The Pharisees have realized that they are going to have to do something about Jesus.  Even though Jesus has been speaking in parables, they see that Jesus is clearly pointing to their failure to be good vineyard workers.  He is pointing to the reality that they have declined God’s invitation to the Son’s wedding banquet.  In order to do something about Jesus the Pharisees send some of their disciples along with some Herodians to visit with Jesus.  This is an unlikely alliance.  Jewish folks in Jesus’ time are an occupied people.  They are occupied by Rome.  The Pharisees would not want associate directly with their occupiers.  It would ruin their credibility with their fellow Israelites.

The “Herodians,” on the other hand, are loyal to Herod, who was placed in power by the Romans.  The Herodians are likely to cooperate with Rome.  We would not assume, then, that the Pharisees would have much to do with Herodians.  Perhaps that is why the Pharisees send some of their disciples instead of going themselves.  Like so many who hold religious and political power, the Pharisees are willing to bend their convictions just a little bit in order to do something about Jesus.

The allied Pharisee disciples and Herodians approach Jesus and give him their best dose of flattery.  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”  This is, of course, an accurate description of Jesus, even though it comes from the mouth of liars.  It will become clear that they do not really believe this.  After their attempt at buttering up Jesus, they get to their question.  “Tell us then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

What a good trap they have set!  On the one hand, if Jesus tells them not to pay taxes, it will out him as a rebel, a seditionist, someone not to be trusted by the government.  Such words by Jesus would certainly be grounds for an arrest as an enemy of the state.  On the other hand, if Jesus tells them to pay taxes, he will look like he is sympathetic for Rome.  To do this would be to lose all credibility with his fellow occupied Israelites.  What will he do?

Jesus doesn’t buy their flattery, and he makes sure they know he recognizes their hypocrisy.  Jesus asks for a denarius, which is the coin that was used for the tax to the emperor.  “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  Jesus asks. They answer, “The emperor’s.” Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Matthew tells us that the Pharisee disciples and the Herodians are “amazed” and they leave Jesus.  What has Jesus done here, exactly?  Why is this answer amazing to them?  Often, when we hear this answer, we don’t really consider it amazing.[1]  Is this because we are so familiar with the interpretation, or is it that we are inclined to interpret this passage in an unamazing way?  I would lean towards the latter.

Jesus’ response to his interlocutors is brilliant because he answers the question without falling into either of their traps.  In describing the coin’s appearance, he avoids losing credibility with his fellow Jews.  This denarius would have been a silver coin, “bearing on one side an image of the emperor, Tiberius, with an inscription ascribing divinity to him.”[2]  To have such an image, combined with the description of the emperor as divine would have been a clear violation of the first and second commandments barring the worship of any other gods and making idols.[3]

To carry the currency of Rome would have been to potentially commit idolatry.  This would have been a familiar problem to any of Jesus’ fellow Jews, and it would have made it clear that he was not in cahoots with Rome.  Additionally, by recommending that they be given back to Caesar, he is not showing the kind of open resistance to the occupying power that will get him immediately arrested.

Jesus’ answer is often interpreted to suggest that we live with a dual loyalty to God and the state.[4]  God gets what is God’s, and Caesar, which stands for the government, gets what rightly belongs to him.  The problem is that Caesar is not a neutral term here.  As we see from Jesus’ answer, this is not really about paying taxes.  This is not a simple discussion about divided loyalties.  This is not about acting publicly as a citizen and privately as a Christian.  Jesus knows no difference between these two realms.[5]  While Jesus doesn’t say anything to get himself arrested in this moment, we know that later he will be arrested, and that one of the charges against him will be that he is an enemy of the emperor.  To give those coins back to Caesar is to return those false idols to their source.[6]  Caesar’s coin bears his idolatrous image.  Therefore, those who ask Jesus this question and hold coins that bear the emperor’s image show themselves to be more faithful servants of the emperor than of God.[7]

How, then, does this translate into our own context?  We have no emperor, yet we are certain that there are times when our loyalty to God comes into conflict with our loyalty to the state.  We know that to be a good Christian is not always the same thing as to be a good citizen.  When we raise such concerns, we will likely hear that knee-jerk, “Well if you don’t like it here, you can find somewhere else to live!”  But this is to miss the point.  The conflict would exist no matter where we live.  We are fortunate to live in a place where we are allowed to consider this conflict openly.  However, our ability to consider it often dulls our sense of those times when there is truly a conflict.  As Stanley Hauerwas says,

To recognize that we have an insoluble problem is to begin to follow Jesus…Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and Herodians does create an insoluble problem, but that is what it is meant to do.  You know you have a problem, at least if you are a disciple of Jesus, when you do not have a problem. [8]

What Dr. Hauerwas means here is that to see the conflict is a sign that we are taking Jesus seriously.  The next question we run into is, “If we are to see this conflict more clearly, if we are not to come in danger of turning our state into an idol, how are we to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?”

