“Who invented baptism?”  This was a question I received in an email from Shawn Kiger about 3 years ago.  I was still serving in Lynchburg at Heritage, and I had just spoken at the District Youth Retreat, focusing my conversation on Baptism and Communion.  Shawn was not asking the question.  Rahter, he was asking on behalf of one of the youth from Lane Memorial United Methodist Church who attended the retreat.  They were discussing the retreat at youth group the next week.

One young man in particular, in the way only a youth can, wanted to know who invented baptism.  I had touched on most everything else regarding Baptism and its significance for our lives as Christians:  receiving the Holy Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, forgiveness of sins, new life, and the grace the follows us throughout our years growing in us and helping to direct us towards the person God is calling us to be.  Yet in this young man’s mind I had left out a critical detail.  Who invented it?  The great part about the answer to this question is that the answer is less than clear.   Sometimes, now that I find myself serving at Lane Memorial, I wonder to myself who it was that asked this question!

It is one of the things I love about the beginning of the Gospel text for today.  John the Baptist suddenly appears.  This figure in the wilderness suddenly comes on to the scene.  He speaks a word of judgment, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He is not the one we would expect to be saying such things.  He appears not in courts of Herod.  Rather, he appears in the wilderness as far from the centers of powers as possible.

He is a rugged character, complete with camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist.  He is eating bugs.  And perhaps most surprisingly, people are responding to his message.  They are coming from all over the place to receive this baptism and confess their sins.  Mark gives us nothing more than he thinks we need to know.  We receive no back-story except that in Mark’s opinion all we need to know is that people have been expecting this unexpected character to turn up for a long time:

“‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Karl Barth, the famous 20th century Swiss theologian, had a reproduction of a famous altar piece painted between 1510 and 1515 by Matthias Grünewald for the monastery of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim.  This painting hung over the desk at which he worked.  Barth because he referred to this altar piece at least 50 times in his speaking and writing.[1]  

Barth’s imagination was captured by Gruënewald’s depiction of John the Baptist’s hand.  John the Baptist extends a skinny small finger, and he points.  He is pointing at Christ.  But not just Christ, Christ crucified.  He points to the wound in Christ’s side, from which bright red blood flows.  It is, as we see today, John’s job always to point. He points not to himself, but to another.

John says in our passage today, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”  He points to the one who comes after him.  Barth understood this to be at the heart of our identity as Christians.  He says, “Shall we dare turn our eyes in the direction of the pointing hand of Gruënewald’s John? We know whither it points. It points to Christ. But to Christ the crucified, we must immediately add. That is your direction, says the hand.”[2]

John appears.  He points.  But it doesn’t tell us who invited baptism.  I could go on and talk about the history of ritual cleansing in Israel, and I could expand and describe on the outsider community of fringe Jews called the Essenes of which many people believe John the Baptist was a part.  Yet, it still doesn’t answer the question.  It doesn’t answer it because while it is a good question and one worth thinking through, when we look at John’s finger pointing at Christ we begin to ask different questions.  He points at Christ.  Baptism is important because Christ underwent Baptism, and he invites us to do the same.  It is interesting that Jesus chose to undergo Baptism, considering it was for forgiveness and repentance, which he did not need.  Yet, he insists that John baptize him.  Why?  The youth and I wrestled with this for a while on Wednesday in our Lectionary Bible Study.

It’s a pretty good question, yet Mark’s matter of fact style seems to circumvent the question to hurry up and get to the good part.  Mark doesn’t care why, he cares that it happened.  More importantly, he cares about what is revealed in the Baptism of the Lord.  The heavens are torn apart.  It’s funny.  When I read these words, I thought back to our conversation during Advent where Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  It appears that is exactly what is happening.  The heavens are torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.  Then we hear a voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What we see in Jesus’ baptism is nothing short than a revelation of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit descends on the one the Father identifies as the Son.  In this revelation the church was able to look back and see glimpses and hints of God’s Triune nature from the very beginning.  The Old Testament Lesson comes from the beginning of Genesis today because in it we see God in the beginning.  We see God’s Spirit moving across the waters.  And then God speaks.  The Word of God.  It has been there from the very beginning, yet only in Jesus Baptism do we have eyes to see that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune name in which we baptize.

Jesus, though he did not need John’s baptism, sanctified it, so, as John himself points out, John’s baptism is with water; but Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. We are baptized by water and the Spirit.  This means that while our baptism includes repentance and forgiveness, it is deeper than that.  It is an entry point because God is choosing us.  Jesus has been baptized, and he invites us to join with him and swim in the waters.

As we join him in the waters, he invites us into himself.  We become a member of his body.  He begins to work us more and more deeply into being a part of him, and we are re-born…we receive and live a life that is new, a life that wades into life that is eternal.  Today as we celebrate Christ’s baptism it is also a celebration of baptizing Mary Alex.  Yet, in this act there is also a solemnity present here.  Today, Mary Alex undergoes a death and a resurrection.  This is made possible because Christ invites us to baptism.  We are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we may share in his resurrection.

As we wade into this life, and he lives us in us and we live for him, we experience the working of a grace that comes not to us just one time when the waters pass over us and the Triune name is spoken.  Rather, it is a grace that grows within us, that follows us.  It is the place in which God begins to call out to us, and it is that grace that allows us to recognize within ourselves who we authentically are created to be.  It is, as I have said before, the ordination of all people who follow Christ to be ministers of the Gospel in the world.

Or, perhaps, Barth might say, Baptism is our initiation to pointing.

Mary Alex cannot point yet, as far as Morgan and I know.  Yet, God is choosing her today in baptism to be God’s very own.  Not because she is a preacher’s daughter.  Not because she is somehow more special than everyone else, but because God loves her and wants her to be a part of the body of Christ.  The promises that Morgan and I make today point not to ourselves, nor to Mary Alex as cute as she may be.  They point to Christ and Christ crucified.  And the promises her Godparents make point not to themselves, but to Christ and Christ crucified.

We are reaffirming our promises, and we are promising to direct Mary Alex’s attention towards Christ and Christ crucified.  So that one day, through God’s grace operating in her through the power of the Holy Spirit, hopefully she will decide she wants to take responsibility to point to Christ with her own life.  This is not an individual endeavor; it is a community endeavor.  We make promises today, and so do you.  You promise “with God’s help,” to

proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her trust of God, and be found faithful in her service to others.  We will pray for her, that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[3]

We are all in this together.  As theologian Laurence  Hull Stookey says, when we receive baptism, “we renounce the popular notion that “I can be a committed Christian without being a member of the church. “[4]  We need each other, and we are drawn toward one another into Christ’s body when we are baptized.  We point together.  We don’t just point for people who aren’t Christians yet.  We point for each other.  We remind each other of who Christ is and that we belong to him.  We point for each other.  God chooses us so we can choose him and each other. In those moment where perhaps we have trouble saying part of the creed, the rest of us can say the creed together and we can speak those words for each other.  We can point.  We can be reminded of who and whose we are.  It is true that right now Mary Alex cannot point.  Yet as she prepares to undergo the waters of baptism in just a few moments, I think of the hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

[1] James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 2.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 112. Cited in James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 3.

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

[4] Laurence Hull Stookey, Baptism:  Christ’s Action in the Church, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 45.


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).