August 24, 2014 – 11 Pentecost A, Proper 16
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Be not haughty. It is great wisdom and perfection to consider ourselves as nothing. Love to be unknown. It is vanity to pursue honors and to set yourself up on a pedestal. Those fifteenth century words of the great Dutch monastic, Thomas a Kempis, are completely alien to everything I was taught growing up. But I am beginning to hear that they are words of truth.
I was raised with the gods of self-esteem and independence. I was encouraged on every front to think highly of myself and that I could do anything in the world I set my mind on doing. No limits. Be all you can be. The only thing between you and success is not believing you can achieve. Imagine the goal and go get it. Over the years I’ve read more books on self-esteem than I care to remember. In the fifties perhaps we thought if we could just educate everyone, our social ills would disappear. Now it seems we have come to believe that if we could just get people to feel good about themselves, our problems would go away. But we’ve about exhausted that, and perhaps we’ll have to return to the old fashioned notion of human sin and Godly grace.
The purpose of this sermon is not to set a goal of thinking poorly of ourselves, but I do hope to remind you that there is only one God and it is not you. My focus must be shifted from feeling good about myself and concentrating on all I can accomplish, to recognizing that only God is good and that I accomplish nothing without his grace. Self-esteem and independence have not been good gods: they have not endured well. The gospel of Christ, however, speaks of a God who does endure. Whenever we yearn for something temporary or worldly, we will be disappointed. Either we will not get it and want it more, or we will get it and then see it wasn’t what we really wanted.
Jesus meets with his disciples following a string of rather amazing happenings: Jesus has walked on the water; he has calmed a storm; he has healed many, including even those beyond the boundaries of the Hebrew people; twice he has fed a multitude with just a small amount of food. Now he sits down with his followers and he uses this moment to teach. Before you notice what Jesus does say, consider what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t sit them down and say, I told you so. I told you I could do anything. What do y’all think of me now? What follows is nothing about him as a man. Everything that is about to be shared is an invitation to know who God is. Who do men say that I am?, he asks. What are you hearing? What does the world say? They reply that the world thinks he is about as amazing a man as they have ever seen, one like Elijah or Jeremiah or John the Baptist.
And then Jesus asks, But who do you say that I am? You are the Messiah, Peter says. You are the Son of God in our midst. You show us who God is. You point beyond yourself to the Lord of all. You bring eternal truth.
Jesus moves in to teach more. Again notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, Peter, you sure are smarter than everyone else. How did you figure that out? I’m proud of you. Why can’t the rest of you be more like Peter? No, the first thing he says, is Blessed are you. You have been blessed. You have been given a great gift, a glimpse of so much beyond you. God himself has allowed you to see the truth. Instead of empty, back-slapping approval of Peter, Jesus acknowledges that his insight is evidence of God’s presence. That’s right, Peter. And you couldn’t have figured it out on your own.
Notice what has taken place here. Jesus has asked the disciples to consider their own understanding in comparison to the people around them. And then he has taken them to the consideration of themselves in relation to God. When I deal with myself as compared to you, I will inevitably be brought to a sense of failure or accomplishment. When I deal with myself as compared to God, I will inevitably be brought to a sense of blessing and giftedness. It doesn’t matter who I am relative to anyone else. Who I am is only important as it is considered relative to God.
After Jesus shifts their focus from themselves and the world to themselves in relation to God, he gives them a tremendous charge. He establishes the church, his church, and he gives authority. The authority is not to determine who belongs and who doesn’t. Authority by its very nature must draw on, and point to, something greater than just me. Jesus doesn’t give them the church and tell them to do what they think is right. Jesus puts them in the church and tells them to live out what they have been shown and what they will be shown. As long as they consider themselves relative to God, they will know what to do. When they slide into seeing themselves relative to other people, then they won’t be inviting anyone into the kingdom, only into their approval or criticism.
He ends by telling them to keep quiet for now. It’s a new teaching for them: they’re sophomores. They know a little but they’re not ready to show others anything just yet. If they did, it would probably only serve to glorify themselves instead of God. In all they are to do as the church, they are to center themselves on the question of who is the Christ. Jesus doesn’t tell them to go out with a good sense of who they are: he tells them to go out with a good sense of who he is, who God is.
The sacraments and liturgy of the church are gifts given to us to help us live into this charge. They help us move our focus from ourselves to the God who acts to save us. In baptism, we don’t hold up the candidate and say, Look how great she is. We hold up the candidate and proclaim, Great is the God who claims her soul. In Confirmation we don’t present someone to the bishop and say, This one knows all there is to know. We present people and remember that God continually acts to strengthen that which he has begun in us. At ordinations we don’t gather to congratulate someone on her priestly skills. We gather to praise God who will use even this person to spread the gospel. At burial, we don’t clamor around with talk about how grand a fellow he was. We mourn the loss of a loved one and proclaim that God will not allow death to defeat his purpose. It is the purpose of the church to remember who God is. It is not the purpose of the church to make you feel better about yourself, but to arouse an appreciation of the holiness of the Almighty.
Today we gather to do what Jesus has told us to do. We’re not here to say how great we are or merely to teach behavior to make us better people. We are here to say how great the kingdom is that we are invited to enter. In all that we do here, may we teach more than good self-esteem or how to gain independence. May we encourage each other not to measure ourselves against others, but to see ourselves as blessed by God. And may we learn from each other that we are blessed by God’s kingdom. The question for us is not who we are and how we are doing; the question is who Christ is and what call he has upon our souls. It is God who saves us, not we ourselves.