Jesus names clearly that the idolatrous coins should be returned to Caesar because they bear his image.  If we are to give to God what is God’s, what bears God’s image? [9]  We bear God’s image.  We are created in God’s image.  Relationally, this means that we cannot turn others into objects or persons to exploit.  Instead, we treat them as ones in whom God’s image dwells, even when some folks don’t show that image very clearly.  As Christians, we are called to bear God’s image in such a way that those with whom we come into contact will encounter God’s love.  We are not left to this task alone.  If it were simply up to us to bear this image, we would be in deep trouble.  This image was badly damaged at the fall, and sin is still a disease from which we badly suffer.  As we saw last week, God’s grace is required for us even to recognize how sick we are.

We will see this morning the primary place in which we become the image bearers of God. It is the place where those who belong to God begin their return to God.  It is in Baptism.[10]  When we come to these waters, and the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is spoken, God claims us as God’s own.  It is in that moment where we most clearly recognize that we belong to God.  Give to God what is God’s.  In Baptism, we belong to God.

When we seal the baptism with an anointing and prayer to the Holy Spirit, the oil is placed on the forehead of the person being baptized, and we say, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as a faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.”[11]  We are inscribed with God’s claim on us.  We belong to God.  God has claimed us.  The grace that we meet in the sacrament as the waters pass over us are the beginning of a grace that follows us entire lives.  At this font this morning, when Lani is baptized, this is the beginning of a grace that will follow her for her entire life.  Baptism is the place where our story is firmly situated with God’s story.  If we respond to this grace it will lead to recovery of God’s image in in us.   If we respond to this grace, we will grow in our understanding of the ways our story is part of God’s story.

Today is Laity Sunday.  The reason that we have a Laity Sunday is that laity are worth celebrating because much of the work of the church is done by the laity.  You might then wonder why I entitled this sermon “Abolishing the Laity!”  What I have just said about Baptism is the source of the claim that we need to abolish the laity.  There’s nothing wrong with being laity, except for when we start to think that lay folks aren’t called.

As a clergy person I can clearly articulate my calling.  I am ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.   My entire ministry is filtered through those lenses.  I hopefully can articulate my call story as a place where my story fits into God’s story.  But sometimes we think that is only an experience reserved for the clergy.  Clergy are the only people who are called.  It’s not true.  We are all bearers of the divine image.  We are all called.  When we are baptized, “we are incorporated in God’s mighty acts of salvation.”[12]

When we respond to that grace we meet in baptism, we discover who we are called to be in the world.  This font is where we meet our calling.  Before I was an ordained clergyperson, I was baptized.  Baptism is the ordination of the laity.  Each and every one of us here is ordained to be servants of God in the world.  We are all ordained.  There’s nothing wrong with being laity as long as it isn’t a way to suggest that we aren’t all ordained to something.

My baptism happened to lead me to ordination as a clergy person, to this font, this table, this pulpit and out into the world, but yours may call you somewhere else.  That is the beauty of following the baptismal grace we share as members of Christ’s body.  It is in the grace of baptism where we meet God’s claim on us, where we see that we bear the divine image.  Return to God what belongs to God.  It is our very lives, and all that we are.

[1]Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), p. 190.

[2] Susan G. Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective, “ Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 191.

[3] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 190.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 191.

[9] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 190.

[10] Spalding, Feasting, p. 192

[11] “Baptismal Covenant I,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  UM Publishing House, 1989), p. 37.

[12] “Baptismal Covenant I,” UM Hymnal, p. 33.


Back in 2007, you may remember an Amish community, where a man burst into their school and shot ten little girls.  Five of these little girls were killed in the shooting.  It was a terrible tragedy by any measure.  Yet, what people were blown away by was the forgiveness shown by that Amish community.  Their donations to the widow and children of the killers, and their presence at the burial of the one who perpetrated such violence against their community seemed unimaginable.  However, those Amish folks made it clear that their actions came as a result of their understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.[1]

Yet, even I imagine to some of us as fellow Christians, such forgiveness seems unimaginable.  This is where Jesus takes us this week.  Last week we considered what it means to handle discipleship as a community, with a disposition always towards reconciliation.  Peter’s question to Jesus immediately after Jesus’ counsel calls us now in these moments to struggle with the practical living out of a community that is always predisposed towards reconciliation.

Peter asks the question pointedly.  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  It is important to note that Peter’s suggestion is probably not meant as a literal limit.  Rather, since seven is a number of perfection in the Bible, Peter is more than likely asking something like, “Must I practice perfect forgiveness?”[2]  When Jesus responds “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or “seven times seven” depending on your translation, what he means is that our practice of forgiveness must be beyond perfect.[3] What Jesus means by this is that the very nature of the church as the body of Christ includes forgiveness even beyond what we can often imagine.

Yet, if you’re like me, you may be wondering, how can we really live like this?  If you’re not wondering that yet, think about some of the implications of such radical forgiveness.  Consider the Amish folks who lost all those little girls.  Or perhaps consider women or men who are being abused by their spouses.  What do Jesus’ words here mean for them?  Are they called to continually return to their abusive spouses?  Or what about registered sex offenders?  What happens when they want to become a part of the church’s fellowship?  How are we to receive them while still protecting the vulnerable persons among us, such as our youth and children?

