King Jesus and Identity Politics: Part II
Matthew 16:23 - 16:28
August 13, 2017
Reverend Doug Webster
In our society, there is a prevailing concept of the self that basically says "I think, I feel, I desire, or I dream, therefore I am.” We decide who we are. Identity, meaning, worth and purpose—all are self-selective. The existential self is an imperial self that sets up self-rule and declares, “Long live me!” In this section of Matthew, Jesus is at a critical point of his life with his disciples in clarifying who he is and what he will accomplish: He is establishing his self-identity. What does this mean for our own identity, and how does the identity of Christ establish the message of the gospel?
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It may be hard for me to speak of Central Presbyterian church without you thinking that I'm just trying to give gratuitous compliments. This church means a whole lot to Virginia and myself. The DNA of this household of faith has been there as long as we've known you and known this church. You do some things really well. Whenever we're in Birmingham, Alabama, we kind of miss the fellowship of Central Presbyterian Church and this is why: One, you really are committed to being a household of faith. A cross-generational place where everyone is welcome no matter the age, no matter the background. It is a place that is centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, lifting him up from week to week in what we find to be very powerful praise and worship. We're really grateful for that. The word of God is preached with a kind of depth and substance and yet a cultural relevancy that I think is so important. The weekly Eucharist. Every sermon here at Central concludes at the table. You can never get a moralistic sermon here because you can't really move from the sermon to the table without understanding Christ's sacrifice and what he's done for us, and that's so valuable. And then to top it off, you've got the word, you've got the worship, and then you have the hospitality. And Claudette's done such a great job upstairs. Last Sunday we were here for over an hour, talking to people around the table. That, too, is very much a component of Central Pres. It's been that way from the beginning and we're so grateful for that. And so, the community groups and all that is part of the life of this church is something that we just want to commend you for and thank the Lord for.
This text in Matthew 16 is a pivotal text in the gospel. I mentioned it last week, emphasizing Jesus' question in the context of the most pagan area that he had walked to, in the northernmost part of Israel, in Caesarea Philippi. There's two conversations embedded here in Matthew 16. It's important to see both conversations. There's a conversation in which he asks "Who do you say that I am?" And Peter replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." But then that conversation continues this time not with a reference to Caesarea Philippi but the reference to Jerusalem. So instead of situational awareness, there is salvation awareness. There is that emphasis that comes with what Peter has said in a very important way.
You get a completely different sort of understanding of humanity walking the streets of New York City than you do sitting in traffic. We've spent this week, probably everyday walking at least 5 miles. You're surrounded by so many people and there's such a concern. You can't see so many men, women, children, and dogs without your heart sort of going out to them. I find myself wondering what are their stories. I wish that I knew as I passed people and ran into people, that I knew their stories. There is a prevailing concept of the self in our society that basically says "I think, I feel, I desire, or I dream, therefore I am.” We really are self-defining in this culture. We decide who we are. Identity, meaning, worth and purpose, are kind of self-selective. The existential self is an imperial self. A kind of conquering, colonizing. Setting up self-rule. Self is king. And self declares long live me. That's why I think this text, Jesus' self-identity, is crucial for our identity. Who he is, changes the way we look at ourselves. The gospel is all about the absolute opposite of self-rule. The gospel is God loves you, therefore you are. We are made in the image of God. God has loved us and cared for us and invested in us capacities to think and reason and feel and worship. We're not cosmic orphans. God in his love, showed his love to us by sending us his son. That's the essence of the gospel, so clearly expressed in John 3:16,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son."
Jesus is at a critical point at his life with his disciples of clarifying who he is and what he will accomplish. Peter, inspired by the spirit of God, says, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." "Flesh and blood did not give this to you," Jesus said, "But my father in heaven." And then Jesus begins to explain the relationship of church and Kingdom. "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Peter will pick up on that in his letter to the church in Asia minor. And he will speak of the fact that you yourselves are like living stones; built into a spiritual house. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. A people of God's special possession who's called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." He says you've been ransomed from an empty way of life, handed down to you by your ancestors. The clash of identities is not always very clear in this culture.
