Good morning. It is an Honor and Privilege to speak with you today. As many of you know, my day job with CBF of NC offers me the periodic privilege of speaking in partner congregations around the state, to provide local pastors with a well-deserved and much-needed Sunday away. And so, this morning I say to you – my own church family – that I bring you greetings on behalf of the Cooperative Baptist family here in NC and beyond. A broader family of faith, consisting of approximately 275 local congregations, of which you have been and continue to be, a significant contributor. And it is especially important in these days of uncertainty to express our sincere gratitude on behalf of the ministry staff in Winston Salem.
Today’s text, while most likely familiar to you, is worthy of retelling. Much like Buck’s theme of forgiveness last Sunday, this week’s text is also an essential piece of our faith foundational.
Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Simply voicing these words is a sermon in itself. And, if I followed the advice of my children this morning – that the only bad Father’s Day sermon is a long Father’s Day sermon –then, I might let the scripture stand for itself and sit back down. If you are in this room, or have chosen to join us online this morning, at some point in your life you have wrestled with, or at least considered Jesus’ question. Maybe your answer compelled many of you to step out of a pew, to walk down an aisle or to stand in the waters of baptism and to profess to a gathering of Christfollowers, “Jesus is Lord.” This profound and succinct statement speaks directly to our identity as people, as Christians, and as a community of faith.
There is an inherent sacred mystery wrapped up in the identity of Jesus, and Peter’s declaration of Jesus as Son of the Living God is certainly significant in a time and location in which worship of idols and non-living gods is prevalent. Just as PETER recognized Jesus’ connection with the “living God,” so too, Jesus also affirms PETER’s answer. Not only for its correctness, as any good Sunday School teacher would … but that Peter also received this revelation from the “living God,” not through flesh and blood.
Honestly, in a different setting it would be a fascinating and life-giving conversation to hear your answer. And I don’t mean the one-sentence PETER version, I mean the life stories that shaped your answers. None of us were with the disciples, witnessing miracles and exorcisms and healings and teaching. But, as people of faith, we can testify alongside the disciples to the authentic love that undergirded Jesus’ acts of miraculous service, because we have seen and experienced God’s unmistakable hand in our lives. And those stories powerful and personal. Yet, as we tell them, we realize that our answers – like Peter’s – do not follow human logic either. Instead, they are reflections of our own experience with divine.
So, it matters this morning how I answer Jesus’ question. And it matters how you answer, and perhaps most importantly, it matters how WE answer Jesus’ question. Because who we say Jesus is changes (or should change) EVERYTHING.
As I reflected on today’s text and the meaning of a deeply embedded identity, I thought of my grandfather. When I finished grad school in the 2002, I moved not into a new job, but down to rural south Alabama to live in my grandfather’s farmhouse, one that had been in the family for generations. The house was empty, as my grandfather – who suffered from dementia, had long-since moved into a nursing facility. And while I certainly learned a lot of life-lessons in that year … like how to cook for myself … sort of … and how to ride a John Deere… sort of … but, those are after-worship stories.
One of my most poignant memories of that time was going to visit my grandfather, and particularly on Sunday afternoon’s – as cliché as it is – I would take him in his car for the proverbial Sunday afternoon drive. We drive to the farm house and sit in the rocking chairs on the back porch, eat lunch and then sometimes he would ask me to drive him around.
Now, let me preface this by saying, this was before the days of GPS and I did not grow up on the farm or even in that area of the state. So, we would get in the car, in inevitably my grandad would say, turn here. Turn left after that tree. You see that house, take a right there. My mind was feverously trying to remember each turn. I was completely lost. Completely dependent on my grandad for directions. Then as we turn another corner he would say, “that’s the house your grandmother grew up in” or “that’s where we used to go after school.” Then we would turn some more … and just when I get about as uncomfortably lost as I can stand … without fail, he would say, now take a left up here and we’ll be back to the main road. And my mind was set at ease!
People and places and experiences that penetrate the recesses of mind and heart. That is a depth of selfidentity that cannot be forgotten.
This is what we mean in community when we ask parents … “Will you tell them the stories of Jesus and sing them the songs of faith until they know them deep down in their hearts and in their bones until they can become followers of Jesus for themselves?” In these moments of dedication and ritual, maybe more than any other, we speak to the core of our identity and what it means to be, not only a follower of Christ, but to be a part of a community of faith.
It is an endorsement of a way of life, a commitment to be a worthy member of a community which values people as Jesus does, that lifts up each child of God and that loves ALL people within our reach – not relying on the shallow well of our flesh and blood, or only up to the capacity of our human nature. As God’s people, our love is response. A response that wells up from the deep, endless boundaries of God’s love and seeps its way down into our bones, until it alters our very DNA. Yet, the not-so-well-kept secret is, it is impossible to do that on your own. We need the Church, and we need God’s Spirit to accomplish that.