What it comes down to is that our working understanding of what forgiveness means has real, tangible consequences in our lives.  Perhaps that is why Jesus felt it necessary to share a parable to clarify the character of forgiveness in the church.

My favorite novelist, Flannery O’Connor, said that when your audience does not share the same vision as you,

have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.[4]

I think that is what Jesus is doing in this parable.  This parable, often called the “parable of the ungrateful servant” is particularly exaggerated.  The characters Jesus describes are drawn as caricatures, so that his point is abundantly clear.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  The slave in the story owes his lord ten thousand talents.  “Ten thousand talents” suggests an absurd amount of money.  It would be likes you owing me a bagillion dollars.  Suffice it say, the slave owes the king a debt that cannot be paid by any circumstances.  Because he cannot pay his debt, his lord decides to sell the slave, his wife, and his children into prison in order for the payment to be made.  It was against Jewish law to sell someone into slavery, and while it was legal in Greek and Roman law, it was a seldom practiced.  This detail suggests that king in this parable is especially severe.[5]  Yet, the king’s severity makes his mercy towards the slave all the more surprising.

The slave pleads with his lord for more time, and the king unbelievably has mercy, not just giving the slave more time to pay, but also forgiving his servant’s unpayable debt.  The story then takes another surprising turn.  A fellow slave owes the first slave a hundred denarii.  This would be like me owing you fifty bucks.  Yet, even for this small amount the first slave puts a choke hold on his fellow slave because of the debt.  When this slave who owes such a relatively small debt appeals for mercy, the slave who received such mercy shows no mercy at all.  He throws his fellow slave in debtors’ prison until he can pay the debt.  Some other slaves see all this activity, and they report it to their lord.  Their lord turns severe again because he cannot believe that this slave could not show forth the mercy that he was shown.

The picture Jesus paints here is surprising.  The lord we encounter in this story is clearly like God, and we fellow slaves of our common are like the servants.  However, it is important also to recognize that the lord we encounter in the parable is not identical to God.  Thus, we should not get too hung up on the details of the lord in the parable torturing the slave.  Jesus paints his picture with such stark imagery to jolt us out of our normal routine in order to show us the surprising and counter-cultural nature of the church’s practice of forgiveness.

He is shouting because Peter and we are having a hard time understanding the nature of his kingdom.  He is drawing with large figures because Peter and we aren’t very good and seeing what the kingdom of heaven looks like.  What is most clear is that God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of one another are related.  God’s forgiveness should effect in us forgiveness for others.  This is what we pray each week in the Lord’s prayer, that God would “forgive our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others.”

As we approach Jesus’ words more closely in context, as Jesus jolts us to attention, we receive a clearer vision of what forgiveness looks like in the Christian community.  Our forgiveness first and foremost flows of our deep sense of humility and gratitude.  We first understand ourselves as ones who have received gracious and undeserved mercy.  Therefore, when we encounter the sin of another, no matter how small or large the sin, we remember that it could be us.  We remember that in many cases it was us.  Recognizing this, we are moved towards understanding.  We are moved towards mercy.

Perhaps more accurately, that is how we should act.  In reality, we are not so merciful.  We forget what it is like to be the recipients of such grace and mercy as God has shown us.  Instead of holding on to one another in an embrace of love, we grab one another with a choke hold.

As a Christian community, we are called to the difficult and delicate task of holding in tension what we heard last week about community discipline with the community we hear about this week whose very life is shaped by an unending stream of forgiveness.  As one commentator notes, “The forgiveness Jesus calls for is inseparable from truth telling and accountability within the church.”[6]  It means that when the abused man or woman is in our midst, we do not simply send him or her back into the hands of the abuser to be hurt again.  Rather, we care for the abused and empower that person by taking one, then two or three, and then the whole church if necessary to deal with the abuser, always with the hope of reconciliation.  If the abuser will not repent, then we may be forced to submit the abuser to disciplinary action.  In this way the church cares for the abuser and the abused.

This commitment to a community that balances accountability and forgiveness is written into the promises we make when people are baptized in our midst.  We promise to

surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.  We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.[7]

The balance is between this “community of love and forgiveness” and our responsibility to help one another to be “true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”  To enter into this community is to enter into a community that will call us to costly grace, to a life of discipleship.  Yet, we also acknowledge that as we encourage one another towards growth in love of God and neighbor, we ourselves are recipients of an unimaginable and indescribable mercy.  This humbles us, and when we share that mercy and forgiveness with one another we create that community of love and forgiveness.  It is a community that knows that God welcomes us as we are, yet we are also a community that recognizes that God does not leave us that way.

