Maybe you remember this or a similar scenario in one of your fifth grade math classes…The teacher introduces the concept of estimating to help the students better understand numbers. The teacher asks, “How many ping pong balls do you think are in this jar?” One boy estimates 40 and another student estimates 25; when the balls are counted the total is 40. The student with the right estimate won a prize. Obviously, the teacher is curious how these students came up with their estimates. The young girl who suggested 25 says, “Well, it looked like there were five balls on the bottom layer and I counted five layers, so 5 X 5 = 25.” The boy with the right answer says, “Yesterday was my dad’s birthday and he turned 40; that just sounded like a good number.” So, who won the prize here? Was it the one who thought things through and made an analytical, though incorrect estimate? Or was it the one who took a flying leap and happened to guess correctly? Unfortunately, it was the wild guesser.
There seems to be a lot of that going around – people who are perfectly willing to give an answer without thinking about the question. Let us pray…Lord, you pleaded with your people: “O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” We come to your Word this morning and pray that you will open our ears to listen. Help us to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
In this highly contested political season there are lots of questions and answers flying around in the media. Sometimes it gets very frustrating to try to sort out what is really being said. Often a candidate will give an answer before the question is finished or in such a way that leads you to believe they didn’t understand the question. Sometimes it is painfully obvious that the answer does not get to the heart of the question and that it is that way on purpose – to avoid answering the real question. It is almost “normal” for candidates to give an answer without even thinking about the question. And this sort of thing happens all the time outside of the political arena, in our everyday conversations.
Matthew gives us a story this morning that seeks to find out if the disciples have been paying attention. They have been with Jesus for quite a while now; long enough to see him heal the lame. Long enough to watch him feed 5,000 people. Long enough to see him walk on water, argue with the Pharisees, and teach some really great parables. It would seem that they ought to know who he is. So Jesus plans a little pop quiz. “Who do people say that I am?” What do you hear on the streets? What are the folks saying about me? Has anyone ventured a guess as to my identity, or my purpose, or the source of my authority? I’m guessing that the disciples have actually been having this conversation recently. Their answers come pretty quickly and are very specific. “Some people say you are John the Baptist. Others say you might be Elijah. Still others think you might be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Sounds like a standard list of religious heroes. They knew that Jesus talked about God and that he sounded like a prophet, so they took a wild guess, an estimate, if you will. But then the test got harder: Jesus asked his question again, a little more pointed.
“But who do you say that I am?” Suddenly it was clear that Jesus wasn’t satisfied hearing what other people guessed at; he’s not interested in public opinion or religious rhetoric – not then and not now. Jesus has always wanted to know what you think, or what you feel, or what you believe about him. When the question came down to the nitty gritty, the disciples were more reluctant to answer. Nobody dared risk saying what he thought; what if he was wrong, or said something stupid? It was easier to speak for someone else; it was safer repeating what somebody else said about Jesus. Why have real opinions when you can just repeat another’s? Simon was a little more daring than the others. In a moment he blended everything he knew about Jesus together with all he knew about the promised Messiah. For a brief moment, the curtain was raised and Simon recognized who Jesus really was. So he just blurted it out: “You’re the One! You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” If he was wrong, well…at best he would be embarrassed and at worst he’d be stoned to death for blasphemy…But Simon thought it was worth the risk. Simon had listened to the question and stood up and boldly stated his opinion. He answered the question in his own words. The other disciples just watched in awe.
The church today seems to be more like the other eleven disciples than we are like Simon. When we are asked to express our faith we let forth religious words that we’ve heard in church over a lifetime, rarely stopping to think about what they mean. “I believe in God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth…” – and so forth. When we are asked to articulate what we believe about God we tend to talk about what we learned in Sunday school, or what our parents taught us to believe, or what pop culture says we’re supposed to believe if we’re Christian. Essentially, we are answering that first question Jesus asked: “Who do people say that I am?” That doesn’t let us off the hook. Jesus is really asking us this question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Do you answer that he is “Savior”? Do you then understand that Jesus alone is responsible for dealing with your sins? Your good deeds have absolutely no power to earn you forgiveness. Your guilt and shame cannot buy God off. Not even Holy Communion, no matter how often you receive it, brings forgiveness; these elements are just a reminder that – if Jesus is your Savior, then your sins are no longer held against you. If you say Jesus is your Savior, think about what that really means.
“Who do you say that I am?” Do you answer that he is “Lord”? That means that if he is Lord of your life; he’s in charge of everything; that makes you his servant. If Jesus is truly Lord, then you are the slave. That means everything you have is his, because slaves can’t own anything. It also means that whatever the Master tells you to do, you have to do it. Think about that before answering.
“Who do you say that I am?” Do you answer that he is “Creator”? John wrote of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” So then, as God, Jesus is creator of everything and everyone; he created our enemies, as well as our friends. He created people who are of different religions, different skin tones, and different nationalities. He created people you love…and people you don’t like so much. Do you understand what you answer when you say he is Creator of the universe?
When Simon made his bold confession, Jesus gave him a new name. “You are Petros (Peter); I will call you a rock, because your faith is solid. Upon this Rock I will build my Church.” We need to understand that Peter is NOT the Rock of the Church…his confession is. He was the first to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. His confession of faith was the first stone in building a new Church that would come to worship the cornerstone – Jesus Christ. The building of the universal church has continued throughout history, with each generation of believers adding its stones of faith. As faithful people of every age stand up and confess Jesus as their Savior and Lord, they become stones upon which the church continues to be built. St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Augustine, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa…It was not easy for them; nor is it easy for us.
My friends, I believe the time has come for each one of us to stand up and be noticed as the faithful. Too many people have accused we United Methodists of being so wishy-washy and lukewarm about our faith that we really don’t stand for anything. Lukewarm is not appropriate. Sincere confessions of faith are what the Savior asks of us, because the world needs to see bold, authentic witnesses once again. So do our fellow church members, and our impressionable children, and our curious colleagues at work, and our weary friends and neighbors who wonder where the hope is to be found in this world.
This morning you hold in your hand a small stone. It may be imperceptible when compared to the mighty rocks that have built the history of our faith. But yours is every bit as important as all of those. For all the times we have failed to speak our faith boldly…For all the times we have denied even knowing Jesus…For all the times we have withheld our possessions that we know belong to Him…This morning we must say we are sorry. Today we lay our stone at the foot of the cross and dare to call ourselves disciples. Today we add our confession of faith to the stones that build the church up. No power on earth can destroy what the Church has become. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.\