Speculation or confession?

by Doug Johnson

Text: Matthew 16:13-20

Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence. May your word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher,and your greater glory our supreme concern. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As a college Junior I became a sponge when it came to listening to preaching. Some Sundays I’d hit three churches! I wanted to soak up as much as possible not only to learn as much as I could about preaching, or to receive inspiration, but I wanted to witness the difference Christ makes in lives in and through the church. I wanted to be in step with the church’s confession in the world.

As a child growing up in one of the Covenant’s larger old churches in Jamestown, New York, I confess saying to myself during “mandatory” morning services, “When is that old man going to stop talking and sit down?” Of course, that is an unheard confession in Minnesota churches where all minds are disciplined, all hearts are consistently warm, and all the churches are above average…

As God was calling me into ministry, listening to preaching and soaking in the gospel became a passion. Rev. Dr. James Forbes, the first African American pastor of the famed Riverside Church in New York, once described preaching as the “Sweet torture of a Sunday morning.” I couldn’t agree more. Preaching is still a torturous responsibility; it is fraught with temptation.

Shall I proclaim gospel-lite, that is to preach palatable sermons, not too edgy or too demanding? Keep it sweet with the weight of discipleship bearable? Keep it upbeat – “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” Is that the whole story?

Gospel sweetness, of course, is not the whole story. Truth be told, the God revealed in scripture is in God’s heaven, but all’s not right with the world. You and I know this. In fact, we participate in what’s wrong with the world. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God has established a new reality: this Jesus is a live-in God. This Jesus sits with us in the sanctuary. This Jesus walks with us in daily life and without coercion asks us to walk with him. This Jesus calls us to make his ways known and his priorities ours. In tender strength, this Jesus knows our hearts.

Preaching gospel-strength is sweet torture on a Sunday morning. Keep this in mind: Gospel-strength for preacher and church is rooted in in the power of the Resurrection. Gospel-strength calls each one of us to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ toward others.

Worship itself is the sweet torture of a Sunday morning because our risen Lord calls the church to live different than we were even yesterday. A 98 year-old friend of mine lived at the skilled care center at the Samarkand retirement community in Santa Barbara. She was a spunky Catholic whose knowledge of scripture, whose fervency in prayer, and whose honest love for others often outshone many smug evangelicals. Life for her was nearing its end. One day I spotted her sitting in her wheelchair in the hallway looking unusually despondent. I knelt down next to her and said, “Good morning, Bose.”

She glared at me and said emphatically, “Why am I still here, Chaplain. What good am I?”

I replied, “Bose, there are a lot of people around here to love and pray for. You know what the Lord asks of his children.”

Without even a moment’s pause she snapped back, “There you go again, telling me not what I want but what God wants.”

Gospel-strength, or as another author has written, “practicing resurrection,” means giving Jesus absolute claim on our life, our attitudes, our relationships. It’s stronger than any other affiliation, be it religious, political, or familial.

How does gospel-strength find its way into the world through us and through the church? In today’s gospel, we discover that speculation about Jesus, though interesting, is never enough, while confession of Jesus’ true identity builds Christ’s kingdom. Our love for Jesus flows from our confession of Jesus.

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus leading the disciples up near the headwaters of the Jordan River. It’s not insignificant that he takes them to a place that is fresh and inviting for a life-changing conversation. Jesus is the master of human engagement, and he knows how to ask the right questions.

Consider Jesus’ first question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples of course have not only been following Jesus, watching his every move while interacting with all kinds of people. They’ve been listening to what others were saying about Jesus. His question invites the word on the street; he’s inviting speculation for a reason. “Who do people say that I am?”

Quickly, the disciples start trotting out names of religious heroes. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” No surprise, the great listener listens. He doesn’t rear up defensively, or express any exasperation by saying, “They’re not getting it…”

We can glean a couple things from this exercise in speculation. One, the people give Jesus standing among some of God’s greatest. Some disciples heard people say, “He reminds me of John the Baptist—maybe not quite as scary, or even messy what with all that honey and strange clothing, but you know he’s got the look.” Or, “What I know about Jeremiah is that Jesus has got the same stuff. He’s both tough and tender. He’s a man’s man and yet sometimes he weeps. And, he’s not a bad preacher.”

People are also identifying Jesus as a religious insider. They are grouping him with those personalities who have shaped Israel and preparing the way for the coming Messiah. Though the scribes and Pharisees work to undermine Jesus’ identity, it’s the people who testify to the hopeful identity of Jesus. They did not lump him among the many false prophets. No, Jesus was the one to watch! So, at the headwaters of the Jordan glimpses of Jesus’ identity start surfacing.

Jesus’ second question will tip the scales of truth as those with him reveal more of him by God’s power. Peter’s confession is from God. The answer has been revealed by his Father in heaven (v. 17).

Jesus’ question is what we can call the hinge question, not only of the text, but really of the entire gospel. It’s a turning point. It is profound and personal. Jesus says in effect to the disciples, “You’ve reported on the peoples’ speculation. Now I want you to dig a bit more deeply and personally. I want you to tell me this: “Who do you say that I am?”

It’s important to ask just what is Jesus up to? Why is he doing this? Is he asking this for his sake? Is he disclosing a mini-identity crisis? Does he need a few more pats on the back as ministry becomes increasingly misunderstood and difficult, while facing a cross?

No. He’s not asking this question for his sake, but for their sake and ours. He’s building his church! He’s asking the hinge question because everything—yes, everything in our lives is to be shaped by our answer. Everything about the mission of Christ’s Church is to be shaped by our answer. Our confession of his true identity is to renew and transform our lives and hearts.

