Work in Progress

[A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 and Romans 12: 1-8 preached at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

“How long does she have?” Without a doubt, it’s one of the top five questions that hospice clinicians hear on a daily basis, and it’s fairly understandable why. Families want to know when to book plane tickets or if they should call in a co-worker to cover for them or whether to hold-off on that vacation they’d planned. Despite all their responsibilities and commitments, death had the boldness to show up at this family’s doorstep unannounced and the audacity to withhold its date of departure, so naturally, they want to know how best to accommodate such an unruly guest. Though they know, on some level, that the end of life process is individual and varied, they hold onto hope that we can predict that which is ultimately unknowable, that we can help them map the mysterious.

“How long does she have?” Well, we hem and we haw. We acknowledge how difficult it is for them to not know. We explore their methods of coping with uncertainty. We might reference experiences with previous patients or give a general range that’s vague enough to be both honest and unsatisfying. We remind them that they know their loved one better than anyone and that even our best guess is never a guarantee. We pray. And despite these reassurances, it’s still hard. There are just some questions that defy easy explanations, and if I’ve learned anything about hospice or anything about discipleship, it’s that we have to carry those questions along with us as we live our way into the answers.

I think Jesus must have known this when he asked his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It’s a doozy of a question. Who is Jesus? What does it mean to be the Christ? Volumes upon volumes would eventually be written on the subject. For centuries, church councils would duke it out over the nuances of this controversy. Jesus isn’t just handing out a little pop quiz; his question merits a doctoral dissertation.

It’s not like we can blame the disciples for their stammering. True, their responses aren’t fully developed, but they’re still in the ballpark. “Some people say you’re John the Baptist,” they posit. “I wonder if you might be Elijah,” another muses. “If you squint really hard and tilt your head a certain direction, maybe you could be something else entirely,” they laugh. (At least that’s the direction the conversation seems to be going – lots of speculation, not a lot of definitive answers.) They might as well admit what they don’t yet know, what they’re still in the process of coming to believe.

I find a lot of encouragement in the fact that even the disciples, those hand-picked by Jesus to be his companions and students, are sometimes so slow to comprehend all that’s been revealed to them. They’ve walked alongside Jesus for some time now, bearing witness to his miraculous healings, listening with rapt attention as his teachings and parables challenge them in new ways, marveling at his boundless compassion for those on the margins of society. They’ve come to know him intimately, not just through word of mouth, but through powerful personal encounters. And still, they hesitate to affirm what it is that they believe, what God has revealed to them.

Like any of us, they’re a work in progress. Their answers remind us that faith formation looks a little different at different ages and stages of discipleship. Sometimes relying upon the words of others or what we’ve been taught is a necessary precursor to claiming one’s own faith or developing a deepening perspective. So, when Jesus presses, “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine he’s not castigating them for parroting back other people’s theories so much as inviting them to stay with the difficulty of the question a little longer.

Like any good question, it yields unexpected blessings when we let it do its work on us. For the disciples, it offers an opportunity to check in with themselves, to take stock of how following Christ all this time has shaped their faith, how it’s deepened their understanding of God, how it’s built a theological foundation that they’ll need as their time together draws shorter. It opens up opportunities for rich conversation and earnest reflection because it affirms the role of spiritual inquiry in the life of discipleship. Jesus offers them a gift, yet only one of his followers musters enough courage to unclench his hands to receive it.

Peter, the only one bold enough to hazard his own viewpoint, declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He takes the risk, he dares to take the conversation to a more intimate level of personal sharing, and not only that, but his answer really seems to resonate. Jesus is effusive in his praise for him, and I wonder if Jesus’ reaction betrays his own sense of relief in knowing that, by the grace of God, at least someone is making the connections. Peter, for one, seems to be getting it. And so, in one fell swoop, Jesus blesses him, appoints him to play a foundational role in the early church, and entrusts him with the authority and responsibility of leadership within the community of faith.

It’s interesting to me that we don’t get to hear Peter’s response to all of this. Part of me wonders if it’s because his jaw is on the floor. Sure, Peter has now become the keeper of the keys, but the humble fisherman is far from perfect. Immediately after Jesus entrusts this great responsibility to Peter, Jesus turns right around and rebukes him a mere five verses later, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” It turns out, Peter hadn’t been able to bear the foretelling of Christ’s suffering and death, and after hearing this first prediction, he cried out “God, forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” All of a sudden, the very rock on which Christ builds his Church has become a stumbling stone on the journey to the Cross. And truth be told, this isn’t Peter’s first offense.

Over and over again throughout the Gospel narrative, he says the wrong thing or asks the wrong question or misses the point or fails to do the right thing.

  • You’ll recall Peter sinking in fear when trying to walk on water, requiring Christ to come to his rescue.
  • We overhear Peter asking Jesus how many times faithful people ought to extend forgiveness and suggesting a measly seven times should be sufficient. I think we all let out a sigh of relief when Jesus multiplies this figure exponentially, affirming the extravagance of grace in response to Peter’s stinginess.
  • We groan as Peter asks what special reward the disciples will get in heaven since they gave up everything to follow Christ, and Jesus has to remind him that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Another teachable moment in this series of missteps.

And that’s not to mention the blunders and betrayals during the week leading up to Christ’s Passion. He botches the foot washing, misunderstands all the predictions and goodbyes, and ultimately denies Christ three times before all is said and done. He fails again and again and again. Yet, if we’re inclined to take Paul’s word for it, Peter is the first person that Christ visits after Easter morning. The Gospel of John records their final conversation in which our living Lord, the Good Shepherd, instructs Peter to care for his sheep.

Clearly, the ministries of the church don’t require perfect people. The foundation upon which Christ builds his church is nothing more and nothing less than folks willing to sit with difficult questions, to risk offering their perspective, to engage thoughtfully in theological reflection, and to follow Christ even when we feel like we’ve messed everything up. And the good news is that every single one of us fits that bill. We’re all works in progress, but each of us still has a vital role to play. To borrow some of Paul’s lingo, we are one body with many members, each with gifts that differ according to the grace given to them. And for God’s healing, transforming, justice-seeking, truth-telling work to fully flourish, we need each other, warts and all.

When our faith feels shaky, we need people like Peter to offer an affirmation for the both of us while we focus on finding our footing. When we’re overwhelmed by the suffering of this world, unmoored by violence, injustice, or loss, we need people who can fan the flames of our hope and reignite our sense of compassion. When worries and fears and unanswerable questions keep us up at night, we need people willing to walk alongside us, holding our concerns close to their hearts. Mostly, we need a community that can hang in there with us through the tough stuff as we each offer whatever grace we’ve been given to help one another make it through. Maybe that’s the key to the kingdom, and maybe Christ issues each of us our own particular copy. Amen.