Who is the first Bishop of the Church? ………..
Yep, Peter is the name that fills that blank.
Today, I am inviting us to hear this Gospel story and declaration a bit differently, in a way that brings us into the story as an active participant rather than allowing this story to remain an abstract history of an institution.
Jesus begins with “who do the people say I am?” And much like if the question were answered today, Jesus gets a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet…..Today we might get answers like: Son of God, Redeemer, Savior; and maybe even: some dude in the bible, a hoax, a nice guy who taught good things….
But then, in our story, Jesus turns to his followers and asks: But who do you say that I am? The Greek reveals that this is an all y’all situation. Jesus has moved this question from the general public to this closer circle of students and disciples of Jesus. But who do you say that I am?
And just as he does in many of the stories, Peter eagerly enters the fray first and says: You are the Christos, the Son of the living God.
I imagine some of the disciples gasped, and some must have nodded their heads in agreement–grateful someone else said it first, and some probably muttered Holy Caca! What a declaration. A declaration that reveals Peter has awakened to a whole new reality that has been birthed into the world.
Beloved, what if we were to take Jesus at his word? That he isn’t an entity to be worshiped, but that Jesus is a Way, a Truth, and a Life. A Way of Love to be in this world; a Truth of Love to be enfleshed by our words and actions; a Life of Love to live and walk, empower and equip.
When Jesus says: on this rock I will build my church…. I don’t think the rock was Peter. I mean it was, but not because Peter had mad skills that none of the others did. The rock is that Peter woke up to a new reality, a new way of understanding God and tradition, and a new way of hearing God’s call to God’s people. And on this awakened mindset, Jesus can build the movement.
Yep, movement. When Jesus says “church,” he did not mean an institution or a set of dogma and doctrine, a hierarchy to be defended. The word, ekklesia, means the assembly, the gathering, those called out. Jesus had moved from the general public to this more intentional group of followers, this small band of believers—--much like we here today, this Beloved Community, and says Who do you say that I am? Because Jesus knows that the movement of Love can only truly be built if there are folks who are awakened to a new reality, a new way to be, a new life.
Peter calls Jesus Christos; our translation says Messiah. Both words mean the “Anointed One”; Christos is Greek and Messiah is Hebrew. But let’s recall what that title Messiah means to Peter and the gang, and to the general Hebrew public. The Messiah was the One, sent by God, to cause an apocalypse. Now remember, an apocalypse is an event that ends one world and starts a new world. It ends one era so that a new era can begin. Obviously it involves death, destruction, a complete overturning of life. You know, the Resurrection thing.
The Hebrew people have been waiting for the Messiah; training their hearts and eyes to see the Messiah, preparing for the Messiah. But they understand the Messiah from human terms (don’t we all?) The Israelites are a people who have always been at the mercy of bigger kingdoms: Babylonia, Assyria, and now the Roman Empire. They want to be able to live freely and peacefully according to their customs and beliefs. They want to no longer have a human oppressor; they are expecting the Messiah to come and defeat the oppressor, to put down the Empire and to provide them a place where they will live as they have been called to live by God without other kingdoms and empires enslaving them. They expect Messiah to come and destroy the empire and start this new era of freedom. The Messiah will be a military conqueror; putting an end to the oppressor.
Is it any wonder, then, that the general public think Jesus may be John the Baptist or Elijah or some other prophet. A goodness without doubt, but…..
But Peter, for all his starts and stops, his faults and foibles, his downright humanness, Peter has a revelation—-and he dares to proclaim it: You, Jesus, you are the Messiah.
Which can only mean that the Messiah’s apocalypse is very different than what had been imagined; for Jesus isn’t a military conqueror–using violence and bearing arms to assert his Way. This Jesus means to put an end to one era, one way of life, and start a new era–a new way of life–by conquering our hearts, our minds. Our hearts and minds which are the seat of compassion and mercy, the origin of our decision-making and actions, the font of our words. Or as Paul says: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…..
And when we are told: not to think too highly of yourself more highly than you ought to think…We are not being instructed to think poorly of ourselves. After all, we are gifted and Beloved. We are made in the image of Love itself. But we are being urged to recognize that so is our neighbor. Every neighbor. Each neighbor. God loves each bit and parcel of Creation with the exact same amount of never-ending, eternally forgiving, constantly redeeming love. So this means, as Paul reminds us, that we are members of one another…..that we, who are many, are one body in Christ.
One body in Christos—the Messiah—this One that initiates an apocalyptic event of waking up to a new reality. The reality of heaven that exists in the midst of empire, in the midst of oppression, in the midst of death and destruction. This Way of Love that we can choose; this Truth of love that we can enact; this Life of Love that we can live. And like Peter, when we mess up, God waits for us to turn around and run back toward our home—owning our faults and foibles and allowing them to be transformed into learnings and strengths. You know, Peter denied Jesus the Christos 3 times. In the most crucial moment. And the Risen Christ then comes to Peter and 3 times asks him: Peter, do you love me? Erasing the transgression, removing it as far as the East is from the West. This is the Way, this is the Truth, this is the Life.
I want to end with a poem by Amanda Gorman; I may have shared it before but it is worth repeating. It is called Hymn For The Hurting.
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
Even our children
Cannot be children,
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered --
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.
