St John’s, Port Moody / August 24, 2014 / 12th of Pentecost
“Who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:13-20
A personal experience to start with. When I was about 26 or 27, up in Trail, where I had gone to work right after ordination at the tender age of 24, I had an unexpected moment at the beginning of a service. I announced the hymn—713 in the old book: can anyone identify that?—OK, it’s “Jesus loves me,” which I have just discovered in not in our current hymnbook. I announced the hymn, and people began to sing the first verse. In the middle of that verse I burst into tears, to my own surprise. Why? Because I had just realized in a new and deeper way that, yes, Jesus loved me! It took me to the end of the hymn to get control of myself; I don’t think anyone in the congregation noticed. Yes, Jesus loves me, this I know!
And now, one more time, “Jesus loves me.” I’m trusting that everybody over 42 knows the words! [I brought the music for Birgit, and we raised the roof with the first verse and the refrain.]
I thought of this when I read a recent item in Christian Century, an ecumenical American magazine. On June 24 the pope met with two American televangelists, Kenneth Copeland and James Robison. A little detour here. When I taught world religions at SFU, and we got to Christianity, I regularly discovered that most of the students thought that Christianity was composed of the pope and the televangelists. Why? Because that was what they saw on TV. So it interested me that these mediagenic figures should in my lifetime come together. At their meeting on June 24, Robison said that he had been so moved by the pope’s understanding of the gospel that he asked the translator to explain to the pope what a high-five was, and to ask him if he was up for it, or down on it, as young folk say. The pope was agreeable and so there in the article is a photo of Robison and the pope high-fiving each other. Their Christian perspectives are very different, not simply in terms of Catholic and Protestant, but in the fact that the pope has strongly manifested his concern for the poor, whereas most of the televangelists (although not Robison) preach a so-called “prosperity gospel”—accept Jesus as your personal savior and get rich. But they agreed on the need for Christians to know Jesus personally, to know who he is, and to have him as a real presence in their lives.
I once saw a documentary in which Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, was interviewed. One very blunt statement he made in that film has remained with me: “Not all the victims were Jews, but all the killers were Christians.” Let’s unpack that. No, not all the victims were Jews; gays, lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the disabled were also chosen for extermination by the Nazis, and the Poles were going to be next. But all the killers were Christians? What does that mean? For him it meant that they would have identified themselves, in a census, for example, as Christians. For me it means something very different. The killers were cultural Christians, not Christians who loved Jesus and knew that Jesus loved them—and the people they were killing, for that matter.
It’s been said that at the beginning of Christianity, everybody who loved Jesus was in the church and everybody in the church loved Jesus. That was not the case during the Holocaust, nor is it the case now. There are many people outside the church who love Jesus. Jesus is honored as a prophet in Islam, as an avatar (or appearance of God) in Hinduism, and as a spiritual teacher in Buddhism. He is also held in great respect by the thousands in our culture who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” My students again. When I was teaching the unit on Christianity, I regularly encountered the view that I will sum up in four words: Jesus good, church bad.
So what about the church? Does everybody in the church love Jesus? I worked in a parish long enough to know that, no, there are people who come to church, some of them every Sunday, who would not say that they loved Jesus or even that they believed in God. Many of those were people strong-armed by their spouses to come to church with them: does that still happen? Is there anyone here this morning whose arm was twisted to come? No hands up, please! But let’s come right to the point: I’m going to ask a question, and then give all of you a minute of silence to reflect on your answer. Can you say that you love Jesus in a personal way?
[minute of silence]
Now to those of you who answered within yourself, “No, I can’t say that I love Jesus in a personal way,” some other questions. Is it because you dislike Jesus? Is it because, as some think, he isn’t realistic? Or is it because you have had difficulty coming to terms with who Jesus is for you? Or is it because of what the church teaches about Jesus? Or is it because you’ve just never thought about it?
Now to some reflection on this morning’s gospel. Jesus and his closest disciples were on one of their journeys, and had arrived near the gentile city of Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. He knew that his disciples often talked with people in the crowds who came to hear him and to ask for healing. So he asks them: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The Son of Man is a mysterious figure who appears in the book of Daniel; and there were various opinions about who he was or would be if and when he appeared. So they answered him. “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or some other prophet.” Then Jesus shifts the question, and when he starts it with “but,” we realize he is linking the two questions. “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
Have any of you had any contact with Quakers? [Two hands went up.] The Quakers began in the middle of the 17th century as a Christian renewal movement. They had a very low view of the spirituality of the Anglican Church, and they may well have been right. However, they had the charming habit of interrupting church services by calling out “Jesus saith this; and the apostles say that: what sayest thou?” This is when churchwardens were invented, to help them to a quick exit [ J ].
Peter might have followed up on the first question by saying, “It’s you! You are the Son of Man,” the only title, incidentally, that Jesus ever used of himself until the time of his trial. But Peter took it to another level. He discerned somehow that Jesus, although he might also be the Son of Man, was someone greater still: the Messiah, the Christ, the messenger of God who would come, as Moses had promised, to “save” Israel. What “saving” Israel meant was also a matter of active discussion. Most of the people thought it meant kicking out the Romans and restoring Israel’s independence. John the Baptist had offered an alternative, a national renewal movement involving a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a fresh start in life, for the individual and the nation. This is very much what Gandhi tried to do in India. His first goal was not Indian independence, it was national spiritual renewal. He wrote a book called Hind Swaraj, meaning “Indian self-rule.” But by self-rule he meant not political self-rule, but spiritual self-possession. When that was accomplished, he believe, India would be ready for independence. John the Baptist had a very similar idea. Jesus himself, if we read the gospels carefully, had yet another idea, which he called the kingdom of God, meaning a state of affairs in which human beings attempt to bring God’s love and truth, God’s reign or rule, into every aspect of their lives. A little later, our earliest Christian ancestors concluded that yes, Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ; and that he was also in a particular and personal way the presence of God among them, a divine figure: as Paul says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). They also experienced him as a loving presence in their own hearts and lives. As Paul also says, “it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Thomas Merton takes it farther still. Writing to the Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki in 1959, he says this.
The Christ we seek is within us, in our inmost self, is our inmost self, and yet infinitely transcends ourselves. … We follow him, we find him … and then He must vanish and we must go along without Him at our side. Why? Because He is even closer than that. He is ourself.
So to love Jesus is to love ourselves, to love ourselves in Jesus and Jesus in ourselves. When we think of his summary of the commandments, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” that means loving Christ in our neighbour, in other words everyone we meet, and also loving him also in ourselves. If we come to this point, or anywhere near it, we will be able to say, with personal conviction, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
One final thought. “Jesus loves me” is a children’s hymn. My hunch is that if you ask a child who knows who Jesus is whether Jesus loves him or her, you will get a yes. And in that connection, it’s worth remembering that Jesus says that unless we become as little children we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Let the children set us an example!
Yes: Jesus loves me!