The Gospel lesson for this morning, this thing we receive as good news, is that we aren’t as good and deserving as we think we are.  It chips away at our entitlement.  It chips away at our notion that we someone deserve the place in which we find ourselves.  It chips away our secret inklings that we are where we are because we are better than others.  It lays us bare before our Creator who we constantly run away from.  As the scales fall from our eyes, we see the way in which that same Creator constantly reaches out to us definitively in Jesus Christ, whose body of love and forgiveness consumes us as we consume the simple elements of bread and wine.

As we are consumed in this way, a mercy, a forgiveness, arises in this community that we never thought was possible.  It is not a forgiveness that allows us to take advantage of each other.  It is not a forgiveness that leaves the vulnerable more abused.  It is not to pretend that nothing has happened and move on. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we pretend we aren’t hurt.  It doesn’t even mean that we pretend that problematic and hurtful behaviors aren’t condemned.  Forgiveness means that we give up our desire for vengeance and retribution.[8]

This is what happens when we take Jesus seriously.  We look strange to the world around us.  This is why the Amish who forgave the one who murdered five of their little girls looked strange.  We may even look strange to each other, considering that many Christians, many of us, included were not sure we could be so faithful in the midst of such tragedy.  Yet, the forgiveness those Amish folks offered did not mean that they weren’t hurt.  There was an assumption by those watching the story that the forgiveness shown by the community suggested that the community members had quickly gotten over the tragedy.    This could not be further from the truth.  Many of the members of the community sought counseling, and I would imagine many of them continue to be affected by those events.  Yet, their forgiveness meant that they released this man and his family from the vengeance that many of us would demand in the face of such tragedy.[9]

Last week, I noted that one of the reasons that “binding and loosing” is a mark of the Body of Christ is that the church is called to be a sign and instrument of God’s glory in the world.  We are called to be a blessing to the world.  The kind of unbelievable forgiveness that is found in the life of the church has the effect of drawing the attention of the world around us.  Our reaction matters.  Our life as a community of love and forgiveness means that in the face of unimaginable hurt and pain, through the grace we find in Christ we find ourselves able to show unimaginable mercy.

This is an important thing for us to remember as we reflect on this tenth anniversary of the deaths in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.  There are all sorts of folks who are going to use this anniversary for their own agenda.  News companies will seek ratings, politicians will seek to score points by blaming one another, and those who speak words of hate will use the memories to spark hate and fear in our hearts.  There will be a lot of talking, a lot of words about these events.

Yet, what may be the best thing in these moments is silence.  It is in the silence where we meet ourselves as persons who have received an unimaginable mercy.  It is where we are confronted with our own tendencies towards hate and violence.  It is also where the Holy Spirit, who leads us into the truth that we are called to be this community of love and forgiveness, so that the world might know what God’s love and forgiveness look like.

If we are to take Jesus’ words seriously, what does our continuing response to the tragedy we experienced ten years ago look like?  How are we to get beyond agendas, be honest about our pain, and yet get beyond the feelings of vengeance that well up in us?  Put a different way, how do we find ourselves responding in a way that that is an alterative to putting our proverbial boot “you know where”?  The answer to this question is not easily arrived at.  I don’t think it’s an answer than any of us can arrive at on our own.

I think the beginning of the answer comes in Jesus’ call to a seventy-seven kind of forgiveness.  We, as this alterative community called the church as called to struggle with what it means to offer this same love and forgiveness even to those who we would consider our worst enemies.  It is not something I can do without you, nor you without me.  It must come out of our common agreement that our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ is to be part of a community where forgiving seventy-seven times is the rule, not the exception.

To move towards forgiveness is not to dishonor those whose lives were lost.  Rather, it is live authentically as the community created by the one who conquered death.  It is to speak life into the midst of a narrative that is dripping with death and violence.  It is not to suggest that such death and violence can be overcome.

Rather it is to speak authoritatively that such hate and violence has already been overcome by Jesus Christ, God’s decisive answer to a world fascinated by vengeance and death. 

The church’s character as a community of love and forgiveness is the witness that such a victory has already been achieved through our grace-assisted ability to live as such a community.  The church demonstrates that there is an alternative to the world as it is because it shows the world as it could be.

What made the forgiveness of the Amish so surprising and even appalling to so many people, even to us as fellow Christians is that we didn’t believe it was possible.  Despite what we might say, we didn’t really think that kind of love and forgiveness, that kind of seventy times seven, was possible.  What would it do to the world around us if the church were to take that kind of posture towards the tragic events we remember today?

We are humbled as we consider the gracious mercy offered to us.  Perhaps God in these reflective moments is calling us to consider how we might share such a gracious mercy with a world so full of pain, so full of hurt, so poisoned by a desire for vengeance.  This morning, I saw words on facebook from another pastor that I think ends a sermon that I wasn’t quite sure how to end.  She said, “God does have a way of combating evil. It’s not punishment and it’s not retaliation, fear or anger. It’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s way of combating evil.”[10]

[1] Joseph Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief,” NPR News,, (October 2, 2007) cited September 11, 2011.

[2] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 69.

