text : Matthew 16:13-19
theme verse : “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”–Simon Peter to Jesus (Matthew 16:16)
What do you believe? It’s such a simple, yet loaded, question. We all believe something about most things. We didn’t come out of the womb with these well-thought-out, deeply structured convictions. We inherited them from our family, learned them in school or at church, and ultimately claimed them as our own. These convictions are the things that shape and inform our everyday experiences and actions within the world. What do you believe? Who do you trust? Your answer to those questions will deeply shape your life.
anthem : 'Majesty and Glory of Your Name' (T.Fettke) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director
reader : Rick Bohls
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
special music : 'God With Us' (All Sons and Daughters) :: The Rising Band; Katie Herbert and Isaac Herbert, vocals
offertory : 'I Believe' (I.Graham) :: Barry Epperley, soloist; Susie Monger-Daugherty, piano
“Let me give you a word of advice.” I’m not going to at this very moment. I’m just noting the statement that generally prefaces some comment you didn’t ask for. It’s maybe a little gentler than “I’ll tell you what you need to do…”. That line usually brings about a more forceful opinion about your current situation that you may or may not have invited such a person to contribute their commentary. There are the more general statements that maybe don’t touch terribly close to home but make you give that tilt-the-head, puckered-lip nod of recognition that says, “Well, I hadn’t really thought of that in such a way but you’re probably right.” Like the statement one flight instructor made to his class. He said, “There are old pilots, there are bold pilots, but there are not old, bold pilots.” Well. Perhaps. All of these statements, comments, advice, come from somewhere – sometimes experiential wisdom, sometimes arm-chair criticism, sometimes a regurgitation of one’s favorite talk-radio host. What do you believe? Where do those beliefs come from?
In the early 1950’s, Edward Murrow created a radio program entitled, “This I Believe.” It was a simple concept – sort of a TEDTalk production well before that phenomenon captured an audience. The premise was simple. Murrow invited thoughtful women and men from all walks of life to share their fundamental convictions about life in a five-minute time slot. In this brief space, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people from varied backgrounds who needed to have nothing in common other than integrity and transparency would share the rules they live by, the very things they have found to be the basic values, or convictions, in their lives. Sounds easy enough? But many struggled at first when invited to participate. “In a way,” Murrow said, “our project has been an invasion of privacy, like demanding that a man let a stranger read his mail. General Lucius Clay remarked that it would hardly be less embarrassing for an individual to be forced to disrobe in public than to unveil his private philosophy. Eleanor Roosevelt hesitated a long time. “What can I possibly say that will be of any value to anybody else?” she asked. And a railway executive in Philadelphia argued at first that he might as well try to engrave the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin as to attempt to discuss anything thoughtfully in the space of five minutes.” Yet these people along with the likes of Helen Keller, author Pearl Buck, and sculptor William Zorach took part in the series. This I Believe. Five minutes of your greatest convictions. What would you say?
The chapter on Convictions that accompanies this sermon series that several groups from our church are utilizing is very well done and has helped shape my sharing with you this morning. The authors ask some pertinent questions to get at our convictions. “Do you believe that human life has a purpose?” they ask. “If so, what would you say it is?” “What does it mean to live a good life?” “Do you believe people can change?” “Do you think people generally get what they deserve or do you tend to think that life is basically unfair?” “Who or what is worthy of your complete trust?” These are not simple questions but in the hearing of each one, you likely had some fundamental reaction based on your convictions. And where do those convictions come from? None of us came out of the womb believing what we do about tax-bills, eastern religions or with a profound distaste for the New England Patriots. Most of us didn’t take classes on these things either (though there’s got to be one about hating the Patriots). These things, nonetheless, shape our lives in very serious ways. “That’s just the way I was raised,” we say. “I had a bad experience with such and such a person,” we’ll add. But then we lay our convictions over the words, character, and actions of Jesus and it’s a whole new level of accountability.
The authors of The Shape of our Lives study get more pointed in this way. “Do you believe most poor people are lazy and largely responsible for their own plight?” they ask. “If so, you’ll have certain views about what it means to help them. Do you believe most strangers will hurt you if given the opportunity? That conviction will shape your understanding of what it means to practice the biblical practice of hospitality.” Questions about war and violence laid against Jesus’ word to love our enemies create new challenges. What are we to do with this stuff? “Our convictions go a long way toward shaping our imaginations regarding the kind of world we live in and what it means to live and act in that world.” This moves our beliefs from private philosophies and opinions to a larger picture of how our convictions are shaping the world we live in. Our identity, and that of our world, then, is shaped not only by the things we give lip service to but, more importantly, the ways we live out those convictions in the world. This moves the needle of the “What do I believe?” question to a deeper embodied level. Thomas Merton, renowned Catholic theologian and author, offers the thought this way: “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair; but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”
What are your convictions? What are the guiding principles that are shaping your life? We all have some of those stake-in-the-ground moments. A friend shared with me about her baptism this week – a moment where she inexplicable felt the assuring peace of Christ flood her soul. This was right. This would shape the course of her life. Encounters with Jesus throughout the New Testament are full of similar kinds of stories. Fishermen invited to follow Jesus leave their nets on the beach – foregoing their livelihoods and all they’ve ever known to walk with Jesus. Our passage of focus today is yet another convicting encounter – a moment of clarity. A moment of saying out loud, “This I believe.”
