St John’s, Albion—Matthew 16:16-30
I’m not exactly at the tip of the spear when it comes to awareness of popular culture—a couple of years ago during the Super Bowl I had to admit on Facebook that I had never before heard of the halftime headliner … it was Katy Perry that year … I now know who Katy Perry is, but I didn’t then—like I said, I may have trouble with my knowledge of celebrities, but I don’t exactly live under a rock either. I pay attention to the news, I watch television and movies, I read articles and blog posts, and I do so with my antennae up for how the area of my greatest interest—religion in general, Christianity in particular, Anglicanism even more in particular—I pay attention to how the world I live in every day is perceived and understood by the world “out there.” And what comes through loudly and clearly and consistently is that the world “out there” believes that all religious questions ultimately boil down to one: Does God exist?
Now, for me personally, God’s existence is one of his least interesting attributes. But, for a lot of other people, that’s the question on which everything else turns. It’s as if, by comparison, no other question matters, no matter which way you resolve it.
So, can the substance of the Christian faith really be boiled down to believing in the existence of God? Does the first article of the Creed render all the others irrelevant? I hope you are answering to yourselves, “No, of course not.” But if we’re really honest, that is where we mentally want to draw the line, isn’t it? It does seem to be the fundamental religious question, and we sometimes tend to judge people as “one of us” or “one of them” depending on whether they “believe in God,” and not much else.
With our feelings, if not with our minds, we tend to affirm that the primary mission and message of Christianity is that people should believe in God, and that believing in God is the essential profession of faith that one needs to make.
Our Lord Jesus, however, might have another idea, a more pointed question, a question with more profound implications. St Matthew’s gospel records for us a well-known incident in which Jesus was with his disciples in the old Gentile city of Caesarea Philippi. He puts to them a question, “What are people saying about me? Who do they think I am?” They respond with a variety of answers, all of them involving the re-incarnation of some prominent dead person.
Then Jesus sharpens the pencil, and makes it personal: “What about you? Who do you think I am?” And Simon Peter answers for himself and the other disciples, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” For all of us who profess to be Christians, then,
for all of us who profess to be disciples of the same Jesus who interrogated his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, the question “Who is Jesus?” — not merely “Does God exist?”— is the critical question of faith.
Philosophers—both the professional kind and the ordinary variety that all of us are from time to time—have long pondered the existence-of-God question. Students of philosophy learn about Anselm’s “ontological argument” and “Pascal’s wager.” But it’s evident that there has yet to be any universally recognized conclusive proof of the matter, because people still keep talking about it!
I wonder, though, sometimes, just why we keep talking about it. Perhaps we’re stuck on the existence-of-God question because it’s a much “safer” question than the one Jesus poses. We can debate the existence of God abstractly, in theory, hypothetically. And if we manage to continue the friendly conversation long enough, we may never have to face the other question, the question of Jesus’s identity, the question that peers into the depths of our souls and demands a personal answer—not a hypothetical answer, not a theoretical answer, but an honest, personal answer. “What about you—Who do you say that I am?,” Jesus wants to know.
In a Christian universe, it’s the answer to this question that divides belief from unbelief, faith from doubt. It’s the “Final Jeopardy” question which cannot be evaded—it just comes at the end of the program, the end of the game. And it’s for all the marbles, the whole enchilada. Who is Jesus?
Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the Son of the Living God—this is what constitutes and defines the nature of Christian faith, this is what spells out the message and mission of the Church. The content of the Christian faith cannot be reduced to the first article of the Creed. Please don’t misunderstand me when I say this, but God is not enough. Of course, I don’t mean that God is somehow inadequate or insufficient. What I mean is that simply acknowledging the existence of a Supreme Being, an Ultimate Reality, even praying to or worshiping such a Deity, does not constitute saving, life-giving faith. It’s a necessary step, but it’s a baby step, and, strange as it may sound, I’m not sure it necessarily needs to be the first step in one’s walk of faith. I have known of people who have wrestled long and hard with the philosophical questions, then met Jesus, and confessed his lordship, and only after that step been able to say with assuredness, “I believe in God.”
Wrestling with the philosophical issues of God’s existence is all well and good, but not if we get stuck there, not if it keeps us from facing the real question, “Who is Jesus?” So please don’t settle for just plain “God.” Don’t settle for that from me as your bishop or Fr Bill as your priest. Don’t settle for that from your brothers and sisters here at St John’s Church. Don’t settle for that from anyone or anything else in your religious universe. You deserve much more! You deserve the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
When we settle for the Supreme Deity of the philosophers, we are left with a vaguely comforting but terribly bland religion that will eventually bore us to tears and accomplish absolutely nothing for the eternal well-being of our souls, and, when all is said and done, precious little for the state of human life in this world. It’s like taking an analgesic drug that numbs the pain but does nothing to address the source of the pain. Those drugs are nice on a short-term basis, but they can become quite a problem, in ways I don’t even need to name, over the long haul. But when, instead of depending on pain killers, we submit to and cooperate with a demanding regimen of physical therapy that requires our active participation and effort, rather than simply having something done to us or for us, we open ourselves to the possibility of lasting change and improvement. In the same way, when we get beyond the first article of the Creed, and into the rest of it, we discover a religious inheritance that is strong, rich, nourishing, challenging, and effective. It is capable of seeing us through the very valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has defined God as “whoever raised Jesus from the dead.”
I will not deceive you. This inheritance comes to us in the shape of a cross, as we will discover more clearly the readings for next Sunday. But it’s a cross that becomes the road to eternal life, the way of everlasting peace and joy and reconciliation. I can make no finer response to this mystery than by echoing the words of St Paul, as he concludes the eleventh chapter of his epistle to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”