[3] Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 69.

[4] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country” The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Library of America, 1988)

[5] Ibid., p. 71.

[6] Charles Cambell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 71.

[7] “Baptismal Covenant I,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  UM Publishing House, 1989), p. 35.

[8] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, p. 19.  Cited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting, p. 72.

[9] Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter,” NPR, cited September 11, 2011.

[10] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Facebook post, cited on September 11, 2011.

Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  They reply “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  Jesus then asks them pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”  This question, of “Who is this Jesus?” repeatedly arises throughout Jesus’ ministry.   The disciples ask this question after Jesus calms the seas, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the seas obey him?” (Matthew 8.27).  The Pharisees have questioned Jesus as well, suggested that his power to cast out demons comes by the power of demons rather than God (Matthew 9.34).

John the Baptist even asks about Jesus’ identity from prison:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3).  People in Jesus’ hometown wonder about Jesus as well:  “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?  Is not this the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother called Mary?  And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us?  Where did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13.54-56).  As we saw a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ in encounter with the disciples as he walked on the water has to do with his identity as well.  It is only after Jesus brings Peter back into the boat that they declare that Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 14.33).

Even right before our Scripture lesson for this morning the Pharisees and Sadducees came to ask Jesus for a sign from heaven (Matthew 16.1).  One important thing we can see from this question is that Jesus’ activities that we call “miraculous” must not have been self-evident signs to the religious leaders of who Jesus was.  Sometimes we think, “If I had just been there!” or “If my friend had just been there to see the miracles it wouldn’t be so hard to believe sometimes.”  The truth is that there were a lot of people doing a lot of things that appeared miraculous, so even in Jesus’ time miracles were not enough to convince folks of who Jesus is.  Something more is needed.

There are a lot of possible answers to the question of “Who do you say I am?”  The multitude of answers to this question should suggest to us that Jesus’ identity is not self-evident.  Something more is needed.  Jesus must reveal himself.  Jesus speaks for himself.  As we said a couple of weeks ago, without Jesus’ words, the figure walking on the waters is ambiguous.  In fact, one way to read the Gospels is that as we encounter Jesus in them, Jesus is revealing himself more and more deeply to us as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds.

And yet…even when we know Jesus, when we start to get close to him, we start getting uncomfortable.  We realize how much he demands of us.  And so we back off.  We start to explain some of the tough stuff away, (He couldn’t really mean that!) or we attempt to impose an identity on Jesus.  We remake him in our own image.  We remake him into whatever image with think fits in with our vision of the way the world should be.

Take the unlikely example of the prayer scene in the comedy movie Talladega Nights.  Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby is at the dinner table with his family and his friend, John C. Reilly’s character, Cal Noughton, Jr.  Ricky Bobby begins to say grace over dinner, and he begins to pray to “baby Jesus.”  As Ricky Bobby continues to specifically name the baby Jesus in his prayer, his wife finally interrupts him and says, “Honey, you know Jesus did grow up.”

Ricky Bobby’s response is, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace!”  As they argue at the table about what Jesus to pray to, Ricky’s friend Cal adds to the conversation that he likes to picture Jesus in a Tuxedo T-Shirt, that says, “I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party. I like to party, and I like my Jesus to party, too.”  One of Ricky Bobby’s children quickly jumps into the conversation to suggest that he likes to imagine Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.[1]

Obviously, the conversation at Ricky Bobby’s dinner table is meant to be funny.  However, the reason it is funny is that there is some truth in what is happening at the table.  Rather than dealing with Jesus as he reveals himself in Scripture, each character at the table attempts to re-make Jesus in his or her own image.  Ricky Bobby likes to imagine Jesus as a little innocent baby.  At least in Ricky Bobby’s mind, this is not a baby who will make any demands on his life, nor is this a baby that is destined to die on a cross for his sin.  Cal remakes Jesus in his own image as someone who “likes to party.”  Ricky Bobby’s son is a kid who likes ninjas, so why not make Jesus a ninja while we’re at it?

Ricky Bobby’s wife is mad at him for praying to the baby Jesus not because she thinks he should pray to a more authentic Jesus but rather she wants him to quote “Do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow.”  For her God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God is not the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.   Rather, her god sounds like the god of the nations, who is only as good as what good favor that god can produce for Ricky Bobby and his family.  I bet when you got up to church this morning, you didn’t think Talladega Nights would turn up in the sermon did you?

The Bobby family’s discussion at the dinner table is a funny illustration of something that we encounter regularly in more serious and subtle ways.  Consider the different ways that people claim that Jesus is on their side.  Politicians on the left and right claim that Jesus would be just like them. During wars people invoke God and/or Jesus as supportive of “their side.”  This happens even in the church, as church marketers portray Jesus as a keen salesman of ideas.  Yet, when we really encounter Jesus in the Gospels, and when we allow Jesus to encounter us, that is when we begin to understand what discipleship looks like.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter gets Jesus’ identity correct.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter rightly answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Finally!  Peter gets it!  This is clearly an important moment because it is in that moment that Jesus declares that Peter is the rock upon the church will be built.  The gates of Hades will not prevail upon this church.  Peter has the keys to the kingdom!  Yet, it feels like almost in the next breath, Peter loses focus again.

