I just finished a weird book. It’s kind of like “Black Like Me” that book a lot of us read in the 60s, where a white person disguised himself as African American and toured the country to see what being a minority group member was really like. Well. This one is a woman who disguises herself as a man and spends a year getting treated like a man, to see what that is like.
As you might imagine, it’s not an easy thing to pull off, and at several points in the narrative, she has to tell the person she’s interacting with the truth about her gender. And when the person finally figures out that his bowling buddy, or co worker, or whatever is a woman instead of a man, their relationship changes completely.
That shouldn’t surprise anybody. Our relationships are shaped by our perceptions of who the other person in the relationship is and by how well they understand who we are, too. And those things can change and evolve over time.
For young people, figuring out who they are and how others see them is part of what makes being a teenager so exquisite and so excruciating. But, be honest, identity gets revisited throughout our lives. A man becomes a father. A boss becomes a mentor. A coach becomes a friend. A colleague becomes a rival. Who are you? Who do you think I am?
Our scripture lesson for today is one in which Jesus and his disciples, especially Simon, are confronting questions of identity. It begins when Jesus asks his disciples, who do people say that I am?
It’s an interesting question, and as followers of Jesus, we might try to summon the courage to ask the question he asked about ourselves. Who do people say that we are?
When we are teaching our children to think for themselves and resist peer pressure, we tell them, “It doesn’t make any difference what other people think.” And that’s true. But it is also true that when it comes to being a Christian, it does make a difference what other people think. Jesus said, “who do people say that I am?” What are we saying about Jesus with our actions, our words, our mission, our priorities? What message are we giving people about Jesus? Are they seeing Jesus' grace and peace in our presence in the community? Who do folks say that we are?
I heard two stories about churches who took seriously what other people thought of them while I was at Presbytery on Thursday. One was a story from Rob Dyer, a young pastor in Mt. Vernon, IL. The Mount Vernon church, along with the Presbytery and some other partners, hosted a youth mission trip this summer in Mt. Vernon. This is the t-shirt with all the sponsors on the back and nails bent into the word “HOPE” on the front. Because the Presbytery was one of the sponsors, we got shirts, too. Neat, huh?
Rob’s church, filled with typical middle class, well educated Presbyterians, wanted to show Jesus’ love to their rather economically depressed community. So they joined the Angel Food network. It’s not a food bank, but it is one way surplus food is distributed: People pay $15/mo. For a shipment of surplus food. Volunteers from the church meet the truck, pack up the food in boxes and hand it out to the patrons. And, jus t like that, a family has four or five meals for $15. So the church had been doing this for several months and Rob was down town at a community meeting. He introduced himself as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, and one of the women broke into a grin – “Oh! I know that church! That’s the church that feeds people!” It’s not a bad way for a church to be seen.
Seeing ourselves as others see us is difficult. Robert Burns – Scottish poet – Presbyterian poet – wrote the famous words,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
To see ourselves as others see us. Burns wrote those lines, inspired by his experience in church, in which he sat behind a young, beautiful woman, wearing a fancy, ribbon strewn bonnet, around which crawled a louse. She had head lice. It makes me itch to say it. Isn’t that rich!
It takes a certain amount of courage to ask what kind of witness we are making for Jesus. We hope it isn’t a “lousy” one!!
But Jesus’ first question is not his only one. Besides asking what others’ opinion, Jesus asks the disciples to give him THEIR opinion. “Who do you think that I am?” he wants to know.
This is the crucial question that Jesus poses for each of us as potential followers: Who do you say Jesus is? What do we believe about Jesus that is different than what everybody else believes? What makes our faith different from that of the “unchurched”? The skeptic? The fundamentalist? How does our confession that Jesus is Lord affect what we do as a group and how we relate to one another?
The third “identity” question isn’t really a question at all in the scripture. When Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus turns around a gives him a new identity – a new name.
“Bless your heart, Simon, son of Jonah!” Jesus said to Peter. “You will be called Peter – which means ROCK – and on this rock I will build my church.”
Simon’s is given a new identity and a new way of understanding who he was. “On this rock I will build my church” Jesus said.
Now, Peter seems like a mighty unstable rock to serve as the foundation for the church, doesn’t he? He blurts things out, he jumps out of boats, he doesn’t understand many of Jesus teaching. And we know that, when the going gets rough in Jerusalem, Peter is going to deny that he even knows Jesus.
