After packing a camper and a Chevy van full of tents, sleeping bags, luggage, six Thompsons, and four Barkleys, we got a late start. We left Northeast Arkansas mid-afternoon, and by the time we arrived at Wind Creek State Park south of Birmingham, Alabama, it was already dark. Winding our way slowly through the campground, the only light came from the dim lanterns hung on campsite posts and the occasional campfire. Soon enough, though, my grandfather Pop found our people. They’d come from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Indiana (where some had fled for work during the Depression and never returned home). Our family sprawled across the state park.
As soon as the van stopped, I bolted to find my relatives. Aunt Polly was there, who so resembled my grandmother Boo in both looks and demeanor that it was like having a bonus grandmother whenever they were together. Uncle Brother was there with his wooden leg and ever-present nub of a cigar. My beautiful cousin Karen was there, who had briefly modeled and who, to a grade school boy, seemed like a movie star. My Uncle Robert was there, who could juggle and talk like Donald Duck, and who was an Army Reserve officer. In consequence of all of the above, he was undoubtedly the coolest person I knew.
I darted around greeting these and more, but when I passed my grandfather Pop, he grabbed my shoulder to stop me. Pop turned me around and pointed into the darkness just inches from our camp sites. “Be careful where you run in the dark,” he said. The lake is right there. You might step off into it.”
I looked intently in the direction my grandfather pointed, but I saw no lake. In the forested darkness, it was invisible, if it were there at all. If Pop hadn’t been the wisest person I knew, I’d have moved forward at full tilt. But I slowed down, and as I walked along the paths between campsites I could almost begin to sense the presence of the lake to one side. Periodically I would stop and stare into the darkness toward which my grandfather had pointed.
The next morning when the sunlight filtered into my tent, I rose and walked outside. What I saw stunned me. Not fifty feet from my sleeping bag was the lake. And no pond it was. Lake Martin is one of the largest lakes in the United States. Forty-four thousand acres. Seven hundred fifty miles of shoreline. There it was, a thing of power and beauty and majesty, right in front of me. And in the darkness I couldn’t see it. I’d doubted it. For a moment I was frightened by the thought that I could, indeed, have stepped off into its depths the night before. Of course, soon I would plunge into its waters with joy.
In the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is halfway to his Passion. Jesus has tromped through towns both Jewish and gentile. He has healed, taught, exorcised demons, spoken in mystifying parables. And today, he pauses along the road to Caesarea Philippi to ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
Jesus is asking “why” as much as “who.” “Why do people follow me,” he wonders. Why do they leave their livelihoods; why do they bring their children from the next town; why do they pursue me into desolate places where there is no food or shade?
The disciples blubber a bit and say that, well, some people assume Jesus is a prophet, a real prophet, the likes of which haven’t appeared for centuries. Other people think something even more profound than that is going on. They believe Jesus may be the reincarnation of Elijah or John the Baptist.
While they’re talking, though, something is going on with Peter. I imagine him weirdly quiet while the others debate. He stares outwardly at Jesus and inwardly into his own soul. He senses the presence of some reality, just beyond the bounds of his understanding, but it’s murky. Then there is a flash of insight, an awareness, and Peter answers both the who and the why of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
The grammatical construction of Peter’s claim is important. There is no subjectivity to it. Peter is not saying, “For me” or “On this particular day” Jesus is these things. Peter is proclaiming an objective, immutable truth. Jesus is the representative of God, because Jesus is the Son of God.
And not just a god, but the living God. Peter is saying that all other gods, all other idols, all other things from which we seek meaning in life, are dead things, mere fetishes.
Only the God represented by Jesus lives, and only that God gives life. That is why Peter follows. That is why the crowds follow. They see in Jesus—they see through Jesus—the God who gives life and gives life freely. They see through Jesus the God who heals our hurts, who will not give us up to our demons, who will feed us when we are spiritually famished, and who will, ultimately, sacrifice himself rather than meet our human violence with violence. In short, through Jesus they see the God who loves, because he is love.[i]
This morning your alarm clock went off, jarring you from sleep. You likely hesitated for a moment before swinging your feet to the floor and getting out of bed. You showered, shaved or put on make-up, dressed, fed yourself and perhaps a family, and drove anywhere from five to forty-five minutes to get downtown for services at the Cathedral.
Why? Why are we here, today, in these pews? Is it history, a tangible connection to a place where your parents or grandparents worshiped and made their lives? Is it duty, a sense of social responsibility that finds a locus in the good outreach work of this place? Is it morality, the desire to raise children with an ethical framework that will form them as virtuous people in the world? Is it spiritual nourishment, the comfort and strength to face a new week that comes, mysteriously but surely, when we receive the bread and the wine at the Eucharist? Why are we here?
All other reasons for being part of the Church have veracity only because of the first reason, the first truth: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
For me, I’d have to say all of the above. But might it be that each of these and all other reasons have veracity only because of the first reason, the first truth: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?
We Episcopalians sometimes so worry about sounding like our more evangelical brothers and sisters that we shy away from this proclamation upon which Jesus founds the Church, and without which the Church has no ultimate standing. It is true that some Christians tend to use the proclamation of Jesus’ identity as a shibboleth, some sort of password into heaven, or as a club with which to beat non-Christians over the head.
But that’s not what Peter does. For Peter, the proclamation isn’t a theological litmus test but a life-changing exclamation of wonder, even of surprise. The others muse that maybe Jesus is a prophet, or an inspiring ethical teacher, or a social revolutionary. (Jesus is all of these, of course.) But Peter steps out of the tent into the sunlight and suddenly sees the full expanse of God’s truth stretching out in front of him in power, beauty, and majesty. I’m sure for a split second it’s frightening to catch a glimpse of who Jesus is, but Peter won’t skirt tentatively around the edge any longer. Peter, who has been standing all this time at the cusp of God, with these words steps off into God’s very depths. He plunges in—“You’re the Christ! You’re God’s Son! You’re the embodiment, the incarnation, of the God who is love!”—and thus begins his life’s transformation.
Here, at the beginning of the fall, when we again have roused ourselves from sleep, unzipped the tent, and come to church, it is the ideal time to ask the questions, “Why are we here? Who do we say Jesus is?”
The answer we proclaim in our hearts and to the world will say much about us, and about the God or gods we follow. It will impact the extent to which we dedicate ourselves to worship and service at the Cathedral, and it will affect the way we live, and love, and serve when we leave this place. Will we cling to fetishes, defining ourselves by the dead gods of materialism, or vicious partisan politics, or narcissism, or prejudice, or any of the other idols out in the world that lead to death? Or will we step off the bank into the depths of God, following only the one who came bearing God’s Gospel of love, and saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Will we, with Jesus, heal the hurting, walk with those who are battling demons, and give of ourselves—fully, if necessary—as witnesses to grace against hatred and fear?
We’re poised at the very cusp of God. St. Paul says today, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” It begins with a question: “Who do you say that I am?”
[i] See Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew, A Commentary. Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, pp. 121-124.