Jesus is traveling with the disciples and they are outside the area known as Caesarea Philippi, a place that oozed with symbols of ancient religion as well as the power and wealth of Caesar – a city bathed in marble. Time for Jesus is running out. There’s a bounty on his head. The religiously powerful folks were tired of Jesus for bending and breaking the rules they all had seemingly agreed upon and were raised to believe were sacred. Jesus’ own family held some embarrassment about all of the conflict Jesus was causing and you know, the Jackson Five, the Kardashians, Jon and Kate Plus Eight – all families have issues of some kind. Jesus has had it out with his own disciples for being slow to the uptake. Easy for us to say being raised on this side of the whole thing but just consider what they left behind – not only careers, livelihoods, family and community status – but they were in the midst of relinquishing so much of what shaped their religious convictions as well. The stakes are high and Jesus knows time is short. Who will continue the movement? Did he invest enough in this rag tag bunch of guys that they could be trusted with the keys to the kingdom?
So, this conversation goes down with the skyline of Caesarea Philippi in the background. “What are people saying about me?” Jesus asks. “Who do they say that I am?” When we read the written word, we miss some of the vibe. We miss the silent moments – the nothing-but-crickets moments. What do we get instead? “They replied,” Matthew says. ‘They’ are not named individually so presumably many in the group responded. Were there casual name-drops? Were there darted looks across the group or elbows to the guy on your left like, “You say something!” Whatever the case – ‘they’ say what they’ve heard, what they’ve read in the tabloids in the check-out line at Whole Foods, and what the latest conspiracy-related post some of them saw on Social Media. The name drops were favorable – Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist returned like a cat with nine lives. By human standards, these were people of impact – flattering comparisons like those who balance the fear of saying someone is the next Michael Jordan without trying to disrespect the greatness of Michael or jinx the young up and comer. That’s all well and good and an easy primer question to get the guys talking. It’s easy to name another’s conviction. But then Jesus asks the pointed question – the only one that really mattered to him – “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s the one question we ask of those who muster up the courage to join our church. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” “Well, yeah, you know, of course, ah… you know Jesus. He’s the Messiah.” Whew. We’ve casualized that statement but there’s nothing casual about it when it is the driving force in your life. It should have life-shaping outcomes for each one of us. Does your answer to that question of Jesus, from Jesus, about Jesus the primary factor in the shape of your life today?
The Shape of our Lives study offers an alternative example for us to think about our own convictions. They say, “Imagine you have an acquaintance named Tom who believes that human life is basically a “race to the top.” For Tom, the whole point of human existence is to excel in one’s chosen field and climb as high and as quickly as possible up that field’s ladder of success. Not surprisingly, this fundamental conviction will guide Tom’s decisions and actions in, and beyond, the workplace. Tom will probably view fellow co-workers as competitors for scare resources like promotions, raises, titles. He may not work with much of a spirit of cooperation as he doesn’t want to encourage another’s growth over his own. Tom might view his home life through this lens as well – as long the family life propels his race to the top and doesn’t hamper or complicate his progress, he views his home life favorably. The rest of his life feeds into this conviction too – church is great if it supports his chosen life goals but if the church ever begins to question the fundamental appropriateness of those life goals, Tom may find himself irritated by what he perceives as the church’s “meddling” in his personal life. While there are other factors of course, Tom’s overall sense of how a particular day or week went, or even how his life in general is going, will inevitably be tied to his sense of how much progress he is making up the career ladder.
The whole point of this example is to demonstrate how even one guiding conviction can totally shape the course and direction of not only our lives but those under our care. In the case of this moment between Jesus and the disciples, Jesus is looking for someone who is willing to make his way their guiding conviction. Peter, whether after a long silence or with immediate conviction, ultimately says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Each synoptic gospel records this moment – as pivotal as any moment in the movement. And Jesus – having walked with Peter long enough, knowing what he’s given up to be with him, having the fireside chats late at night after the others have gone to sleep, knows this isn’t simply lip service. This is a plant-the-stake response. This is trust. And that makes all the difference.
Beliefs are one thing – and they belong to us. But trust involves something, or someone, beyond ourselves. Trust represents a bond between you and that other person, thing, God. Texas media mogul Bob Buford, in his book The Second Half, tells of the tragic drowning of his only child, Ross. Ross was a bright TCU graduate turned investment banker in Denver. At the age of 24, he and a couple of buddies attempted to swim across the Rio Grande River. It was the last adventure he would ever pursue. After 41 trackers searched for him, and Buford himself hired airplanes, helicopters, boats, trackers with dogs (“everything that money could buy“), Buford walked along a limestone bluff 200 feet above the river, “as frightened as I’ve ever felt.” “Here’s something you can’t dream your way out of,” I told myself. “Here’s something you can’t think your way out of. Here’s something you can’t buy your way out of. Here’s something you can’t work your way out of ….” “This is,” Buford thought to himself while walking that river bluff, “something you can only trust your way out of.” Buford wrote, “I remember sending up a prayer that, in retrospect, seems to be the most intelligent petition I ever made to heaven. “Dear God,” I pleaded, “somehow give me the ability to accept and absorb whatever grace people might bring to me at this terrible time. Amen.” Trust is a next level bond. Peter has this with Jesus.
