A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC August 21, 2011, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Texts: Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
“Who do people say that I am?” Have you ever consciously stopped to ask yourself that question? If not, think about it for just a minute…who do people say that you are? What do you suppose guides others in their perceptions of you? What guides you in your perceptions of others? Who do people say that I am? is a question of identity and relationship and how it gets answered has ramifications for whether we will be affirmed and included or ridiculed and left out.
One of the great needs of all humans is to be understood, to be accepted, to be loved just exactly for who we are. The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen speaks of this as the need to be “fully received” or unconditionally loved.# Most of us spend our whole life searching for a person with whom we can risk sharing who we really are, trusting that we might finally be “fully received.”
The journey toward being “fully received” involves a maturing awareness of our own sense of who we are—a deeply held knowledge of our own true identity. In other words, part of our spiritual work is to answer the question, “Who do I say that I am?” If you desire deep and mutual relationship with anyone, you will need to be able to offer yourself as a gift—just as you will try to receive the other as a gift. If we are to give ourselves to each other in love, we need to know the “self” that we are giving—otherwise, the relationship can get twisted and we lose ourselves instead of finding ourselves in relationship.
In my experience, I have seen the tendency for folks to allow the voices and opinions of others to determine the question of personal identity. We depend upon what others say to define our identity or to give us the affirmation that we cannot seem to give ourselves. Often we travel through our lives never being able to “fully receive” our true identity, that “self” that is more than all the outward appearances or circumstances of our lives. Or, in an attempt to get the affirmation or love that we seek, we try to make ourselves into something that we are not. Reasons for this are many: fear of our own weaknesses; fear of the responsibility that comes with the gifts that are part of who we are; we may get so focused on others’ perceptions of us and their expectations of us that we forget that we are more than all that, more than the labels that others may give us; our situation in life at any given moment may be so overwhelming that the best we can do is just try to get through it and then, in rare moments of quiet, we may find ourselves wondering what has happened to “me”—where have I gone? Who am I anyway? All of this can lead to a life that, by all outward appearances and activities, has little in common with the truest, deepest, self within.
I find it fascinating that Jesus asks his disciples this question: Who do people say that I am? Jesus is aware of the ways that people label and pigeonhole and box in according to their expectations, based on their wishes, their half-baked self-awareness, or their preconceived notions. He knows that it is profoundly human to see only in part, to misunderstand and to misjudge. So he is curious: Who do people say that I am? And the responses are that he is John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet. And I wonder whether the disciples are being kind by not mentioning the other things that people are probably saying about Jesus—things like “he’s a wacko” or “a magician,” or “a troublemaker.” But Jesus seems unmoved by what he is hearing (though I imagine he might have been amused), and quickly shifts the question to the disciples themselves. “Yes, yes, that’s what they are saying, but who do YOU, my closest friends, say that I am?” The writer Kathleen Norris talks about how sometimes our words are wiser than we are.# That is, sometimes when we speak out of a place of intuition and spiritual impulse, the words that come out of our mouths have a truth and power that we don’t even fully understand. In response to Jesus’s question, Simon speaks with words that are wiser than he is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In that moment, we see that Simon son of Jonah has tapped into one of his gifts, a part of his truest identity: an openness to the wisdom and revelation of God.
Notice what happens in this exchange between Simon and Jesus: Simon sees through all the labels and pre-conceived notions heaped upon Jesus—and names the deepest, truest identity of Jesus. And Jesus does the same for Simon—Jesus gives Simon a new name, a true name, a revelation and affirmation of his identity. The new name was “Peter” which means rock or stone. Then and there, Jesus names this disciple’s strength, affirms his gift of openness to God’s wisdom and proceeds to place in his hands some hefty authority and responsibility. With gifts always comes responsibility…
Over the years, I’ve heard folks comment that it was so easy for people in the Bible—for example in this story Jesus comes right out and tells Simon Peter who he was and who he was to be. I challenge the notion that it was easy for the biblical characters—did you know that Peter was martyred for the faith (easy, right?)? But I do appreciate that we may yearn for a clear and direct word from Jesus telling us who we are. Many if not all of us here would probably be happy (or at least interested) to know how God sees us, what gifts God sees in us, what work God has for us and whether our lives as they are today have anything to do with God’s desire for us. It is understandable that we might get a little frustrated that Peter gets such unmitigated direction. But I would remind us that Simon didn’t get his new name and divine direction while he was just minding his own business. He had responded to the call of Jesus and had given his life to follow and learn and serve according to the Way of Christ. That is to say, if you find yourself wondering what name Jesus would give you, wondering how God sees you, what gifts God discerns in you, maybe you might consider how open you are to Christ, how close you are in relationship, how willing you are to “put yourself out there” to try to follow the spiritual path of Jesus.
What we learn from Simon Peter today is that, in the midst of living with Jesus, we may begin to utter words that are wiser than we are, we may find ourselves connecting with our gifts. Something about journeying with this One who is wisdom, who is love, who is peace, who is openness, helps us connect with our own wisdom, love, peace and openness, and somehow we find ourselves not only uttering the words, but believing somehow that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Lord of life; as we come to know Jesus more deeply and personally, the mystery is that we come to know ourselves more deeply. Think about being in a mutual, loving, trusting relationship with someone…in that relationship you are not diminished in any way—but rather you may discover even more of yourself. Think about being in a close relationship with Christ, the one in whom we experience perfect love…in that relationship you will come to know yourself most deeply and fully; for Christ is the one in whom we find our truest identity. It’s like as we gaze upon the light that is Christ, that light shines back upon us enlightening our hearts and minds so that we can see more clearly… So as Jesus the Christ shines upon you, who is revealed? Who does God say that you are?
The answer may very well be something different than who others say that you are. It also may be different than who you say you are. If you look into the mirror and only see your brokenness or past mistakes, if you see a person who has no purpose or direction, if you see a person who is too weak or ill to matter, if you only see the labels or messages that others have placed upon you, if you see a person who believes you belong in a job or relationship that makes you depleted and depressed, if you see a person who has no gift to offer, then (I will be bold to say) you are not seeing as God sees. While Christ certainly sees our brokenness and transgression, Christ also sees us put together, sees us whole, integrated, and free to live as who we truly are with courage and confidence. Christ sees beyond all the labels, the masks, the roles we play and knows who we truly are. Christ is truly the one in whom we are “fully received,” fully known and loved beyond measure. Who do you suppose Christ sees in you? Who does God say that you are?
I don’t know the answer for you, but as you journey with Christ, I believe you will find that you have always known, deep in your center. The trick is clearing away all the layers of labels and expectations, the depression and fear, to see and listen to the voice of Christ within. This is the most important work we are given to do. It is important because God created us to be who we are; and who we truly are is meant to be a gift to others. Frankly, I think God needs us to be who we are; I think the world needs us to be who we are. To hear Christ calling your name and to live from that place of deepest truth will not always be easy, but I do think there is a peace and freedom that comes from knowing who calls you and from trusting that, in Christ, you are “fully received.”
Let us pray: Loving Jesus, speak to each person here today from deep within; reveal our true identities; and grant us courage to BE who we are, to offer the gift of ourselves fully and freely to one another and to the world, just as you offer yourself to us. Amen.