Romans 12: 1-8; Matt. 16: 13-20

August 23, 2015 by Rev. Mark Hamilton

Before I begin my message I want to ?let you in? on a secret that only a couple of people here know. Back in 2003 I had my ministerial profile circulated and one of the churches where I had it sent was none other than right here. Through the discernment of your search committee at that time, the Spirit led them and the church to call Pastor Ken. Since then, I have served two churches while Ken is still here and is my pastor. I?m glad for this but sad to know that he?ll soon be leaving us. I?m pleased to have the opportunity to lead worship today 12 years after your search committee said ?thanks, but no thanks to me . ?

A while ago I stopped at a gas station. On the pump where I pulled up to there was a sign telling customers to go inside to pay for their gas. So I went inside to the counter and told the woman I?d like $25 on pump 2. I handed her my debit card and as she went to swipe it , she noticed my name which prompted her to say, ?Mark Hamilton, that?s a familiar name.? I told her that other people had said that probably because it?s a cross between two well-known people,? Mark Hammill of Star Wars fame and Scott Hamilton, the professional ice skater. ? No?, she said ,?It?s familiar to me because that?s my brother-in-law?s name.? ?Oh?, I replied. ?I guess I can?t claim to be the ONLY Mark Hamilton.? As?Sally has told me from time to time, ?your name?s a dime a dozen?.

What else makes us better known by others? There are many ways. Here are a few: We?re known by our family just as Jesus was known to be Joseph?s son when he gave his first sermon in his Nazareth;? We?re known for our physical characteristics, by where we live, what we do or did for work over the years; other identifying factors are the social groups,? political affiliation, fraternal organizations, various clubs, and the many personal sporting, singing, painting, reading, acting, and other interests we have. Oh, and let?s not forget to say that we identify ourselves as proud citizens of our country although there?s much room for improvement here in this best country of the world.? These are only a few of the many ways that shed light on ?who we are? .

After mentioning these, our personal identity is almost verified but there?s only one thing that can fully identify each of us with utmost certainty- a sample of our DNA. All the other means of identification may lead to the wrong conclusion. Consider the following: ? St. Peter was getting ready for his annual 3- week vacation and Jesus volunteered to fill in for him at the pearly gates. St. Peter explained to Jesus that it was no big deal. He told him that he was to sit right at the registration desk and ask the incoming people a little about their lives. Then he said to tell them to go to housekeeping to pick up their wings. A couple of days later, an old man approached Jesus at the desk and told him that he had been a simple carpenter. He went on to say that he had a son, a very special child unlike any other in the whole world. He was born in a unique way and he went through an incredible transformation in his lifetime, even though he had holes in his hands and feet. He said that his son had been gone a long time but his spirit lives on and his story is told all over the world. By THIS time, Jesus was standing with his arms outstretched, tears welling up in his eyes as he embraced the old man saying; ?Father, it?s been so long!? The old man squinted and stared at Jesus and cried, ?Pinocchio? ?

For you and me, there are a couple of identifying factors omitted above. First, that we ARE, as we claim to be, beloved children of God. Second, that we are members or friends of THIS particular body of Christ and that it?s Jesus who leads us in our ministries and our lives. WHERE do these two identifying characteristics come on our identity list? Are they at the top of the list, in the middle, or at the bottom? Friends, our identity as a child of God and as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth should be at the top of our list, for everything we have, and all who we are are gifts of love and grace from God.

When Jesus called his first followers, all he said to the fishermen was, ?follow me and I?ll make you fish for people.? Their response to this stranger was to throw down their nets and walk with him. No questions asked. Jesus didn?t give them a blue print of what they?d be doing or where they?d be going. They followed him on ?blind faith?. As they walked with him, saw all the things he did, listened to him talk, and watched him pray, they were becoming his students/ his disciples. They were ?becoming? disciples even though they didn?t understand all the things he said nor how and why he did what he did. They were learning and throughout that process they were becoming disciples. A couple of years ago, I came across an interesting story that has been engraved in my memory: Maya Angelou gave a poetry reading one day after which a young woman came up to greet her and get her autograph. After waiting in line to get to Maya she finally arrived at the table where she was sitting.? While Maya was autographing the book the woman placed before her, the woman thanked her for her excellent presentation. She continued the brief conversation by telling Maya what a wonderful Christian she thought her to be. Maya smiled and thanked the woman for her words about her presentation, but caught the woman off-guard by saying, ?I am not a Christian. I am always becoming one. ??ALL disciples are BECOMING Christians as we follow Jesus more nearly and dearly. As the words in our closing hymn say, ?Lord, I WANT to be a Christian.

In our gospel lesson this morning, Matthew has Jesus asking his immediate followers how ?others? identify him. They responded by saying John the Baptist, Elijah, or another of the prophets of old. Then he directed that same question to THEM- ?Who do YOU say that I am??. This is a penetrating question which all disciples must answer for themselves. Peter, rambunctious Peter, the leader of the pack of 12, answered abruptly in his usual fashion; ?You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.? For this answer, we would give Peter a gold star, but in the very next passage, Jesus rebuked him, saying, ?get behind me Satan? because Peter wouldn?t accept Jesus? words about being the Messiah who was going to soon suffer and be killed. The Messiah for the Jewish fishermen was to be sent by God to save God?s people. Jesus ?blew their minds? with his self-identification as the suffering and mortal Messiah?You and I know the ?rest of the story?, as Paul Harvey used to say, with the third-day resurrection. Where the disciples were mentally at the time of this story, the Messiah was a longed-for liberator who would save Israel from oppression and make of her a great nation. The Messiah or ?the Christ? at that time had nothing to do with personal salvation and eternal life as it does today. Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Christ/the Messiah but his understanding of the role of the Messiah was a case of mistaken identity and meaning.

