Sermons

Isaiah 51:1—6; Romans 12:1—8; Matthew 16:13—20

Forgive me if I’ve done this exercise with you before. I’m sure it’s familiar to many. I’d like you to take an index finger and point it in the air above your head, if you can. Now, looking up at your finger, begin to trace a circle with a clockwise movement. Do that a couple of times.

Now, without stopping, slowly lower your finger still pointing up, rotating in a clockwise movement until it is in front of your chest, still moving.

As you watch your finger in front of you, notice that it is now moving in a counter clockwise motion.

How can that be so? You didn’t change direction. The only thing that changed was your perspective. It would be silly to argue about whether you were moving your finger in a clockwise or counter-clockwise position because the answer depends on your perspective.

This exercise is used to demonstrate “both/and” thinking.[i] In a culture that values either/or constructs, both/and thinking challenges us to see multiple perspectives as having some truth. This is more difficult than it sounds, particularly when we are deeply invested in one perspective that, at first glance seems diametrically opposed to another. We can feel challenged, fearful that entertaining another perspective might invalidate our own.

Both/and is hard. It is a practice of living in the grey when black or white is the paradigm in which we swim.

We see this struggle all around us in matters of identity. Are you gay or straight? Black or White? Male or Female? Rich or Poor?

Everywhere we turn we are asked to choose a side, choose a category, choose a box to check.

Many of us hold this same either/or thinking when it comes to our lives of faith. Are we a sinner or a saint? Are we a “good Christian” or a “bad Christian”? Do we believe it all or none of it?

In this morning’s Gospel, we hear Peter get an A+ from Jesus. Jesus puts his disciples on the spot. Enough of what you’ve heard other people say about who I am. Who do you think I am? Jesus asks them to move from behind the safety of “some people think” to “I believe”.

Anyone who has wanted to share a dissenting opinion or risk a vulnerable response knows that it is easy to lead with “some people think” than it is “I believe.” But that is what Jesus is after.

The either/or we are presented in this morning’s Gospel is that we either think of Jesus as another prophet, a “good guy” with “good ideas” or we believe that he is the Messiah, Son of the Living God.

I imagine many of us in this room have an easier time with placing Jesus in the long line of prophets, perhaps even going so far as to say he was the ultimate prophet, but Messiah? Son of God? What does that even mean?

I understand the struggle. It’s mine, too.

The most sense I can make of this struggle is that Jesus the prophet is what I can prove. Jesus the Messiah, Son of God is what I believe. Jesus the Messiah, Son of God is who I long to know deeper. It is how I try to live out my faith, more than how I can articulate the parts that make it up. 

For me, it is the difference between some good ideas on how to live, and an invitation to give my life over to a way of being that brings God as close to me as my own heartbeat.

For me, it is the difference between reading a book on the respiratory system and breathing.

Maybe you hear this story of Peter’s confession and you wonder what Jesus might say to you about your answer. Perhaps you’re clearer on the disciple’s description of what “others say” about Jesus, than what Peter confesses.

Maybe this is one more time you feel a disconnect between what you hold in your heart and what you hear the church or scripture telling you should hold in your heart. Maybe you hear this Gospel tell you that you are a “bad Christian” because you don’t totally get/understand the whole Messiah Son of God part of what we, as a faith confess each Sunday.

But I don’t believe Jesus is as concerned with what we profess than he is with how we live. The reason we profess is to shape how we live.

Peter’s confession is only part of the story. Next week we hear the rest. The very next verse of Matthew’s Gospel begins the story that ends with Jesus calling Peter Satan. I’ll deal with that in more depth next week, so you’ll have to come back on Labor Day Weekend to hear more on that subject.

But what I want to lift up for our consideration this morning is that both stories, the one in which Peter is celebrated as the very rock upon which Jesus will build the church, and the one we will hear next week when he is rebuked, both of these stories are about the same person, Peter.

Maybe what we can take away from these Gospel stories for our own lives is that even those who were closest to Jesus, those who heard from his lips, who were healed by his touch, who broke bread with him, even they sometimes got it wrong, horribly wrong. But they also sometimes got it right, wonderfully right.

And so do we.

We can take comfort knowing that the other disciples continued to follow Jesus even while they were still trying to figure out what Peter just said; still trying to figure out who Jesus really was.

And maybe we are reminded why it is so important to do this work in community.

Because no one of us understands the whole truth completely, but together we understand more of it. And no one of us can do all the work that needs to be done, but together we are able to do more of it. There is abundant Grace in knowing that I don’t have to have it all together, all the time. Sometimes I will be Peter from this week’s Gospel, and sometimes I will be Peter from next week.

What made our fingers in the exercise change from clockwise or counter-clockwise was entirely a matter of perspective. What did not change was the energy that kept it moving.

Am I a Good Christian or a bad Christian? Well that might depend on your perspective. Perhaps what matters, though, is the energy that keeps me moving.

And perhaps if, instead of categorizing each other in terms of either/or, if we all bound ourselves to the energy that is the love of God as revealed in Jesus the prophet, the Messiah, the Son of God, if we all bound ourselves to that love, we would see that so much else is a matter of perspective.

AMEN

© 2017 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello[ii]


[i] http://www.schwarzassociates.com/quality-decisions/moving-from-eitheror-to-bothand-thinking/

[ii] While all direct and indirect quotes are always cited, there are sources I read regularly in preparation for sermon writing. Chances are thoughts have been spurred by these sources and so I list the usual suspects here: David Lose, In the Meantime, The New Interpreters Bible, Sacra Pagina .

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