You see, our human nature is limited. In fact, just as quickly as Jesus affirms Peter’s recognition of the divine, Peter once again reverts to his own human understanding of Jesus’ mission, and is strongly reprimanded as a “stumbling block in v. 23. And thus, Peter’s reign as the unblemished leader of the Church lasts only 5 verses! God uses flawed people “individual and collectively” to accomplish BOLD Kingdom purposes!
Unfortunately, as we are all-too aware, the Church gets it wrong sometimes, too. And that is why Jesus so harshly rebuked Peter. This is particularly important to remember on Juneteenth, as we consider ways in which we – collectively – have failed to love as God loves.
Howard Thurman, the long-time dean of the chapel at Howard University in Washington, DC, and later Boston University, who also had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. – tells the story of how his grandmother – who lived until the Civil War on a plantation in Florida – would always ask him to read the Bible to her, but never from the letters of Paul. In college, Thurman finally worked up the courage to ask her why …and she told him how the slave master would only let a white preacher preach on Sundays, and how they weaponized the biblical text against them, “slaves be obedient to your masters … as unto Christ.” “I PROMISED MY MAKER” she said, “THAT IF I EVER LEARNED TO READ AND IF FREEDOM EVER CAME, I WOULD NOT READ THAT PART OF THE BIBLE.”
EVEN the God’s Church is not immune to evil. And when those around us whose life experience may be different, those who are marginalized and mistreated or abused because of their race or gender or social status or sexuality or ethnicity, the Church must confess and repent. Like PETER, we have at times been a stumbling block for the gospel.
And Jesus still asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
I dare to claim that our answer in 2022 in GSO matters as much as it did for the disciples in our text. We, too, are in the midst of building – re-building – God’s Church. A Church that is losing credibility with each scandalous headline … in a culture that has not yet reached equal treatment of all its citizens … a society so polarized that it is more common to yell at one another than love each other … a time in which vocation and industry are in the midst of significant generational shifts … and the chasm between the haves and have not’s seems to grow exponentially.
How do we reconcile the authority given to the Church, “ecclesia,” when faced with the reality of the Church’s decline in number and influence and social privilege? Are we to truly believe that God has granted to the Church the gift of the Spirit to bind on earth and in heaven? Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps as we lean into Jesus’ promises, we should question our perspective of ecclesia, God’s Church?
God’s spirit has been compelling Christ-followers to step out into the proverbial aisles long before we sat in air-conditioned buildings and carpeted aisles … God’s call to Peter – and to the Church – to be the ROCK – the foundation of God’s work in this world … to be the hands and feet of Christ predates the 1845 birth of the Southern Baptist Convention by nearly 2 millennia …
So perhaps we should shift our understanding of what it means to be God’s people in 2022. Perhaps it is time for us to RE-center ourselves on the person of Jesus. Would God’s Church today ever be confused with the radical rantings of John the Baptist or the prophetic words of Elijah? For that, we would have to commit ourselves to audacious action in the name of Jesus. Radical love, and overwhelming acceptance, and care for God’s people and God’s Creation would need to lead the way.
But you know what? FBC Greensboro does have a rich history of taking seriously our call to advance God’s Kingdom. Even a cursory glance at “Rev. Scott’s” history of our church shows that ever since those 14 names were written in the clerk’s record book on March 13, 1859, this faith family has been a leader in innovative ministry.
In fact, in 1922, exactly 100 summers ago, FBC organized the first summertime program for children in our state … And 16 years later in 1938, our ancestors purchased the land we currently sit on, with a vision for the place in which we now sit. And they held tight to that vision throughout a world war and tumultuous time, until the dedication of this building in 1952. And faithfully followed God’s call to plant numerous new congregations throughout the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.
Adding a recreational center for holistic ministry in the 60’s … choosing to ordain women as deacons in the 70’s and eventually opening ourselves up to the remarkable gifts of female clergy … this embarrassingly short list could go on and on, but the point is … We are not just recipients of these great gifts. Rather, we have chosen through membership in this of faith family to be their stewards. And we claim the, as our own, as their spiritual descendants. There were undoubtably mistakes and missteps, but their physical and spiritual contributions to our identity are unmistakable.
I don’t know what’s ahead for our community. And I don’t know what the next season of ministry holds for our church… or any church. But my prayer is that it will be courageous. And it will be worthy of how we answer Jesus’ question in Matthew 16.