My wife and I have visited Northern Ghana and trained pastors a number of times and in that area of Northern Ghana, it's a tribal culture. The community comes first and the individual comes second. In that tribal culture, there are taboos and rituals and practices that everyone follows and everyone honors. You wouldn't be a part of the tribe if you didn’t do that. But then you come to Christ and you're baptized and you become part of the church. Overnight, the rituals and the taboos, the expectations radically change. You're a part of a new tribe within the old tribe. As compassionate and as gracious and as winsome as Christians can be, in that new tribe old tribe’s dynamic intention, nevertheless they begin to feel like foreigners or outsiders. The church is a distinctive body of believers who are defined by their identity in Jesus Christ. That's not always the case in our culture. We are steeped in individualism and personal autonomy and in a way, we're little chiefs with multiple tribal identities. We have our family identity, our school, our work, our sports, our church, our friends. Each of these tribal identities sets up their own customs and rituals and offerings and obligations that compete for our loyalty. It's interesting that colleagues at work, next door neighbors, work out friends, even family members, may not know that we belong to the new tribe of Jesus. They may not understand that we have our identity rooted and shaped in Christ. Jesus says, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it and I'm giving you the keys of the kingdom; church and kingdom, under the rule of Christ. He is King and lord. Not a religious plan. Not a kind of salvation guarantee but a whole new life lived under the rule and reign of God.
Scott McKnight in his book, The Kingdom Conspiracy, talks about two approaches to the kingdom that are not really New Testament approaches. He calls one approach the "Skinny Jean" approach to the kingdom. The idea that wherever there's good, wherever humanitarian and compassionate effort is being made, that's the presence of the kingdom. He asks at the end of the book whether Ghandi was doing kingdom work in India. McKnight's view in light of the New Testament was no, Ghandi wasn't doing kingdom work. He was doing good, common grace work. He was serving humanity in a splendid and wonderful way, but only those people who are under the rule of Christ, who own Christ as King are doing Kingdom work. So, he would see the church and the kingdom as one. That's the skinny jeans approach, the pleated pants approach to kingdom work. that's the baby boomer approach as the idea of spiritualizing the kingdom. Of being able to kind of see God's grace and God's moments of blessing and salvation outside of the church. Sometimes our forms of evangelism I think have promoted that idea. you can know Christ and experience his grace and all of that but not be a part of the church; not even care that Jesus said the Kingdom offers access to the body of Christ. Church and kingdom are the teaching that Jesus gives in the light of the confession: You are the Christ, the son of the living God. The conversation is not over yet. The second part of the conversation occurs a few days later, we really don't know exactly when. In verse 21, "From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and on the third day be raised."
You see something of a parallel here between the Caesarea Philippi, a pagan center of spirituality dedicated to Baal and Caesar and the god Pan, and now the context shifts. A situational awareness that brings in Jerusalem and a salvation awareness. Having gotten a confession down, Jesus will elaborate the meaning of that confession and the meaning of commitment of Christ as king. You are the anointed one, the son of the living God. He began to show the disciples how he must go to Jerusalem and suffer. No one anticipated a crucified king. No one. I'm sure that as Peter hears Jesus begin to say this, what floods his mind are passages on the glory and the majesty and the triumph of god and the victory of the Messiah. We don't know how much or how many times Jesus had reiterated this idea from the time that Jesus began to show his disciples that he must do this. How he must go to Jerusalem and suffer. We're told in verse 22 that Peter took him aside and he began to rebuke him. Christ the King, the Son of the living God. And Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. Peter's angry that Jesus would have this in his mind. It's a picture in that moment of the difference between confession and commitment. Of getting the confession right but not having a clue as to what the commitment means. Peter takes him aside and he rebukes him. Far be it from you Lord, this shall never happen to you. What a commentary on the difference between being one moment praised by Jesus - Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my father in heaven - and the next moment Jesus having to say to him, "Get behind me Satan, you are a hindrance to me for you are not thinking. You are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man. And what a commentary to us of holding the confession and the commitment so that both are defined by what Christ would say to us and Christ as king. It's one thing to confess and it's another thing to live in light of that commitment. And just as Jesus responded to Peter's confession with teaching about the church and the kingdom, he now responds to the rebuke of Peter by teaching about the cost of discipleship. He says in verse 24, Jesus tells the disciples, if anyone would come after me.
One of the things I'm committed to in teaching pastoral theology is that there are not two tiers of Christian life. There's not the ordinary Christian and then the extraordinary Christian. There's not the confessing Christian and then the really committed Christian. "If anyone, anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it. Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it." Many believers around the world have to take that at face value. In the recent issue in the voice of the martyrs, the story is told of two believers, a husband and wife in Yemen who accepted Christ in 2010. For two years they kept their faith in Christ secret because they knew that once people knew they were Christians they would be persecuted. But after two years of living in secret, not going to the mosque, they decided it was time to be baptized and they joined a small group of believers that they knew. this probably would have gone on fine for Khalid and Samira if pictures hadn't been taken of Samira's baptism. The Muslim brotherhood posted her picture being baptized on Facebook. That led to persecution for both of them. Khalid was denounced as an evangelist and Samira was ridiculed even by family members. Their car was broken into, their car windows were smashed. Their dogs were poisoned and killed. Then it began to escalate. Khalid was beaten up at his school where he taught by his fellow teachers. It got worse and worse. Samira was beaten up by a nephew and dragged through the street. Her arm was broken and she was bloody. Then June 9, 2014, Khalid was woken with screams coming from the kitchen. Samira was on fire. Somebody had replaced the cooking oil with gasoline. When she went to cook the whole thing flamed up and after two weeks of intense suffering, she died.