As OUR Messiah, from what does Jesus save us? From death?- No, but he?ll go through it with us and lead us to the promised place of new life in God?s keeping. Does Jesus save us from suffering? No. Suffering is a part and parcel of life here. No one gets through life without pain and suffering. We all must bear our particular crosses, but Our Messiah promises to be with us through our pain, suffering, and sorrow when we ?lean on his everlasting arms?. Will the Messiah lead us to live the sinless life which he led while on earth? No, but through divine grace we are forgiven time and time again and set back on the path of discipleship. Like Peter, we may believe in the kind of Messiah who will be the conquering hero and keep us from harm?s way. PETER didn?t get THAT Messiah, nor do we, but because of God?s love and power brought forth that first Easter morn, we get the God who saves us in the following way according to William Sloane Coffin, pastor, author, peace and social justice advocate;? ?God gives us minimum protection but maximum support in our lives.? God is WITH US in and through all our experiences and crises. Coffin lived this truth as he was confronted by the tragic death of his son, Alex, who died at the age of 22. Alex had been drinking one cold, rainy, foggy night before returning to his home in Boston.? Due to the weather, his condition at the time, and probably the poor condition of his tires and windshield wiper blades, Alex lost control of his car and it plunged into Boston Harbor. A few days later, Coffin overheard a woman tell someone that Alex?s death must have been the will of God. Hearing that, he went to the woman and said that it was not God?s will that his son should die as he did. Because of the freezing rain that night along with the fog, and because Alex probably had had a few ?frosties? too many before driving, and because he didn?t take proper care of his car, THOSE things brought Alex to his death. It was not the will of God that he should die that night. In fact, GOD?S heart was the first to break when his car plunged into the harbor.

When we identify Jesus as the Christ this raises the matter of our identity as the risen One?s disciples. Who are we as Christians? We know that Jesus identified Peter as the ?rock? upon which his church would be built and as the one who would receive the ?keys to the kingdom?. We also know how Peter denied and deserted Jesus and that he was a far cry from anyone to whom WE would entrust those keys. But Jesus KNEW Peter, inside and out, and he knew that Peter would be faithfully responsible in GST- God?s Standard Time. Jesus? trusting Peter shows us that because of divine grace and despite our imperfections and warts, we have been entrusted with gifts to build up his church to be a? ?community of his? that will be a ?foretaste of the kingdom to come.?

In our scripture reading from Romans, Paul identifies who we are as ?New persons in Christ?. The signature verse in our text for this identity tells us that we ? are not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds so that we may discern what the will of God is.? How are you and I conformists to the ways of the world? How does our daily living reflect the upside-down thinking of Jesus? non-conformist teachings? We may know those whom Jesus blessed in the beatitudes- the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc., but through the eyes of the world and ours, are those mentioned by Jesus really blessed? When we take our faith seriously, we must answer this question; ? Does our faith form the base or the perspective from which we make our decisions and view the world, or does the world and its ways seduce us to being conformists to its standards, ethics/ values?? Too much of what I see as Christian behavior and thought falls in the latter camp?A number of years ago, the ?religious right? posed a question that got poo-pooed by many Christian centrists and leftists. The question was, ?What would Jesus do?? ( WWJD )

I think it wasn?t given much theological credence because it came from Christian conservatism, BUT is that a valid reason for dismissing it as the basis for Christian living? I think NOT. Instead, that question should make us ask, ?What would Jesus have me do? as I seek to follow Jesus? lifestyle and teachings.

We are, as Paul said, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. What does this transformation entail? Primarily, we are transformed as Christians as we consciously and conscientiously follow in the footsteps of Jesus- talking his talk and walking his walk. Now I said ?Jesus?, not Christ. Jesus walked in our shoes, Christ did not. For me, Jesus became the Christ through the power and love of God in the resurrection. Robin Meyer, a prominent UCC pastor in Oklahoma City, wrote a book a few years ago called ? Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus?. THAT?S a powerful and radical idea that to me is right on target. I don?t believe that Jesus wanted to be worshipped or given any glory. Those were all for God. Jesus taught and lived to show us how to know, love, and serve God and our ?neighbors? AND to initiate the in-breaking of God?s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Two weeks ago Sally, Terry Lowd , Sally?s sister and brother-in-law, and I attended morning worship at the Temple in Ocean Park, ME which is where I summered when I was young. The Rev. Dr. Martin Copenhaver, the President of Andover Newton Theological School ( my alma mater ) preached.? In his sermon he told a story about a Jewish Rabbi who was attending a retreat in Eastern Europe. The Rabbi had a cluttered mind and heart while there so at one point he wandered off outside into the woods seeking solitude. He walked and prayed, walked and prayed until he found that he had entered a Russian military camp. Soon, he was approached by a rifle-carrying man who asked him two questions that are fitting for us on our Christian journey; ?Who are you? And where are you going? ??Who are we as Christians? Are we the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus whom we are called to be? AND, are we following the non-conformist, barrier-breaker Jesus that the gospels portray?

At the worship service in Ocean Park we sang a hymn that I didn?t know called? ?THE SUMMONS?, written by John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland. The words of the hymn?s last verse constitute a prayer for our discipleship. Hear the words as you hear the Lord?s summons to you; ? Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I?ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I?ll move and live and grow in you and you in me. ?