When I was in college taking a calculus class, I remember very vividly the professor stopping the class in the middle of a problem, turning around from the blackboard, and saying to all of us, "Now are you with me?" That professor's question was one which always caught our attention and forced us to look at the subject matter.
In today's reading from Matthew's Gospel, we find the disciples who have been personally called by Jesus, after months of listening to Jesus and seeing Jesus do things that only God could do, after being sent out to preach and heal as agents of the kingdom, Jesus brings exam time to the disciples. No longer can they be said to be new followers. So what have the disciples learned? Were they paying attention? Professor Jesus is about to find out. He gives them the exam as a two-part question. Number one: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" The clock starts ticking; each of the twelve pulls out his number two pencil and begins to write. One jots down "John the Baptist." Another writes, "Elisha." Another one scribbles, "Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Jesus doesn't say anything, implying that the answers aren't bad but nobody moves to the head of the class. Then Jesus being the good teacher realizes that the question he asked may not be the right question. And then he moves from an academic question to a personal question. The personal question moves it from the intellect to the heart. And Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?" And yet again, you can see that the brows become furrowed, the pencils get tapped against legs, brains, like databases, get searched, but only silence ensues. Then, finally, Peter speaks. Peter, blessed be he, speaks the ground-trembling truth that followers of Jesus will confess for the next 2000 years as they join the Christian community. Peter speaks it for the first time ever, and he says, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Wow! All this must have been heady stuff for a guy who just a few months ago was knitting nets and cleaning fish in Galilee. And you could just see the jubilation unfold, a beaming Peter gets high-fived by disciples caught up in the delirious good news that they have staked their lives not on a winner but on THE winner. What they have anticipated, hope beyond words, as they spend all those nights on the cold ground dreaming under the stars about the payoff for following Jesus has now been unveiled by Peter and confirmed by Jesus. So as they finished giving each other high-fives and happily assembling for a group shot to be displayed in the local newspaper, the great discovery gives way to the great disappointment, and finally the great rebuke. Because it turns out they have flunked the exam.
The great dramatist Euripides often used the Greek equivalent for nevertheless to underscore that something would happen contrary to expectations. And today Jesus' word to Peter is such a nevertheless. So before the disciples' feet had even thought of hitting the ground, Jesus doesn't rain on their parade. He drowns their parade. He tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised. Brendan Mark Manning, a Roman Catholic priest, in his book The Wisdom of Accepted Tenderness: Going Deeper Into The Ava Experience, tells a story about the power of words, the power of speech. It is a tale of Zacharias Warner, a romantic poet who had turned priest. He packed Vienna's churches in the early years of the 19th century through his fiery sermons on carnal sin. One Sunday Warner begins his sermon before a huge congregation with this quote: "That tiny piece of flesh, the most dangerous appurtenance of a man's body." As you can imagine, nobody was snoozing through this one. The gentlemen panicked; the ladies blushed as the cleric went on to speak rapidly about the horrendous consequences of its misuse. Toward the end of the sermon, Warner leaned over the pulpit, his eyes shooting sparks, his voice raised to a pitch, and he said, "Shall I name for you that tiny piece of flesh?" There was silence in the congregation. Warner leaned out further over the pulpit and exclaimed, "Shall I show you that tiny piece of flesh?" There was a gasp in the congregation. Warner's voice dropped and a sly smile spread over his face and then he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, behold the source of our sins." And, then, he stuck out his tongue.
When Peter says, "You are the Messiah," clearly he was committing himself to being a disciple of the Son of God. And notice that he who was least objective is the most perceptive. So going beyond the knowledge that he had to answer the intellectual question, and prompted by the findings of his own heart, Peter has taken the plunge and said, "You are the Messiah, you are the Son of God." But, clearly, his impetuousness with his tongue has got him in trouble. He who is the first to leap once again finds himself beyond his depth. As I say to my congregation frequently, "You can't help wondering if Jesus didn't call Peter the Rock not for his foundational but for his sinking properties." Because in this story, he quickly flounders. For when Jesus begins to make it clear that he has to go to Jerusalem, there to suffer at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and the doctors of the law, Peter takes him by the arm and begins to rebuke Jesus. "Heaven forbid, no, Lord, this will never happen to you!" Jesus' rebuke is strangely harsh. He says, "Get behind me, Satan!" And what we find is that Jesus never withholds a telling blow when only the telling blow will serve.