After it is clear that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Jesus goes on to describe what that identity looks like.  It is going to Jerusalem.  It is suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes.  It is being killed.  It is being raised on the third day.  Peter, who has just gotten it right says, “God forbid it, Lord!”  Peter was right that Jesus was the Messiah.  But now Peter is upset because Jesus is not the kind of Messiah he was hoping for.

Instead of riding in on a war horse to conquer the Romans, Jesus will ride in on a donkey and die on a cross.  This one upon whom the church will be built is suddenly guilty of doing the same thing we are constantly in danger of doing:  trying to remake Jesus in an image that is more digestible.  Suddenly Ricky Bobby and Peter do not seem so far away from one another.

Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that Peter was hoping for.  And when we come down to it, often we find that Jesus isn’t the kind of Messiah we were hoping for.  When we come face to face with this Jesus, we run into the claims he makes on us.  When we run into the demands he makes on our life, it is a sobering moment.  We find out Jesus wants us to be just like him.  And what does that mean?  He tells us later in chapter 16.  He wants us to pick up our cross and follow him.  He wants us to lose our lives.  He wants us to deny ourselves.  This is not the kind of Messiah we were hoping for.

When we encounter the Christ headed for the cross, just like Peter, we find ourselves crying out, “God forbid it, Lord!”  Except that our cry is not so much about our concern for Jesus.  It is a cry for ourselves because we know Jesus expects us to follow him there if necessary.  So we start the work of creating a Jesus in our own image.  A Jesus that just doesn’t ask so much of us.  We want a Jesus whose identity is easier to take.  A Jesus who looks a lot more like us.

In fact, when scholars go back and try to find the “historical Jesus,” the Jesus they find ends up looking a lot like the ones doing the searching. They assume they can “go around” the Gospels to get to the “real Jesus.”  But when we encounter Jesus in this Gospel, we get a real sense of who Jesus is as the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts and minds.  We get a sense of who he expects us to be.  It’s just that sometimes we just don’t like it very much.

To find out the answer to “Who do you say that I am?” is hard work.  It doesn’t just come naturally.  It’s not just about “learning about Jesus,” it’s about our lives being transformed.  About them looking like his. The only way that happens is through the grace that Christ makes available.  The grace we find in baptism.  The grace that we receive when we come to this table and share his body and blood.  That is the only way that we make progress.  Left to our own devices, we would just keep remaking Jesus in our own image, idols made by human hands to which we can bow down.  We just end up making up Jesuses who like to party like we do.

It’s hard work to learn who Jesus is.  If you look at the history of the church, we’ve spent a lot of our history trying to figure out who this Jesus is.  Some of the best work came in the councils of the early church.  There were a lot of people saying an awful lot of things about who Jesus was.  Was he just a man that God chose as a prophet?  Was he a god that looked like a man and only seemed to die?  Was he fully human and fully divine?  Who was this Jesus?

When we get together each Sunday and we hear the proclamation in the scripture and the sermon, and then after the sermon we affirm our faith in the creeds, we are reminding ourselves of who Jesus is.  We are collectively answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  The Apostle’s Creed reminds us of who Jesus is.  It doesn’t let us get away with taking out the difficult things.  Today, when we affirm our faith, we’ll be using the Nicene Creed, which was developed in the 4th century.  It came in the midst of a huge discussion of the church about who Jesus was and is.  They realized that they needed to get more specific.

There were still all these people saying Jesus just seemed like he was human.  It just seemed like he died.  Except that if he wasn’t really a human who died, then where does that leave us?  If he didn’t become like us, how did he save us?  Other people were suggesting he was just a man.  However, if he was just a man, was he really able to accomplish his work?  His work was something that only God could accomplish.

And so we find ourselves in the surprising situation of a God who takes, as we said last week, our dirty selves onto God’s self.  The Nicene Creed that we will say together is the fruit of the Church’s work of discerning a little bit more clearly, more precisely, who Jesus is.  Each article has a specific reason.  For example, when we say, “true God from true God,” there is a reason.  There were some who doubted that.  Some thought that just maybe Jesus wasn’t truly God.  This creed is not just a wrote document that we get together and say each week.

When we walk out of these doors, we are still going to encounter a lot of people saying a lot of different things about who Jesus is and who we are a supposed to be.  The creeds help protect us because the creeds are a summary of our story.  It is not a story we chose for ourselves, but is a story that we were caught up in by water and the Spirit.  The creeds help us make sure we remember who Jesus is.  It is a prayer that we won’t forget Jesus’ identity, so that we won’t forget ours.  It is the way for us to be able to truthfully answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen. 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[1] Will Ferrel and Adam McKay, Tallagedga Nights:  The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Sony Pictures:  2004).

