveness.


Peter is the perfect rock for us to continue to build upon. We all have a lot in common with Peter when it comes to being less than perfect, but we are all as capable as Peter of being powerful witnesses to the redeeming love of God and to serve as evidence of God’s ability to use our feeble efforts to produce amazing results.


God knows when we are trying to make ourselves available, and sometimes we actually do muster up the courage to do the right thing, and when that happens it’s a beautiful thing. Peter wasn’t the only person who has ever been inspired to say or do the right thing at the right moment. Sometimes, like Peter, we get it right and we bring glory to God and give Jesus something to celebrate.


We are all known by God in ways that we don’t even know ourselves, and I believe that when we seek to love and serve God we are doing God’s work regardless of what it may look like to others. This is another one of the mysteries of our faith. Sometimes what appears to be failure on earth is a victory for heaven. And just as surely we don’t always judge the events of this world with the eyes of heaven.


But God sees us all very clearly, and this isn’t something to be feared. God knows us well, and loves us perfectly. This isn’t to say that God loves everything we do, but God works in mysterious ways, and there’s always an avenue for redemption. To be faithful isn’t to be perfect, but to want to grow in our relationship with God, and to trust that it can happen.


Thanks be to God for including us all in this holy work of revealing God’s relentless love.



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