Sunday, August 24, 2014

who do you say that I am?

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our gospel reading today has the rightly famous account of St Peter's confession of faith. Jesus asks his disciples: who do people say that I am. He receives various answers: some say he is Elijah; others John the Baptist; others still that he is Jeremiah or one of the prophets. And then, having tested the waters, Jesus asks them an even more important question: but who do you say that I am? And St Peter gets it spectacularly right when he declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

I'm sure you've heard on many occasions before that this is a question that we must all ask ourselves – who do we say that Jesus is? Indeed, it is something that all should ask themselves on a regular basis, because as Christians Jesus stands at the centre of our faith and the answer we give to that question very much decides what kind of Christians we are. But today I would like to consider Jesus' response to Peter's declaration: blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. Peter and the others apostles have been with Jesus for two and a half years or more at this point. They have seen Jesus heal many, raise people from the dead, calm storms, walk on water, feed thousands from a few scraps of bread; and, of course, heard the teaching of such sublime wisdom that it could not be other than divine. And yet Jesus says to Peter that for him to recognise him for who he was, Messiah and Son of God, is only possible because God the Father has revealed it to him.

There is an important lesson there for us. Being a Christian is about more than a mere intellectual assent to some basic principals that have been passed on from person to person over time. Real faith is much more than that – it comes from an action of the divine within us, from God revealing himself to each of us directly.

Let me elaborate on that. A person may by dint of their own mental inquiry arrive at the conclusion that the universe around us could not come into existence by way of some accident; and that mere chance is by no means a plausible explanation for the finely tuned order we see in all things from the actions of sub-atomic particles to the movements of the infinite number of galaxies that surround us; and the idea that not only life, but conscious life, could have occurred independent of a creator with a purpose and a design is an insult to the limited intelligence that we possess. And therefore the only rational explanation is that there is indeed a God who stands behind all we see, the uncreated creator of all else that exists.

From that, it is only a step to wondering what form that God might take. No amount of theorising can provide an answer to that. The unseen God who stands hidden behind his creation can only be known by what he decides to reveal to us. But if the inquirer casts a questioning mind honestly and openly about, then he is bound, I think to encounter the Christian faith; and if that is examined with equal honesty and openness, then he is bound to be convinced by its claims.

For example, there are those who have tried to attack our faith on the basis of its central claim, that Jesus rose from the dead. It is as St Paul said in his letters – if he did not rise, then our faith is in vain. Frank Morison was one such person. He felt Christianity stood on shaky ground with this claim and it would not take much to prove it wrong.

Yet the more he tried, the harder it was for him to deny the truth of this claim. He was convinced essentially by his inability to answer one key question: if Christ did not rise, then what happened to his body? Who moved the stone and took it? The Romans had no reason to do so. If it was the Jewish rulers of the day, then all they had to do to collapse the faith they hated and hounded was produce the dead body of the leader his followers claimed had defeated death. If the disciples, then how had they managed to take it from the guarded tomb? And even if they had, why would they have suffered and died to proclaim something that they knew to be a lie? The only thing that made sense was that he had indeed risen and that his followers had met and spoken with him again as they had claimed. So convinced did Morison become by his research into the matter that he wrote a book on the topic, 'Who moved the stone', which has become something of a classic and is well worth reading.

But of course all that evidence is available to any who cares to see it and still there are those – many – who not only deny that Christ is risen and is the Son of God but that God himself exists. Which brings us back to our Lord's response to St Peter's declaration of faith: blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. When it comes right down to it, God is not revealed to us by philosophical investigation or rational inquiry – these are of use mainly when it comes to dealing with those who claim that to believe is rational and that to have faith means leaving your reason at the door. Faith comes from an act of God's grace; he reveals himself to us; it is in his direct interaction with us that we know not only that God exists but that Jesus is his Son.

This is not the same as saying it is God's fault if any do not believe, because he has not given them that grace. He offers that grace to all – some simply chose to reject it. As in the parable of the sower, just as the seed is planted on all soils, so God's grace is offered to all his children. But some let the cares of this world, the temptations they face, or the pride they take in their own cleverness, choke that grace down. This means that even as give thanks for all that God gives us, especially the grace he fills us with so that we must truly know him, so we must also pray the eyes and ears, hearts, souls, and minds of all those who push that grace back will be opened so that they will be able to answer with us Christ's question – Who do you say that I am? – in the words of St Peter: you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

To him who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls, by whose wounds we are healed and who is with us always until the end of the ages, be glory now and forever. Amen

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