For best results, listen to this while reading: 

While Jesus is praying, he sends the disciples ahead in a boat.  While they are out on the sea, the disciples run into winds and rough waters.  It doesn’t appear that the wind and waters bother them too much.  Many of them, are, after all, fishermen. What really bothers them is the figure they see walking on the sea.  They aren’t sure what to make sure of it.  “It is a ghost!” they suggest.  But Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

This is about Jesus’ identity.  Who is this figure walking on the seas?  The figure is ambiguous.  Perhaps it is ghost.  Who or what else could it be?  The disciples cannot recognize who it is before them until the figure speaks.  It is Jesus who speaks.  “It is I.”  “It is I” is more than just a simple identification.  “It is I” in Greek is “ego ami.”  In the Greek version of the Old Testament “ego ami” is used for I AM, as in the great I AM.

“I AM” is name that God gives to Moses when Moses asks for God’s name.  To say “I AM” is to identify himself with God.   The same God who subdued the waters in the beginning, and the one who now has such power over the waters now that he can walk on them. But this only comes as a result of Jesus’ word.  Before he identifies himself, he is, at best, ambiguous.

Even after Jesus identifies himself, the disciples in the boat still don’t seem sure.  This is especially true for Peter.  He calls out to Jesus.  He even calls Jesus “Lord,” but he doesn’t fully comprehend what he is saying. To call Jesus “Lord” is something that takes a lifetime to learn about.  If the stories are true, Peter’s growing understanding of Jesus as Lord leads Peter to his own cross.

But in what we see this morning, Peter is still not sure.  Jesus has revealed more about who he is on these waters. Peter begins to respond. “Lord,” Peter says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus simply replies, “Come.”  Peter begins to walk on the water, but the wind distracts him.   He plunges into the unsettling waters.  He cries out for help, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus pulls him out of the water.

Like many of the other stories we have heard over the past few weeks, this is a story most of us know pretty well.  Often, when we hear this story, we hear it as a “get out of your comfort zone” story.  Step out on faith!  Get out of the boat!    There is even a book called, If You Want to Walk on Water, Get Out of the Boat!  I have to admit I’ve never read it, so I can’t recommend it one way or another.  However, the reason the image works is that we like to imagine ourselves stepping out onto those waters!  Yet, I have a question.  When you think of yourself in Peter’s sandals, do you ever see yourself falling in the water?  I usually conveniently leave that part out.  We like to think that perhaps we succeed where Peter failed.

But this is Peter.  Peter made a lot of mistakes, but sometimes he also catches on more quickly than some of the other disciples.  Peter is the one in this story who is actually willing to step out of the boat.  Further, from our perspective we know that Peter ends up in many ways as the leader of the apostles.  It is with Peter that Paul consults as he begins his ministry to the gentiles.  So, is it really likely that we will succeed where Peter failed?  To put the question the question differently, is Peter’s plunge a complete sign of failure?

What if we think about Peter’s plunge differently?  Consider this.  Only after Peter’s plunge does worship happen.[1]  They see Jesus on the water, but they aren’t sure.  He identifies himself, but they aren’t sure.  He commands Peter to come to him on the water.  Peter plunges into the water. Jesus pulls him out of the water and helps him into the boat.  Then they worship Jesus.

What are we to make of Peter’s plunge?  When I think of Peter’s plunge, I think of another important plunge that every Christian makes.  It is our plunge into the baptismal waters.  For Peter, his plunge is a dangerous, life-changing event.  Peter is different when he comes out of the waters.  Before his plunge, he is not sure.  When Jesus pulls him out of the waters, something has changed.  Worship happens.

Just as with Peter’s plunge, when we are baptized, we expect a change. When we are baptized, we are made new.  However the question we have to ask ourselves is, “If my life any different because I am baptized?”  Often, our baptisms bear little similarity to Peter’s experience.  Often our baptisms become sentimental affairs in the most controlled of environments.  There is no danger.  No risk.  Sometimes baptism simply becomes one of those things we “just do” when we have a baby.    It’s like baby’s first haircut.  We miss the reality of the death and resurrection that happens.

When we are baptized, we are incorporated into Christ’s death and resurrection.  That is sometimes hard to think about especially when it comes to the baptism of a child.  But death and resurrection is what baptism is all about!  To plunge into the waters is life-altering event that grows throughout our lives.

Baptism is the beginning of a journey of call and response.  We baptize persons of any age because we recognize that it is God who first claims us and calls us. As important as our response is, even our response is possible only through God’s grace.  Take the disciples as an example.  They cannot recognize Jesus on the waters until he speaks to them.  As we respond to the grace of our baptism, as we respond to God’s claim and call, our life begins to have the character of Jesus.  This happens not only because Jesus is a good example, but also because it is through Jesus that our new life is possible.