Few are surprised that Simon Peter is the first to answer. Like a kid in the third grade, waving his or her hand and saying, ooh, ooh, ooh because he thinks he has the answer to the teacher’s question. Yes, that’s Simon Peter.

His response echoes through the ages: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

There is no hint of speculation in his answer. There is no, “Well, Jesus, I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while and here’s one or two conclusions that I think you might agree with and if you don’t find them within the range of possibilities I can

go back to the theological drawing board.” There is nothing of the sort.

Simon Peter’s voice is heard over any other voices: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Our Lord is not just messing with their minds, he’s building his church! On this rock of faith, on this confession of yours, Peter, “I will build my church.”

As a sponge for good preaching, my life was immeasurably blessed by North Park Covenant Church in Chicago. As a college student, I could get there in a matter of minutes. For two years, Rev. Douglas Cedarleaf was pastor. His preaching style could be likened to a trumpet. Then, for the next two years Rev. Glen Wiberg was pastor. His preaching style was like a harp . Two gifted pastors with very different gifts, yet heralds of the same gospel.

When Cedarleaf preached I always left with the conclusion that I was being called to do something with this gospel I confessed. To follow this Jesus I accepted at Camp Mission Meadows at Lake Chautauqua and nurtured at Zion Covenant, meant that I was to follow him not just into the sanctuary, but out into the streets. When Wiberg preached I believed that well-ordered, festive worship, with its rich music and heartfelt confessions, was the engine propelling Christian discipleship.

Both trumpet and harp re-awakened within me the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

For every church, it’s easier to speculate about Jesus than to confess Jesus as Lord. Speculation allows space for all kinds of idolatries and secret sins. Speculation about Jesus gives us more wiggle room to think and do and act as we please.

For every church, it’s easy to have a Sunday confession ready and willing, but live with a Monday speculation to chart the other days of the week. Our judgments fly; our hatreds surface; our discrimination against others are painted with a broad brush.

Recently, we attended a Minneapolis church and heard a powerful sermon after a week of weeks—with nuclear threats encircling the globe, and the eruption of violent, hateful, racial strife including murder in Charlottesville. The pastor began the sermon reflectively inviting the congregation, “to name the emotions stirring in our hearts.” Soon, in the silence was heard words such as “fear, pain, grief, vulnerable, repentance, hope.”

That exercise prepared us for hearing and responding to a sermon about the fearful disciples in the boat on the storm-swept sea of Galilee. The storm pressed them as to Jesus’ identity. Mere speculation mutes both trumpet and harp. Whereas gospel-strength, then and now, calls us to trust and to act.

Along with many of you, I watched and listened to mayors and governors and of course to our President respond to the unfolding protest events. There’s nothing easy about seeking to understand those with whom you disagree while loving them. As I listened to him, my heart of faith was saying, “Please, Mr. President, don’t equivocate on hate. Please, Mr. President, don’t vacillate on naming evil in all its ugliness. We are better than this!”

If our leaders cannot embrace the life shaping, life affirming Gospel of God, may we pray they at least honor the 4-H Promise or the Girl Scout or Boy Scout pledge.

Each one of us knows the dangers of speculating about the Lordship of Jesus in our lives: it stirs the evils we deplore; it dulls our witness; it slows kingdom progress. Our timid speculation of Jesus’ love for this messy world can lure us to be less than loving. Our timid speculation about Jesus’ claim on our lives can remove his easy yoke from our backs and let our base instincts dominate.

However, the more boldly we live our confession of Jesus, the more the world will know his saving grace. How our lives answer the hinge question day by day, with faith evident in grace and with strength evident in love, the more Christ’s kingdom will become that sheltering tree for all nations as that Great Day nears.

Now is the day for the Lordship of Jesus to reign in our lives. Now is the day for our confession to reshape our communities with strength and with the love of Jesus. When Jesus renamed Peter, and called him the “rock” on which he would build his church, frailty and failure was part of the package. Do you believe that?

Our failures, our misguided thoughts and hurtful actions, even our silence in the face of wrong is forgiven in Christ. The cross is not selective about the sins of humanity. Christ’s grace eclipses, covers, all my sin and yours. Where speculation will fail us time and again, confessing Christ will always lead us into a new day of ministry by his grace.

A great privilege of mine was to escort Dr. Ebehard Bethge (1909-2000) around Chicago on a speaking tour one Sunday in January of 1979. Dr. Bethge was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, biographer, and the man who married his niece, Renate. Bonhoeffer was the German Lutheran pastor who was martyred for his faith at the close of WWII, having lead the “confessing church,” the church that stood against Hitler’s murderous Third Reich. I got to drive Dr. Bethge to three different Chicago area churches.

His sermon on the Eye as the Lamp of the Body was marvelous. Each time I heard it I was gripped all the more by his saying, “The resistors who died by Hitler’s hangmen demonstrated the power of the light of Christ—the power which gave them freedom to see, and freedom to act.”

In one prominent Chicago church, however, my eyes were distracted by the woman seated in front of me who was holding a colorful, glossy folder, studying it with care. I moved just a little so as to see over her mink coat to what was so captivating. It was a pricelist, yes, a pricelist for Australian opals. She’d tuck it away for a moment, listen a little, and then pick it back up.

I never told Dr. Bethge that he must have bored at least one Baptist! I’ve never forgotten its lesson.

At every moment the church is being tempted to take her eyes off Jesus. We are tempted to tame him as a religious pet of sorts; tempted to domesticate God’s grace; tempted to dole out love with the generosity of an eye-dropper.

May we never forget that our living confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, will bless others and free others from mere speculation about Jesus, and lead them to a heart-felt confession of Jesus as Lord of all.

“Who do you say that I am?” Dr. Bethge said, “The fatal history of the church is her hidden lights.” May that not be said of us. Amen.