How do we deal with the fact that Jesus chose to build on such an unworthy foundation? How do we deal with the fact that Jesus is still using a lot of substandard building material to build his church? Go to any church you want – you will find it filled with sinful, imperfect people – like Peter. Like me. Like . . . the person across the aisle. No. Like each one of us.
Jesus builds the church with stones like us. That’s the incredible message of this scripture lesson – that our identity is, according to Jesus the Christ, the building blocks of his church.
The other story was part of the sermon that a candidate for ordination preached. (I just have to say that Betsy Braden Wood was one of the kids that went through the Youth Club Program – including Jan Siders choir and MINE) and now she is through seminary, and being ordained to a very prestigious residency program in Indianapolis.
She told the story from Archbishop Chacour’s book, Blood Brothers. I heard the Archbishop of the Orthodox Church of Galilee tell this story at General Assembly in person. It happened at the first church to which the young priest was called – the church where he is still serving: I’ll tell it in his words:
“After a year and a half, I had made little dent in the reuniting the believers in Ibillin. Few attended church regularly, and walls of hostile silence remained firm. However, most would not thing of missing services during the Christmas and Easter seasons. True to the pattern, attendance increased on the first Sunday of Lent, growing each week as Easter approached.
On Palm Sunday, every bench was packed. When I stood up, raising my hands to signal the start of the service, I was jolted by what I saw. Looks of open hostility greeted me. One group was clustered on one side of the church, almost challenging me with their icy glares. Those whom that group had ostracized sat on the opposite side. I was amazed to see Abu Mouhib, the policeman, perched in the very front row with his wife and children. In each of the other three quadrants of the church, as distant from one another as possible, were his three brothers. I rose and began the first hymn. I thought, with sadness of the battle lines that were drawn across the aisles of that sancturary.
What followed was undoubtedly the stiffest service, the most unimpassioned sermon of my life. At the close of the liturgy, everyone rose for the benediction. My stomach fluttered. It was now or never.
Swiftly, I strode toward the open doors at the back of the church. I drew shut the huge double doors, laced a thick chain through the handles and fastened it firmly with a padlock. Turning to face the congregation, I took a deep breath.
“Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian,” I began. “You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other – gossip and spread malicious lies. What do the Moslems and the unbelievers think when they see you? Surely that your religion is false. If you can’t love your brother that you see, how can you say you love God who is invisible? You have allowed the body of Christ to be disgraced.”
Form many months, I have tried to unite you. I’ve failed. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the one who gives you power to forgive. So now I will be quiet and allow Him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, we will stay locked in here. You can kill each other and I’ll provide your funerals gratis.”
Silence hung. We waited. Three minutes passed. Then five. Then ten. Still no one flinched. “Surely I’ve finished everything,” I chastised myself. “Undone all these months of hard work with my” – then a sudden movement caught my eye.
Abu Mouhib rose and faced the congregation, his bead bowed, remorse shining in his eyes. “I am sorry, “ he faltered. “I am the worst one of all. I’ve hated my own brothers. Hated them so much I wanted to kill them. More than any of you I need forgiveness.” He turned to me. “Can you forgive me, Abuna?” Abuna means father, a term of affection and respect.
“Come here,” I replied. “We greeted each other with the kiss of peace. “Of course I forgive you,” I said, “now go and greet your brothers.”
Before he was halfway down the aisle, his three brothers rushed to him. They held each other in a long embrace, each asking forgiveness of the others.
In an instant the church was a chaos of embracing and repentance. A second church service, a liturgy of reconciliation – went on for nearly a full hour.
Even then it did not end. The momentum carried us out of the church and into the streets where true Christianity belongs. For the rest of the day and far into the evening, I joined groups of believers as they went from house to house. At every door, someone had to ask forgiveness. Never was it withheld.
Before my eyes, I was seeing a ruined church rebuilt at last – not with mortar and rock, but with living stones.
Questions about identity – who we are and who are those with whom we are in relationship – these are vitally important questions. The scripture helps us to ask them – who do people think that Jesus is by looking at us? Who do we believe Jesus is?
But the Good News is not the questions that this scripture raises. The Good News is the answer that, not by flesh and blood, but by the power of the Spirit of God, our identity becomes living stones. We, by the grace of God, are the building blocks with which Jesus builds a church that witnesses to God’s love in an unmistakable way. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Those who have ears, let them hear. Amen.