Today we have 2 Gospel readings as part of our gathering because we have an exceptional Sunday. Both the Episcopal Church and the ELCA church use what is called the Revised Common Lectionary—an agreed upon selection of readings for each Sunday. This way Christians across denominations and in different places are hearing the same readings throughout the Church year. And every last Sunday of the Epiphany season, the Sunday before Lent begins, we hear the Transfiguration story. But in the Episcopal church calendar, there is also a set date to celebrate the Transfiguration as a holy day; that date is today, August 6th. And according to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, if August 6th falls on a Sunday, then the Transfiguration trumps the regular Sunday readings. But not so in the ELCA world. So today, we honor both. We have the Transfiguration Gospel from Luke for the Episcopal calendar and the 10th Sunday after Pentecost Gospel reading from Matthew for the ELCA calendar. And, Beloved, they are beautifully linked.
In fact, these two readings from Matthew and Luke happen at about the same time in the trajectory of Jesus’s story. In the background of both of these stories is the beheading of John the Baptist and just before the Transfiguration story in Luke is the feeding of the 5,000 that we heard in the reading from Matthew. But these two Gospels are linked in even more beautiful and powerful ways.
In Luke’s story of the Transfiguration, Jesus is about to turn his face toward Jerusalem; he is about to give his life for all of humanity. And before Jesus can make that turn, before Jesus will have his life taken, blessed, broken open in order for it be shared and given and received—Jesus experiences transfiguration. He draws near to God’s presence, and in that experience, he is changed, made new. Even Jesus, this One who is completely human while also being completely divine, even Jesus needs to deliberately and intentionally bring himself into the presence of God, even Jesus needs to be changed, broken open and blessed, before taking the path of surrendering his life to the sacrificial love that is his calling. That is our calling.
Today’s Gospel story from Matthew tells us that when Jesus learns of the murder of his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus withdraws and leaves the area. Jesus removes himself from the realm of Empire, this way of living where power, money and self-centered purposes sit on the throne of human hearts. Jesus withdraws and enters a new landscape. And here’s the detail that just may be the true miracle: the crowd followed. They followed. Because the Gospel truth here is that Jesus offers us a different landscape than the Empire. Jesus offers us an alternate way to live, an alternate world to inhabit. A life removed from the Empire. A life where power, greed, and self-centeredness can be dethroned from our hearts and, instead, compassion, mercy, love and serving others takes up residence. Sacrificial love wears the crown in this country. God’s Kingdom come.
And here’s the thing Beloved—Matthew’s Gospel story is a Transfiguration story too. Here are all these people—5000 men, besides women and children— who have come in hopes of being healed. They have followed Jesus’ footsteps away from the Empire and into this wilderness to find a different way. It’s late. The disciples think it’s time to wrap it up. It was a nice gig, but time for folks to head back to their homes and get themselves some food. Imagine the disciples’ faces when Jesus says to them: They don’t need to go away; you give them something to eat.
What? We don’t have anything! 5 loaves. 2 fish. And there’s 12 of us!
I suspect it’s grudgingly that they hand over those loaves and fishes.
Jesus has the people sit down. Interesting detail. Is it so everyone can see what Jesus does? He takes what has been offered—--asks God to bless it—--breaks it open—-and shares.
When I was younger, I thought the next bit was magic. I thought what must have happened was like the never-ending bowl at Olive Garden. As one piece of bread was given to someone, another one magically appeared in the basket going around. Kind of like feasts at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. But, Beloved, I don’t think that’s what happened. Why? Why not? Because it is not how it happens now. And sure, with God nothing is impossible, but if that’s how God works, then why doesn’t bread just magically appear in all the houses where people are starving?
How God works, how Love works, is that we give what we have, blessed by God’s Creation….we give, allowing our lives to be broken open instead of remaining self-centered enclosures, and then we share. Those thousands of people, besides women and children—they weren’t stupid. Just like the disciples, many of them probably brought some snacks. And I think, instead of a never-ending bowl from Olive Garden, what happened was they watched Jesus take what has been given, ask for God’s blessing, and then break what he has so that it can be shared widely. And then (again, here’s the miracle) the crowd followed! They followed Jesus—asking God to bless what they have, breaking it open, and sharing it—and there was enough for everyone….and then some. 12 baskets of some more.
Why 12? Well, there were 12 tribes of Israel. God’s people. And as we see in the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel, part of Jesus’ transfiguration—part of how he is changed—is that he comes to realize God wants salvation for more than just the Israelites, God wants this for all people. Because all people are God’s people. 12 baskets of food means there is enough for all God’s people. But only when we leave the ways of empire behind and follow Jesus into this alternative way of living. YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT.
Talk about Transfiguration.
And Beloved, this transfiguration is ours for the having. For as we linger and converse with the Law and the Prophets, as we enter the cloud of witness and mystery, as we intentionally climb mountains to draw nearer to God, we are altered. Transfigured. Through experience, through failing and learning, by reflection and contemplation, as we listen and are embraced. We are changed. A small, but important detail of this story is the truth that we must BE before we can DO. As Contemplative writer James Finley puts it: we become a community of awakened hearts.
Take. Bless. Break. Share. It’s who we are. It’s how we are to be. It’s the Way of Love. In those four words is a revolution. In those four words is Creation’s Transfiguration. Creation’s Salvation. Take. Bless. Break. Share. Take. Bless. Break. Share.
Lay down the life of Empire. Take up the Life of Love.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.