I think that as we examine this passage closely we can begin to deal with ourselves in realistic fashion. For better than Peter could know at the time, we know that the world does not reward Christ for being Christ. Yet we expect the world to reward us for being Christians. Like Peter, we may recognize the Messiah, but, like Peter, we have yet to come to grips of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, conversion continues after you have declared yourself a Christian.
So, for us today at this stage of our learning, what can this lesson say to us? What can these words of the bumbling followers of Jesus, who are so moved by his kindness and yet so confused by his demands? The misunderstandings of those who knew Christ best remind Christians how dangerous it is to claim to know too much. We Christians too often display a terrible need to be absolutely sure about Jesus and about God. And I don't mean fundamentalists alone. But apologists, dogmatists, anyone who tries to get a fix on Jesus. The truth for all of us is not a way to live and believe but a particular description of belief. It is what we usually think and sometimes say, "This is the true Jesus. This is the correct understanding of God. Accept my prescription of faith or I will condemn you according to my description of heresy." When we act this way, we know that we fear confusion when the greater danger lies in too much certainty. I think there is a huge difference between clarity and certainty. Clarity implies that you are clear about something and yet you allow yourself to ask questions. Certainty only leads us to draw conclusions and instead of asking questions, we accuse first.
We find in our passage today that Jesus defies categories. Jesus invites us to have clarity but not certainty. Jesus is outside the dogmas of neat religious minds. Jesus is free. Likewise, we find that we ourselves are truly free only when we allow Jesus to be free. Cage Jesus and you imprison yourself. Categorize Jesus and you find yourself in a pigeonhole, another religious clone. Maybe the image in our churches should not be an immovable Jesus on a statue or a cross or a stained-glass window. Perhaps the best image for the church should be the empty tomb with the inscription, "Christ is not here. Christ has gone before you." The invitation today is for clarity but not certainty. I hope that as a member of the church we can all work to restore the blessed gift of imagination to its rightful place at the center of our faith and I hope that we not fear life's confusion but rather embrace its blessed ambiguity. That we give ourselves to the search rather than repeating endlessly what others have found so that we may give ourselves to each other which is what living in the spirit means.
So as disciples of Christ, are we prepared to stand where Peter crumbled? Are we more realistic about the world and about Christianity's demand on us? I think in all honesty we had better admit that we have probably disowned Jesus far more than the three times Peter did in the Good Friday story. But let us always remember a very important point, which ultimately is the good news for all of us. Despite Peter's total collapse, Christ never gives up on his disciple. When, after the resurrection, Christ meets Peter again, Christ doesn't call him Simon; he calls him Simon Peter. And here's what we can understand. To whatever degree the church is founded upon Peter, it is founded on a second chance.
It is a long pilgrimage after you have declared your allegiance to discover and embody the true meaning of discipleship. That much we have seen in the story of Peter who eventually went to Rome, and according to church tradition, at his own insistence, was crucified upside down. But, again, the most important lesson, and I want to underline it, is not the lesson of human weakness. It's the story of Christ's endless mercy. It is more than adequate for all of our weaknesses. If we trust Jesus as Peter never ceased to do, we will find as he did that Christ's strength, Christ's joy, Christ's freedom, Christ's love, become more and more our own. So to all of us, as a part of the church, let us join the pilgrimage, the kind of pilgrimage that Peter took. The one he took after he stood up and declared himself a disciple. Let us all continue on this pilgrimage singing joyfully of what is always rewarding but never easy to do. Let us pledge allegiance and recognize Jesus as the Christ. Let us also be aware that what is called for is clarity but not certainty. And let us always remember that we as members of the church are part of an institution which is founded on a second chance. Amen.