Does our response bear any resemblance to Peter’s?  Peter steps out into raging waters, where the only thing he can put his trust in is Jesus’ word.  “Come.”  Is that a step we are willing to take?  There is risk in Peter’s steps.  There is risk in his plunge.  Is there risk in our plunge?  If baptism is “just something we do” is there risk?  If we have grown up in a culture where for many being a good citizen is the same thing as being a good Christian, is there risk?

Things don’t get easier for the disciples after Peter’s plunge.  There is more controversy.  There is suffering, and there is death.  Even after Jesus’ resurrection there is risk in being a Christian.  Being a Christian could land you in the coliseum with the lions.  Being a Christian could get you kicked out of your family.  Contrast that with the climate in which we live.  Most of our lives and our families will never be threatened because we are Christians.  Is there any risk in the waters?  Is there any noticeable difference to the ways our lives are lived?

Where is the risk?  One place we can see it is in the way we find ourselves turned towards those who Jesus identifies in Luke 4: the poor, the captives, the disabled, and the oppressed.  There is risk standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.  There is risk in being with people that others would like not to think about.  Such activity may not seem risky.  But there is risk.  For example, if we feed the hungry long enough, we start to wonder about why they are hungry.  The myth that they are just too lazy to work begins to dissipate, and we begin to see the structures in society that keep people in poverty.

When we run up again against those structures, there is risk.  There are a lot of people who are trying to accumulate power and money.  They are even some people who like to make the laws.  There are a lot of people who are fine with accomplishing those tasks on the backs of the poor, the captives, the disabled, and the oppressed.  To stand up to those persons is to take risks.  The powers that be don’t like us identifying that their power is simply another idol.  It is certain to get us in trouble.

Take for example the story I read this week about a new case that has arisen in Alabama.  There is a new strict immigration law that has been passed, and some of the churches, including The United Methodist Church down there are challenging the law.  Now…stop for a second.  I imagine that all of us in here are maybe stepping to the left.  Maybe we are stepping to the right.  Maybe you are considering what you think the solution is to the “problem.”  But put that aside for a second because in this case, we aren’t talking about the grand solution to the “problem.”

There’s no question that there is brokenness in our immigration system.  I will leave your answer to that larger issue to your politics.  But what I want to point to in this potential law is that it may very well criminalize providing basic help to some persons if they can’t prove they are a citizen.  It would criminalize feeding them if they are hungry.  It would criminalize clothing them if they are naked.  There is risk in these murky waters.

Risk.  Risk of being labeled a”liberal” or a “conservative.”  Of not fitting in.  Of looking weird to those around us. But for this law to be enforced would place Christians in that state in the position of having to choose between the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger (e.g., Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:35) and the state’s requirement that they only serve citizens.

Regardless of our politics, I believe we can agree a Christians that if someone is hungry, we should feed them, regardless of who they are.  We are called to help everyone.  We are called to share food.  We are called to say there are enough places at our table for everyone.  Jesus did not discriminate.  He didn’t turn people away because they were a tax collector or a prostitute.  Jesus did not place qualifiers on who we are to provide ministry to.  If this law is enforced, those who seek to provide basic assistance to all persons may run the risk of having to break the law in order to follow the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger.  There is risk in the waters.  There is risk of not fitting in to neat categories.

Another place to find risk is even within our own church community.  Indeed, the subject of something like immigration is enough to draw us into an argument with one another.  Yet, when we come into this place, we still take risk.  We risk loving one another.  We risk caring about one another enough that we risk being hurt and let down.  Yet, to be close to each other, to be made into a new family as we are in baptism is to invite conflict.

Even if we find ourselves at odds about our politics or other issues, we still come to this table and pass peace and say, “The Peace of Christ be with you!”  To be baptized is to take the risk of loving one another.  Further, to be in a community together is to be called into the risk of taking on new responsibilities as God to which God calls us.

If you have plunged in the water, where is the risk?  What is Christ calling you going to risk?  Where is the difference?  Is it starting a new Sunday school class?  Working with the children?  Participating in a mission trip? Advocating for the poor?  Working with persons with disabilities?  Where is your risk?  Where is God calling you?

The Good News as we consider this reality can be seen in what happens when Peter plunges into the waters.  What happens when Peter begins to sink?  Christ takes a hold of him and doesn’t let go.  This is what we are assured of, is that when we risk the waters, Christ will grab a hold of us and not let go.  When Jesus grabs a hold of Peter he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  We often read Jesus’ words here with a scolding tone.  However, as we have seen, Peter is the only one who takes the risk to step out. Not too many verses before, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed (Matthew 13: 31-32). Later he will speak of faith the size of a mustard seed being able to move mountains (Matthew 17:20).Perhaps a little faith is bigger than we thought.  [2]  After all, it is Peter’s little faith to step out, his plunge, his faith that Jesus will save him when he is in the waters, his willingness to risk the waters that ultimately finds him and the other disciples worshiping Jesus.  To what kind of risk is Christ calling you?

[1] Feasting, on the Word, Year A., Vol. 3, p. 336

[2] Feasting, on the Word, Year A., Vol. 3, p. 337.

« Previous Page