Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"Who Are You?" - Sermon, August 27, 2017

As each new school year begins, I often find myself in a sense of denial about my age.  I think all of us can relate to that one, as it may not always feel like it was that long ago since we were facing the first day of school ourselves.  Plus a majority of this year’s college freshmen were born the year I graduated high school, which really puts things in perspective.  In fact, there was a little blurb back in May or June that pointed out that this year’s high school graduates were among the last of the kids born in the twentieth century, meaning a majority of the graduates this next June will be kids born in the twenty-first century.  Yet the first day of school is always one of those special times in our lives as students, parents, and even in our church family.  The new school year is a time of making new friends, a chance to build upon what was learned in the past year and learning new things, while each new year also gives us a chance to build up our identity and who we are.  As a new school year begins, our teachers and even administrators will often ask, ‘who are you?’ and ‘what makes you, well you?’
            I think for me sixth grade was a defining time in my life and helped shape my identity and who I am.  While perusing my social media after a brief break during my vacation and study leave this last week, one of my friends I was in sixth grade with and still keep in touch with was posting pictures of her two sons, as her oldest is beginning his freshman year of high school, while her younger son is beginning sixth grade.  I told her to make sure she tells them all about the awesome sixth grade class we had during the 1992-93 school year.  That year was definitely a time of changes, learning new lessons, but also learning to think and speak for ourselves, something that our teacher, Ms. Manwell took very seriously in teaching us skills for life.  I remember that when I wasn’t getting along with someone in my class one time, I went up to Ms. Manwell only to be told ‘you’re going to have to work it out between yourselves,’ an important life skill among the many that she taught us that year.  Learning to work problems out was one of the ways that shaped my identity in sixth grade, as problem solving is surprisingly one skill I do have.  Now math problems were and still are a whole different story and I’ll leave it at that…
            As we just heard in our Gospel lesson a few minutes ago, Simon Peter has just figured out Jesus’s true identity as the son of God and messiah, or anointed one.  The late professor, J. Ellsworth Kalas points out that in the moment when Simon Peter observes this fact about Jesus he receives a new identity from Jesus, as “Peter gave the church its basic creedal statement; in one impulsive sentence, he summed up the doctrine of Christianity.  On the rock of that confession [of Jesus as Lord and Savior], the church stands or falls.”[i] In the same light, Simon Peter, who now has the identity of Peter, which means ‘the Rock,’ becomes an unofficial spokesperson for the disciples and is given this new identity by Jesus as the one whom Jesus will build his church on. -- Earlier on in the Gospel, the old identity of Simon Peter is a little overconfident at times, which catches up to him because he is also “terribly human.”[ii]  Look at that time when Simon Peter tries to walk on water, but instead sinks after taking a few steps on the water.  However, just like we are starting a new school year this week, this is a new day for Peter, as his new identity is now fully in Jesus Christ and will be the foundation of the new community that will be built by and identified with Jesus Christ.[iii] After Jesus goes to the cross and is no longer physically on the earth, Peter will play an even greater role which you can read more about in the Book of Acts.[iv]  The people who would come after, including us, are identified with Jesus Christ and is who we are as the community of faith, both here in our local community and greater world. 
            When we think about Peter becoming the foundation of the church that Jesus will build, Peter may have a new identity as the rock, yet is far from perfect which is what I love about studying more about the disciples who Jesus surrounded himself with because they are so much like the people in the church.  Like everyone we encounter in life, the disciples are from different backgrounds, had different personalities, and different identities before their identity became one with Christ.  In his book, Gifts of the Dark Wood, Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes explains that Peter as the rock
is a Rock that cannot stand alone upon the water, but can only be held up by a power much greater than itself; a Rock upon which all failure no matter how bitter may ultimately be redeemed and all fear is swallowed up by the sea.  A church built upon this Rock is not the church of the perfect, but the church of the misfits.  Its saints find their place in this world in the heart of their struggles…it is a community that continues to thrive…continuing to learn what it means to welcome and embrace those who have been excluded.[v]

Jesus, acting on his divine power through God the creator and the Holy Spirit is the higher power that is greater than any rock, and when we in the church are asked who we are, we are followers of Christ, the community of faith, complete with imperfections, as well as sinners, misfits, and saints.  Even our schools and workplaces will feel like that at times too, as like the church, we are surrounded by people who have different family backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, even religious backgrounds, and some who have yet to know Christ.  When we identify with Christ however, we have this sacred responsibility of continuing to build upon that foundation in our world today that Jesus built up from Peter.  It’s up to each of us to “be adventurous, daring, [and] responsive to Jesus’ call,” just as we witnessed when the old identity of Simon Peter attempted to do what only Jesus can do and walk on water.[vi]
At the same time, do understand that “what we do on earth matters and has an impact in the heavens and the atmosphere around us,” meaning that when we identify with Christ, our hands, feet, and actions will reflect on who we are as people of faith and as the community of faith.[vii]  In light of school starting up for many of our students this week, I encourage everyone who has school age relatives to encourage your students to live a life full of Christ by setting an example of doing good, showing love and compassion towards our teachers, administrators, and especially fellow classmates.  And do take the ‘keep your hands and feet to yourself’ rule and treat others with respect rule seriously!!  I know in my school days, there were times when I was able to live into an identity with Christ, while there were days I might have had the identity of Christ by name only, yet my actions did not always back up that claim.  Part of having an identity in Christ also means not going around being ‘holier than thou’ either because we’re all at different places on the journey.  Each new school year is a new beginning, a clean slate, and a chance to grow into an identity with Christ just like Simon Peter became Peter, the rock.  It’s also an opportunity to grow in our love of God and love of neighbor, something we need even more of these days.  We also have a chance to redeem ourselves from any wrongs we may have done in the last year when we grow into our identity with Christ, especially when we ask forgiveness for past hurts we have caused and forgiving those who may have caused us past hurts.
Even if Simon Peter didn’t always get it right 100% of the time, acted over confident, and otherwise human, Peter, or the Rock would never be the same in his new identity given to him by Jesus.  When we ourselves identify with Christ, knowing that we have this perfect Lord and savior who is the messiah, we too can be transformed when we take on that new identity and share that identity with others through our actions and through the way we live.  When someone asks “who are you?,” you can tell them ‘I am a follower of Christ, a Christian, one who loves God and loves neighbor,’ while living into that identity through our actions both here and in the greater world. 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church Say, AMEN!!    

[i] J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Thirteen Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002, 2012), 17. 
[ii] Ibid., 19. 
[iii] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 344-45. 
[iv] Kalas, 22. 
[v] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 180. 
[vi] Ibid., 169.
[vii] Working Preacher 

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