And the Lord will perfect that which concerns me. Your mercy, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the works of your hands.
(Psalm 138:8, NKJV)
Matthew 16:13-20 (NIV)
There are a lot of important questions in this life.
Most likely, you’ve been asked a few of them yourself: Will you marry me? Will you accept this job offer? Would you like a promotion? Why don’t we sell everything we own and spend a couple of years on a boat? (Not happening, folks.)
If you’ve ever been baptized or confirmed in the United Methodist Church, you’ve answered some
extremely important questions: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of evil, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? (A great first question, to be sure, though I’ve always thought the original wording was infinitely clearer: “Do you reject the devil and all his works?” Those were the days, my friends; the Tell It Like It Is days...but I digress.) If you’ve ever been ordained an elder in the UMC, you’ve answered some other highly important questions: Are you on the way to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it? (Though, to be scrupulously honest, the question that always gets the biggest response from those gathered for the ordination is: Are you in debt so as to embarrass yourself in your work? Of course, as more than one Bishop has observed, some people are harder to embarrass than others.) If you’ve ever been married in the UMC - or by a UM pastor - then you’ve answered some other seriously important questions: Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, be faithful to him, as long as you both shall live? (I still remember the groom-to-be who asked me, in a premarital counseling session, if there was a “statute of limitations” on that question...of course, as it turned out, he was actually the groom who was not to be.) Over the course of our lives, most of us have been asked a veritable plethora of important questions.
There are those (like Rick Moser) who maintain that the questions are more important than the answers. I argued with Rick about that (and greatly enjoyed it) for the first two of the four years we worked together, but finally decided that he was right about it - if for no reason other than that the questions asked (and how they’re asked) have a big effect on the answers given. Pollsters and statisticians alike will affirm that the wording of questions is almost always formative with regard to answers. So you’ve got to be careful about the questions you ask, and how you ask them (and when you ask them, and where you ask them...but that’s another story).
Which is, perhaps, why Jesus asks the question about his perceived identity in two very different ways. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he begins. Ask an open ended question spiked with a tantalizing hint, and you get an open ended answer: “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” So far, we’re still in the realm of public opinion. I can almost hear the disciples wondering if Jesus will retort “(D) All of the above.” But then Jesus asks a zinger of a question, one that moves the answer from an intellectually interesting array of possibilities to a personal commitment of life. “But what about you?” he insists. “Who do you say that I am?” It’s hard to figure out who was most gobsmacked when Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus himself is moved to remark that there’s no way Peter came up with that earth-shaker on his own; it has to have been revealed to him by the Father. When the question asked is so important that only God can inspire the true answer, then that’s an important question.
In fact, I’d say that it was the most important question Peter was ever asked. I’d also say that it is the most important question we will ever be asked, mainly because it’s the kind of question that leads to other questions, or to other commitments about which questions aren’t even asked. After all, the Lord doesn’t bother to inquire how Peter feels about being the Rock on which Jesus will build his Church...he just brings the gavel down on Peter’s next appointment, and keeps on trucking to the job description - which is as puzzling as it is powerful. So Peter is going to go on needing help, Divine help, to answer the questions that are going to be thrown at him - the original Impetuous Mouth - who is now a major stakeholder the life and times of Jesus and his Church. All because Jesus asked him a question. A question on which the rest of his life (and, to some extent, the life of the Church) depended. Not that it was a once and done answer. Far from it. Read no further ahead than a few more verses, and you’ll see that Peter had no idea whatsoever what his answer actually meant; he will require (more than once) some Master-full telling off to help him refine his answer. But perfecting is a process, right? And only God can perfect a lifelong answer to the Biggest Question Ever Asked.
It is still the question that matters most, and Jesus is still asking it of anyone who will listen.
It’s a question we need to repeat to ourselves daily, because we’re going to have to answer it every day...even every moment. The answer we give today will be refined by life before we get to tomorrow’s version of “Who do you say that I am?” But, as the Psalmist says, “God will perfect that which concerns me.” God is the Perfecter. We aren’t in the answering alone! God is with us. Thanks be to God!
“Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know” verses 1 and 4
Ask ye what great thing I know,
that delights and stirs me so?
What the high reward I win?
Whose the name I glory in?
Jesus Christ, the crucified.
This is that great thing I know;
this delights and stirs me so:
faith in him who died to save,
him who triumphed o'er the grave:
Jesus Christ, the crucified. Dear Lord, Help us to know and to remember who you are, so that we may know and remember who we are called by you to be. Amen. Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood