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My name is Chris. I am a father and a husband and a pastor. Sometimes I go by “Dad”, sometimes by “Honey”, sometimes by “Pastor” or “Reverend”. Those are my names, my titles, my identity, if you will, and they vary depending on the situation and the need at the time. They are names I have, to a large degree, chosen for myself. Names are important things, and who gets to name is even more important. Who gets to decide what name we give to people of a particular racial group, or to genders? Who gets to name people who aren’t heterosexual? There was a time when such names were chosen by the dominant group, but the times they are a changin’ and now there is a lot of anxiety amongst the increasingly non-majority majority because, “They don’t know what to call people anymore.” In other words, they don’t get to do the naming.
It’s hard when we don’t know someone’s name. We go through cycles about this trouble with names here in church. Do we have name tags or not? If we do, will people wear them? If we don’t, will I remember that person’s name that I’ve said hi to a few times, but whose name I can’t remember? And what happens when I see them out in the real world – out of context – and draw a complete blank? Names are hard and while many of us are taught tricks on how to attach names to faces, an equal number say that they simply cannot recognize faces at all. We also know that when it is directed towards us, having someone remember your name is a sign of respect, for they acknowledge that thing about you that is the first step of identity. The name you claim for yourself.
What we don’t do, however, is decide what a person’s name is for them..at least when it comes to proper names. We never introduce ourselves – Hi, I’m Chris – and then say, and I think you’re going to be…Francis! We wait for the person to introduce themselves, we let them name themselves. But so often we don’t do this when it is not someone’s proper name we’re talking about, but rather something that might be even more intimate, like a descriptor of their identity. We label others, we do the naming ourselves. We decide, based on a thousand factors, what category to put a person in and how to make sure that we know who they are, what their identity is, based on that title.
To be clear, there are many ways to name yourself, outside of vocally claiming a title. For instance, if you march down a street with a torch and a swastika, I don’t need you to tell me who you are. You have already done that. There are many ways that people tell you who they are and when they do, you ought to believe them. Because our identity is, in part, who we actually are and, in part, created by and for us.
There are times in which I reject my titles. I mostly tell people to just call me “Chris”, don’t need the “reverend” or “pastor”, and there are times that I just want to be my kids’ friend, without all this dad business. But I don’t get to choose those options. I am a pastor – always, and I am a father – always. And because I have claimed these titles, I must take all of the consequences of them, good and not quite as good, for identity is something you are in charge of, and not, at the same time. There are times I completely embrace my identity, wearing the clerical collar at protest events, or visits to the hospital, so that I claim that title in a visible way. And there are times I try to hide that, like when I get on a plane and someone asks me what I do for a living…I usually say that I’m the head of a non-profit. Well, it’s not a lie. But it is an avoidance of what comes with the title…the responsibility to be seen a certain way and to wonder, in a slightly melodramatic fashion, that if you are feeling a little crabby that day, will you damage someone’s sense of the church, or even weaken their faith?
When Jesus is asking his disciples about his identity, he knows the weight of titles. He asks a rhetorical question when he says, “Who do you say that I am?”, for he knows what they have been whispering. He has seen the crowds and heard the calls of the people he has healed. He knows that word “messiah” is coming, but he also knows what the title means, particularly to them. He’s not looking for their version of that identity, but instead asserting his.
In the language of our tradition, we say that, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” It’s a title found in our liturgies, our hymns and our creeds. And what that meant for the first Jesus followers in the first century was that Jesus was Lord, not Caesar. See, all the statues of Caesar, the coins of the empire, the imperial terminology of the time all called Caesar “Lord.” In fact, the used the same terms we use for Jesus – Caesar was the original “Son of God” and “Savior of the World.” All of the titles used for Jesus, from “Lord” to “Christ”, were politically loaded, and aimed right at the most powerful man in the known world. The terms used for Jesus were probably deemed “fake news” by the press secretary for Caesar.
And the term “Messiah”, which is “Christos” in Greek, from which we derive “Christ”, is a title in both Hebrew and Greek that means “anointed.” It is a title attached in Jewish lore to a figure who would bring salvation to the Jewish people. There have been many people called “messiah” in the Jewish tradition, because the term holds many meanings. Sometimes it is a religious figure, leaning on the more spiritual definition of salvation, but when it came to the “messiah” during Jesus’ time, most people were looking forward to a military leader who would defeat the Roman enemies and establish an independent Jewish kingdom, a new King, like David. We see at the start of Matthew’s gospel a genealogical effort of gymnastic proportions to tie Jesus to the line of David…perhaps as a setup for this moment.
Who do you say that I am?
So, maybe this question about identity, about who Jesus is, might be just as important for us to ask ourselves today. Who do you say that he is? Or, perhaps more provocatively, who does HE say he is?
It is Simon Peter, the text tells us, who says, “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies – Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. You are petros, the rock in Greek, Peter in our translations. You are rock, and on this rock I will build by church. Some have taken that to mean that Peter is the foundation of the church, but the Greek is less clear. Maybe it means that Peter’s identity of Jesus is what the church will be built upon. When Peter identifies Jesus as the anointed, it is after seeing him heal and welcome, hearing him teach and preach, witnessing his presence, the values and integrity he holds out each day and learning, through word and deed, of a God he never knew. It is after witnessing what Jesus calls the “kingdom of God” laid out before him, often at the protests of even Peter himself. It is Peter’s realization, his moment of faithful recognition that Jesus blesses and calls the “rock.” It isn’t Peter himself. Peter will soon deny Jesus three times, and is a famous contrarian throughout the gospel. But Peter’s faith, his trust in the powerful and counter-cultural message of Jesus, a trust that will grow in the years to come, after Jesus resurrection…that trust is the rock, the foundation of the church.
But then, after the praise given to Peter, there is what I think is a slight warning. Jesus tells them sternly…he orders them…keep that messiah stuff to yourselves. Why, Jesus? Why would we keep this to ourselves? If you are the messiah, sent to us from God to free us from captivity, to vanquish our foes and destroy our enemies and return our nation to it’s mighty, exalted place…why keep that quiet? Because…because…I know what you mean by that. I know what you think the messiah is and I want you understand what I mean by that. For in my identity, there will be no war against your enemies, except the one that I will lead in your hearts. There will be no freedom from captivity, except the captivity that you keep yourselves in with your tribalism. There’ll be no vanquishing or destruction or return to the throne, except in metaphor – where you learn to conquer your own fear, to vanquish your own prejudice and anger, to give up your own privilege, to sit on the throne of forgiveness, kindness and mercy. For what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…in other words, mind your karma, dudes….because this, Jesus tries to show us in his life and words, is my identity. And when Jesus keeps trying to tell us who he is, we ought to believe him. He isn’t the one who builds walls to keep out the “foreigners” or who ties millstones of poverty or discrimination around the necks of others or who knows a message different from “the love of money is the root of all evil.” So when he asks, “Who do you say I am?”, it’s not like he doesn’t tell us his identity.
We do not live in the same world that Jesus and Peter lived in when they said these words to one another. We live at a time in which people who claim the same title we claim embrace the empire in alarming ways, where we build edifices to the peasant Jesus who gave away what he had and where some endorse the leadership of people who have no faith or morals. And because of this, our identity is in question. So I have a suggestion. Instead of refusing to claim that same title, “Christian”, because we do not stand with people who also use it, I say we use it all the more. I say that, like other terms that have been reclaimed, we learn to say, ‘We’re here, we’re Christian, get used to it”, while we stand with the poor and marginalized, while we speak truth to power, while we embrace our Muslim, our LGBTQ, our undocumented friends, family and neighbors. We say that with conviction, and as conviction, that shapes our responses, our reactions, our lives and our hearts. For we are followers of Christ, the anointed one, whose identity is found in a life of love without exceptions, grace, compassion and peace is a rock on which we can build…if we will trust, even when we are outraged, perhaps especially when we are outraged, that Jesus is who he says he is…and that we can trust that love really is stronger than fear, better than hate and the rock of our foundation. Thanks be to God.