You ever not know what to say? Find yourself at a loss for words? I was struggling to find a funny example of such a situation to lead off the sermon with. The sermon was done, and I just needed a good opener. I googled in search of funny stage fright stories or jokes about saying the wrong thing, and I just couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for. So I decided to forgo my sermon illustration. Then I was telling Sarah and Roy about my struggle to find the right thing to say, and they said, “Well there ya go, there’s a real-life example about you not knowing what to say.” And I said hey good, it’s a sermon illustration about not being able to find a sermon illustration!
The reason I was wanting to find a story about not knowing what to say is because in today’s Gospel reading Peter knows exactly the right thing to say. Today we find ourselves at the center of Matthew’s Gospel. Bible scholars point out that the arc of Matthew’s entire story hinges upon what Peter says here. Everything before this point leads up to it and everything after this point plays it out. Jesus is walking with his disciples on the outskirts of Caesarea Phillipi. I’m told this was the most Roman of all the cities in Israel. There were statues of Roman gods everywhere. And so it’s very significant that this is where Peter’s pivotal “confession of Christ” takes place, right in front of all the false gods of Rome.
Peter will say something here that will get future Christians in the early church killed. That Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The thing members of the early church will do is refuse to say, “Caesar is lord” and instead say “Jesus is Lord” which was a very political statement that got many of them killed! They were fearless in the face of death, and many were thrown to the lions or beheaded or even crucified like Jesus was. Later sources tell us that Peter himself was actually crucified about three decades after Jesus, and that he requested to be crucified upside-down because he felt unworthy to die the same death as his Lord.
But it’s a long way before Peter gets there. Right now he has a big breakthrough and confesses Jesus as Messiah. But he still doesn’t get what the Messiah is. Because the very next thing we get in the story (which we’ll read next week) is Jesus telling the disciples how he must die and Peter telling Jesus that this can’t happen. To which Jesus famously replies, “Get behind me satan!” We’ll explore that next week—but for now suffice to say Peter gets it right, at least for today. He understands that Jesus is special. He gets it that Jesus is the one sent by God to redeem the world. He sees that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. And Peter’s not afraid to say it, even if he doesn’t fully understand what it all means yet.
But this morning this is not just a question Jesus asked Peter two thousand years ago. It is a question Jesus asks us to answer today. Many of us may be eager to express our faith in Jesus. And we do that every Sunday in the words of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. It may seem like something simple to do here when we have creeds and prayers in front of us. But who do we say Jesus is when we’re outside this place? By the way we live and speak in the world? Are we able to answer the question of who Jesus is if we’re asked by friends who don’t go to church? Or if we’re asked by someone who is curious or questioning? What would we say then?
We may want to answer in a faithful way but feel unsure or nervous. We may keep quiet because we don’t want to pressure anybody or make others or ourselves too uncomfortable. Or we may tell ourselves we don’t understand enough theology or scripture to say anything. Or we may have the courage but not the words, and what we want to say comes out like a cringy Facebook meme. Or we may feel ready and eager to share Jesus with others, but don’t recognize when the opportunity arises. Whatever the case may be, there’s any number of reasons why we Christians don’t always share Peter’s enthusiastic confession.
But I think it’s important to realize that you don’t have to have all the answers or be the most eloquent or be full of eagerness and courage to tell people that God is active in your life. You don’t have to understand all the mysteries of the universe in order to tell a friend why Jesus is important to you. The key is to learn how to confess our faith in whatever way is most genuine and natural to us. That is our Peter-like confession.
Some of you may remember the book “Unbinding the Gospel” something Pastor Julie and I introduced the year before the pandemic. The book’s topic is essentially how to talk about faith in a genuine, comfortable way that’s natural to you. How to overcome our stage fright when it comes to talking about Jesus and church. The book was written for mainline Protestants who don’t have a theology that uses fear as an evangelism tactic. Instead, the author’s emphasis is on sharing the Good News of God’s love and grace, which we do by simply sharing how God is important in our lives. How God in Christ Jesus has transformed you. The author, Pastor Martha Reese, says that it’s a tough question for most of us because many of us can’t even remember a time we weren’t Christian, so we have no pre-Christian life to compare the present with. It’s great if you have a wonderful conversion story, but many Christians don’t. Many of us have been Christian since before we can remember.
But Pastor Martha’s point is that we all have something we can share about how God has touched our lives. Some reason why we’re involved with our church community. And the first step is asking ourselves why. Really understanding what brings us here. And then learning to articulate that reason, just to ourselves at first. And when we’ve come up with a coherent response, we can practice saying it to a trusted loved one, and then we’ll be ready with something to share whenever the opportunity arises.
One of the main exercises in “Unbinding the Gospel” is to practice this 30 second elevator speech about why Jesus and church are important to you. When you can master saying that short explanation to yourself in the mirror, then you’ll be prepared whenever an opportunity comes up. Whenever somebody at work asks you why you go to church. Whenever your friend asks what you do on Sunday mornings. When that family member who hasn’t been to church in years asks why you keep coming. Literally practicing a 30 second spiel, our own mini confession of faith, is a simple way modern Christians can respond to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a hard question to answer. But with prayerful consideration, we can develop a response that is both genuine and articulate. One that we can have at the ready when someone asks us what Jesus means to you. Or why going to church is important to you. Or why you believe in God at all. Something we can say when the Holy Spirit gives us the opportunity to share the Good News with others.
The Good News that Jesus has redeemed us, has reconciled the world to himself. The Good News that through the cross our brokenness is made whole. The Good News that God is active in this world, transforming it into the fullness of the new creation. The Good News that Jesus is the blueprint for all humanity and that we are all created in the image of God, called to grow up into the mature children of God we were created to be.
And so this week I invite you to do something that may sound kind of silly. At home, practice a little speech to yourself. Pray about it first, that God gives you the words to say. And answer Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” Better yet, articulate a response to a question a friend might ask about who you say Jesus is, about why your faith is important to you. Learn to articulate a genuine, natural response. And when the time comes, you’ll be ready to join Peter in confessing your faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, Son of the Living God. Amen.
Pastor Brian, August 27th, 2023.