Khalid has lost much. They have moved from Yemen but the host country they’re in still encourages persecution. Yet, Khalid says Samira before she died, forgave the people who persecuted her. It was one of the last things she told her husband. Khalid continues to praise the lord for all that has happened. Because as he said, "I have nothing to lose." His words echo for whoever wants to save his life will lose and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
A little closer to home, in a memoir, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield chronicles her conversion to Christ in 1999. A tenured professor of English and women's studies at Syracuse university from 1992 to 2002. Her primary academic theory was specializing in queer theory and writing about it. Her historical focus was on 19th century literature, informed by Freud and Marx and Darwin. She advised the LGBTQ student group on campus. She wrote Syracuse University's policy on same-sex couples. She actively lobbied for LGTBQ aims alongside her lesbian partner. In order to refute the religious right, she began to read the bible thoroughly. On her own, in reading the bible, became converted to Jesus Christ. She said the fall out professionally, financially, relationally was cataclysmic. In her words, she lost everything but the dog and gained eternal life in Christ. Brothers and sisters in Christ that hear what Jesus says, "If anyone would come after me, let him pick up his cross and follow me." They hear it at face value. They link the confession and the commitment together.
In a recent article published by The Gospel Coalition, Joni Erickson Tada reflects on her 50th anniversary of her diving accident. She was 17 when she broke her neck and became quadriplegic and she's lived for 50 years in a wheel chair without the use of her hands and legs. Her story embraces the power of the cross on many levels. From self-understanding to costly discipleship. Early in her ordeal, Joni became convinced that God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.
For Christ with me in suffering friends taught her how to love others and to go beyond herself. This summer, Joni and friends will host 27 family retreats in the United States. 23 other retreats in less-resourced nations, reaching thousands of special needs children and families for Christ. A few weeks ago, in Alabama, Joni was at one of those retreats and a young woman came up to her with a down syndrome child on her hip and said, "Miss Joni, do you ever think how none of this would have happened if it were not for your diving accident?" Joni flashed a smile and said, "That's why I thank God every day for my wheel chair." As the woman left and walked off, Joni took this aerial view of hundreds of people in this dining hall. With so many special needs children there and she wrote this,
"She's right. How did I get here? It has everything to do with God and his grace. Not just grace over the long haul but grace over tiny moments. The beauty of such grace is that it eclipses the suffering until one July morning you look back and see five decades of God working a mighty way."
A simple conversation with the disciples. Who do people say that I am? And they give complimentary opinions. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Who do you say that I am? You are the Christ, the son of the living God. And Jesus compliments Peter. "Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my father in heaven." Sometime later, a second conversation. Where Jesus begins to explain what this confession will mean. It will mean his suffering and death and a rebuke from Peter. And this time Jesus having to correct the one who confesses right but doesn't understand the commitment, followed by his teaching on costly discipleship. The son of man is going to come with his angels and the glory of his father. Then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
The maxim of our culture is "I think, I desire, I feel, therefore I am." The truth of the gospel is God loves you. You belong to God. He is your heavenly father, he is your holy spirit, he is the living King, Jesus Christ. Paul may have said it best when he said, "I live, yet not I but Christ in me. The life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." In that beautiful chapter on the resurrection, the bodily resurrection, Paul says again, I am who I am by the grace of God. And that's what this table signifies. I am who I am by the grace of God. It is what God in Christ has done for me and for what I have received in the spirit of his sacrificial and atoning death on my behalf. I look forward to the eternal life with a risen, resurrected King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Let's pray together. Our Lord and our God, we come before you in worship. I pray Lord for the person here who's wrestling with the identity question and I ask that the power of your gospel might be impressive. That the work and love that you have done on our behalf might become increasingly understood as real and true in that person's life. Lord God we thank you for your mercy expressed to us by a body given, by bloodshed, by an atoning sacrifice. We ask Lord that you would bless this time, that you would take these elements, the bread and the cup and set them aside for your holy purpose. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
- Are you surprised that Jesus links the church and the kingdom so closely?
- What are the keys of the kingdom and how do they relate to the church?
- Why did the disciples find it difficult to hear Jesus’ explanation of the cross and the resurrection?
- In what sense can you see yourself in Peter’s reaction to Jesus?
- Is it possible to believe in the cross, but not to believe in cross-bearing?