I believe I have spoken of my time as a hospital chaplain during the summer of 2008 quite often. I spent the summer at Heartland Hospital in Saint Joseph, Missouri. I was born in St. Joe and the site, while far from Dubuque, was close to my parents. Serving a stint of clinical pastoral education, or CPE is a requirement of the ELCA. The summer is spent more focusing on the chaplain and leader to be than the actual patient. And paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. When the paperwork is done, then you verbally process in the group and usually, at least once, someone will say “and how do you feel about that?” Part of our assignment was to record ourselves preaching in a local context. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do some pulpit supply at a cute Presbyterian church in Oregon, Missouri.
The day came to watch my video and be critiqued by my colleagues. I spent the summer serving with another ELCA Lutheran, Rich; a Methodist woman, Denise; and the craziest Mennonite I’d ever met, Bob. Sitting in that day wasn’t my supervisor, Jackie, but instead the head of the spiritual care department, Sally. Sally was a straight shooter and didn’t mince words. My sermon was finished, everyone had their say. And then Sally looked me straight in the eyes and said “Jealaine? What is your theology? What do you believe about God? Who is God for you?” Now forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before. So, with one whole year of theological training under my belt I said “I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives God’s love and grace to all people.” And Sally looked me once again and without a single tone of apology said “I think you’re full of crap” (except her word wasn’t ‘crap’). “I’m sorry?!” I replied. She said “I don’t believe you.” Just who does this woman think she is? She doesn’t know anything about me. She continued “I don’t believe you because you don’t believe it. If you don’t believe that God’s love and grace is for you, no one is going to believe it is for them.” That was a Holy Spirit 2×4 moment for me. God hit me over the head hard with that 2×4!
I think of that often when I read this scripture. I think about who I say God is and who Jesus is. And today I want you to be challenged and think about that question for yourself. If and when Jesus were to ask you “who do you say I am” how are you going to respond? Our first inclination may be to respond with “well, as a Lutheran… “ or “I read in the Bible” or even (and maybe even worse yet “Pastor has taught us….” No. No. No. I want to know who you say God is. I don’t want a repeated theology that you have memorized that you only kind of believe or only kind of understand. What do you believe?
Maybe you feel like you don’t have the “right words” to express your faith. You heard what I believe. I still believe that. I spent four years and a lot of money in seminary and that is still the foundation of my faith and who I say Jesus Christ, son of God is for me. I want to emphasize the for me part. Just because that’s my faith statement, doesn’t mean it has to be yours. As I was preparing to go to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie Barr of Faith Lutheran in Wichita Falls, Texas said to me “if you ever feel overwhelmed or lost, just remember ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” Who do you say Jesus is?
See, now is the time, my dearests. Now is the time for us to be bold and daring. Now is the time for us to have a bit of Peter in us. See, there were lots of people surrounding Jesus that day. Anyone could have stepped forward to answer Jesus’ question. But it was Peter who was brave and bold enough to step forward and share his answer. And Peter doesn’t give a five minute explanation of the Trinity. He doesn’t recount what he read in some scholarly journal somewhere. He doesn’t say “well, so and so said…” No. He said simply “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And for Peter, that changes everything. He was bold and daring but also personal. Peter spoke of how he knew Jesus through his encounters with him. Not as some far off, distant, unreachable God. But as Jesus, the very Messiah walking with him day after day.
Who do you say God is? Maybe the ugly truth is this: we don’t want to answer. If we answer that question truthfully with what we believe, it could alter how we see everything else in our lives. See, who we say Jesus is for us individually should and does color the way we see the entire world. And maybe, maybe we don’t want to change our opinions about certain people, places, institutions, or ideas. Once you figure out who Jesus is for you and you’re bold and declare that, then it just may affect the way you operate within your world.
My example of God loving all people through Jesus Christ doesn’t allow me to look at my neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and hate them. I may not agree with my neighbor, but I don’t hate them. Because God loves them. Here’s where my faith challenges me: if I believe that God really does love everyone, how does that affect the way I look at white supremacy groups, or Westboro Baptist Church members, or even those on death row? Does God love them too? But Fox News, or CNN, or Time Magazine, or Twitter or whoever tells me so many ways to feel about “those people.” At the end of the day, my faith calls me to look at the world through the lens of the cross and my own faith statement.
Who do you say Jesus is? Are we waiting for the right time to answer that question? Are we waiting to be asked? Are we waiting until our faith is challenged? Are we waiting for a situation that affects us directly? We are in perilous times, my beloved. We cannot wait to declare who Jesus is for us. People’s lives are at stake. The church cannot afford to be silent. Quite honestly, we’ve been silent for too long. We’ve wanted to keep calm, collect all the facts, weigh all of our options, and not rock the boat too much. We worship a man who could calm the waters. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to rock the boat. It’s time to stop being “Lutheran/Minnesota nice” and start being bold.
Being this bold isn’t easy. When you make a declaration of who Jesus is for you, you might receive some push back. Stand firm. This is your theology. That means it doesn’t have to be everyone’s theology. At the same time, if someone says “this is who I say Jesus is” then believe them. Just because their statement may not sound like yours doesn’t mean it is wrong. But, stating who Jesus is for you isn’t enough. You must then start to see the world through that statement and point out injustice or when the world disagrees with your statement. If your statement of faith is one of God’s love for the world, then you can’t be in favor of people protesting with torches and signs while thinking that Colin Kapernick kneeling for the National Anthem is disrespectful. If you say that Jesus is God loving the world, then you can’t be okay with our black brothers and sisters dying in the streets. If your statement of faith is that God loves the world, then you shouldn’t blink an eye when someone identifies themselves as trans, queer, blue, purple, left handed, or depressed or whatever. Because God loves the world is your faith statement, so that’s what that looks like in action. Are you starting to see how this isn’t always easy?
We’re gonna mess it up. Yes, it’s our own faith statement, but we’re still going to mess it up. We may not always see the world through the lenses of what we believe. We may not even believe it for ourselves some day. I still struggle. There are days when my depression demons are loud, really loud, and I don’t believe for one minute that God’s love and grace are for me. And then I remember that we serve a God of second, third, fourth…chances. So, I confess to God for those I have hurt (including myself) and beg another chance. And wouldn’t you know, God has always presented me with another chance to see the world as my faith grows. But while our words are important, our actions and the ways we live our lives is also crucial in pointing to who we believe Jesus is for us. If we love God, and say that we believe God loves us, then our actions will show it. We will show that God loves through our care for the homeless, the hungry, the ignored, the uninsured, the undocumented, the forgotten, the dying, the smelly, sinful, addicted, and the hurting. But none of this can happen until you know what you are going to say when Jesus calls on you and asks “but, who do you say I am” and you answer with boldness and without too much thought because it’s written on your heart. And then your response are your actions in God’s world. Be bold, my beloved. Who do you say Jesus is?