I mentioned before that the three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include this encounter. “You are the Christ!” Peter says in some form in each gospel followed by Jesus saying, “You got that right and I’ll call you Peter” which is really a play on words Jesus makes as Peter’s name sounded very much like rock in their language. John doesn’t include this specific encounter but he shares one similar to it. In John’s account, Jesus has just thrown down some tough teaching and the crowds are leaving disgusted – they didn’t get it, they didn’t like it, or both. Jesus knew how to clear a room! With just the twelve remaining, Jesus turns to them and says, “Well – you all out of here too?” In this instance, Peter says, “We have come to believe that you are the holy one of God.” We don’t quite get what you’re doing. What we do understand, we’re not so sure we like it but we’re going to follow you anyway because we’ve learned that we can trust you. Now – there is a subtle but important difference in the way Peter says this in John’s telling versus the other gospels. The word John uses for believe is actually the Greek word, “pistis.” John uses it 90 times while it only appears in the other three gospels 40 times combined. It’s a deeper word. “We have come to have faith, to obey, to trust you,” Peter says to Jesus. This is conviction. Beliefs don’t ask you to give anything of yourself. Somebody said it like this: “You can believe all kinds of things and still be the mean old grump that you are.” But trust means you are living in the face of mystery, you’re depending upon something, you have a particular orientation that shapes everything in your life. It is this level of profession that Peter makes in Jesus and it’s the one that prompts Jesus to say, “Here are the keys to the whole thing, kid.” With a trust of that kind, Jesus knows the church will prosper.
Do you have a trust like that? Trusting God means placing our lives in God’s hands. At minimum, such a trust requires us to live knowing there is more to life than we can see from our human perspective. It requires a trust to know that in Jesus we come face to face with God… and this must impact our living. The world will push us away from this trust, saying the way of Jesus is impractical, utopian, and unrealistic. But placing our deepest conviction, our greatest trust in Christ is to live like our human life is never more beautiful than when it is lived in the way of Jesus. Faith will ask you to trust. The world will ask you to fear. But “a life gripped in fear has little hope of being a beautiful life.” How are you living out your trust in Jesus? How is your conviction made known to world?
The NPR radio essay show “This I Believe,” started by Edward Murrow continues today. Recently author and journalist Sara Miles offered her convictions about how her idea of “belief” changed when her skepticism turned to trust after receiving communion for the first time. It opened for her a sense that in the sharing of not just that sacred meal, but any meal, that God was revealed. To the chagrin of some of her fellow parishioners, she started a food pantry right in the church sanctuary where oranges and potatoes and Cheerios were given away from the same altar where she first received the body of Christ in communion. “We gave food to anyone who showed up. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day laborers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters, bishops – all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people.” Serving over 500 strangers every week, Miles said, “I confronted the same issues that had kept me from religion in the first place. Like church, the food pantry asked me to leave certainty behind, tangled me up with people I didn’t particularly want to know and scared me with its demand for more faith than I was ready to give.” And then listen to what trust/conviction required of her. “Because my new vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays and declaring myself ‘saved.’ I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman’s Magnum and then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of my car. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my doubting friends, and the prejudices and traditions of my newfound church. But I learned that hunger can lead to more life – that by sharing real food, I’d find communion with the most unlikely people; that by eating a piece of bread, I’d experience myself as part of one body. This I believe: that by opening ourselves to stranger, we will taste God.”
This is trust. I imagine Jesus would toss Sara Miles a set of keys to the kingdom as well. In truth, I believe that Jesus is standing before each one of us asking that long ago question in the most current and relevant of ways: “Who do you say that I am?” “Will you put your trust in me?” What do you say? How will you live out your trust? There are so many faithful ways to do so. But do so we must. If we will, Jesus is more than ready to put that same sacred key in our hands as well.
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 The Shape of our Lives. Kenneson, Murphy, Williams, Fowl, and Lewis. WIPF & STOCK. Eugene, OR. 2008. This sermon series is shaped by this study. Its influence is evident in the selection of scripture passages and other support for the message.
 Identity by Thomas Merton / Source: “My Argument with the Gestapo.”
 This comparison of the Greek word, “pistis” can be studied in various commentaries. This particular comparison I first heard shared by Rev. David Emery, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Louisville, KY. http://middletownchristian.org/
 As shared from the chapter on “Convictions” in “The Shape of Our Lives” study. For more on Miles story, check out her book, “Take this Bread.” Ballantine Books. New York. 2008.