“Who Do You Say That You Are?”

August 27, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard.  Amen.

We are, sadly, heading into the last few days of summer.  I hate this time of year.  I love summer so much (well, not on Sundays when it is really hot – geez we need some AC, right?). While I do enjoy the fall, lately it just seems to be the lead up to winter.  You might guess – I am not much of a skier.  It’s true.  But, I think the summer is also a time when we are most ourselves.

I notice this on Facebook – folks posting pictures from vacations… shorts, t-shirts, relaxed poses, smiles – the summer seems to be when we allow ourselves to just be.  We take time off from our labors to rest and play…and it is at play when I think we are most ourselves.  There is no need for formality or pretense – we are either alone, or with those with whom we feel most comfortable.  It is an easier time (and no…I won’t break into a bit from the Opera Porgy & Bess).  But suffice it to say, this is a time, generally, when we are most relaxed.  And it is when we are relaxed that we are most ourselves, and most open to possibility, to awareness of things – to the wonder of stars at night, or the fun of a Ferris wheel, or the joy of words lifting off a page and into the imagination. 

And, it is a good time now, after all of that, at the close of summer, to consider the question coming out of the texts from Romans and Matthew today… “Who do you say that you are?”

Now, you may be thinking “That isn’t what it said. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am? not, “Who do you say that you are.”  Well… let’s look at that again.

Jesus is walking around the border town of Caesarea Philippi, a place in which, like most border towns, everything is contested one side against the other – who they are, who their gods are, who their leaders are.  Not too unlike national borders today.  And he asks his followers “Hey…what are folks saying – who do they think I am?”  After they told him that some thought he was Elijah or John the Baptist or Superman in a tunic (okay, just seeing if you were awake), he then did indeed say “Cool, but who do YOU say that I am?” 

Now THAT is some question. But, let’s just park that for a moment and turn to St. Paul.

In one of the most beautiful passages we have, and one of the most powerful, he writes “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…”  He continues, saying that our lives will take various forms, but all rooted in the same identity “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”

Okay – got all that?  Jesus asks who we think he is. Paul tells us who we need to be. 

Now you might be thinking “So what?

Well, really…no.  The question really isn’t “So what!” but “So, who…?”  Wait, what?  I mean, who?  I’m so confused!

One of the joys of vacations for some of us is having the time to read a book, or to watch a movie.  The thing about many of the best sellers or box office hits, particularly those produced for children or young adults, is that the entire narrative revolves around a protagonist who, in the course of the story, discovers something about his or herself, transforming those around them too, on the journey.  You can change the character from Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, from Meg Murphey to Elphaba – but no matter the name, there is an awakening to their purpose, or who they are beneath the surface, and what is possible, and that changes the world around them.  It is no wonder that we enjoy these stories so much because they are our own story too.  From the moment we are born, we are the protagonists of the story of our life, the story of our discovery of who we are and what we are to do.

We often hear about those who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” as if spiritual and religious were incompatible, when we are all spiritual beings from the moment we are born (a sermon for another day).  But I think what those folks are getting at really is that they are seekers.  They understand that there is something larger than themselves, and may even call that God, but they are trying to find their own meaning within that, and they have this idea that religions don’t allow for that.  Perhaps that’s because we, as a church, lost our way for a long time and forgot to keep seeking – staying locked in the comfort zone of our doctrine.  And yet, we have some seeking to do – as a church and as members within the church, and looming out there for us is a question for each of us– who do you say that you are? 

Who do you say that you are?

St. Paul was asking that question of each of us are both individual, and also part of a larger whole.  That larger whole, for St. Paul, is the body of Christ.  If we are the body of Christ, then the question being asked by Jesus in the gospel is a far more powerful one, because I guarantee you that he isn’t having some sort of existential identity crisis here…he is getting at something deeper, something he knows his disciples will have to wrestle with in the days ahead.  Something this rock called Peter will not get right initially, nor even a few times after that…just wait till next week.  And, it is something many of us still try to figure out in our own lives – who am I?

There is a short story I’d like to share.  It is about a woman who was in a coma. She heard a voice as if from another realm. 
“Who are you?” the voice said.
“I’m the wife of the mayor,” she replied.
“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a philanthropist.”
“I did not ask what you did with your money, but who you are.”
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I’m a Doctor.” “I did not ask what you did, but who you are.”
She evidently failed to understand the point of the inquiry, for she was sent back to life. When she recovered from her illness, she set about finding who she was. And that made all the difference.[1]

When I first heard this story, I was intrigued by the final words “When she recovered from her illness, she set about finding who she was. And that made all the difference.”  All the difference to her?  Well, yes.  But also to the world, for each of us are a part of the larger body of humanity. For every one of us who is able to live the intentional life to which we are called – the transformative, not the conformative life – our impact on the rest of creation is life changing, world changing. 

That is why St. Paul is so emphatic that we not be conformed to this world, but transformed by it – to renew our minds that we might discern what God intends for us to be.  And the world is in need of us to be who we are – who we are really, not what we have allowed the world to label us – because all around the world there are people who seek to define others, who seek to define you – they oppress, marginalize, abuse, neglect, and kill the body mind and spirit of our brothers and sisters – and when they do this to anyone, they do this to us.

We can never separate ourselves from them.  We are, as St. Paul makes clear, all part of the same body.  He was talking about the body of Christ, but Jesus would say that we are also a part of the larger body of the world – parts of the human body created by God.  And there is something that God is desperately trying to tell us – or as Paul writes – willing us – to do and to be.  What that is will be different for each of us, just as it was in the way Jesus lived his life.

Jesus wasn’t just one thing, but many – at times he was the contemplative, praying in the garden, seeking respite from the crowds and communion with the Creator.  Other times he was the prophet speaking to thousands, or a teacher to a small community, or a healer, a community organizer, a Rabbi reading Torah, a counselor, a radical…  We are not expected to be all those things, just as we are not the full body of Christ all by ourselves.  But we are, if we are open to coming to know it, being called by God to be who we are – to answer the question of our existence in word and deed, to be able to respond to the question of our lives.

Who do you say that you are? 

Who are you? 

The thing about questions like this is, as this woman found out, is not to try to answer them outright, but to live them, to dwell in them, and thereby live into who we are. Or, in the words of Ranier Maria Rilke, whom I have quoted before “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

“Who do you say that you are?”

And while you try to live into that answer, may you be “transformed by the renewing of your mind [and heart, and soul], that you may discern the will of God” for your life, and live out that purpose in the world.  For the world is in need of transformative people who refuse to be conformed to what is – but rather through their own lives spread the joy, hope and possibility that will change the world through the power of God’s love.

“Who do you say that you are?”

The story of your life is being written in answer to that very question.  You are the protagonists, and there are two authors – you and God.  It is a co-creative process through which you will live into the question, experience the answer, which in turn will likely open more questions.  It is one heck of a story, or it will be, or it could be…that is entirely up to you.  Your co-author is hoping to collaborate with you, and the world looks forward to what happens next – to hearing and experiencing the answer as you live into the question.

“Who do you say that you are?”


For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:

[1] Source unknown.

Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
August 27, 2017
Pentecost 12 – Track 2
1st Reading – Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
2nd Reading – Romans 12:1-8
Gospel – Matthew 16:13-20