Trailblazer

Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014 || Proper 16A || Matthew 16:13-20

(A problem with our sound system rendered the audio for this sermon unusable.)

TrailblazerFor as long as I can remember, my father has worn a cross beneath his clothing, resting on his skin close to his heart. So when my parents gave me a cross of my own to wear when I was in my early teen years, I was thrilled. I was going to be just like Dad, wearing my cross all the time, even in the shower! The trouble was I kept losing it. I couldn’t wear the cross all the time because I played soccer, and there was a “no jewelry” rule. So it would get lost in the depths of my soccer bag (which was not a place for the faint of heart). The chain broke once, but I managed to find the cross beneath the seat of my car. Then during my freshman year of college the chain broke again, and I lost the cross for good.

At that time, I was just beginning to glimpse the edge of the expanse of the life God was calling me into, so I was quite upset at losing my cross. I’m not naturally a superstitious person, but I took it as a bad omen. So two weeks before I turned nineteen, I went to a local tattoo parlor and emerged a few hours later with a Celtic cross indelibly inked on my back. It was my way of telling myself that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus, that if push came to shove there was no way to deny my identity. At baptism I was marked with oil as “Christ’s own forever,” but now I was visibly marked as Christ’s own.

And yet, walking out of the tattoo parlor on that fine January day, I don’t think I could have told you what it meant to me to be a follower of Jesus. I think I could do a bit better job today, but such meaning-making will take the rest of my lifetime to unfold, so check back with me again sometime. What’s telling is that – in my tattoo experience – I identified as “follower.” Since I put myself in the position of “follower,” for me Jesus took on the identity of “guide.”

As my guide, or better yet my “trailblazer,” I envisioned Jesus walking ahead of me, as if we were tramping through a marsh and he knew where it was safe to place one’s feet. Because he was my trailblazer and I his follower, I attempted to step where he stepped and to stay on the path he showed me. When people learned I was in the process to become an ordained minister, they asked if I was following in my father’s footsteps. I responded, “No,” because in my mind, we were both following in Jesus’ footsteps. Thus, in my language and in my imagination – two of the most potent vehicles for meaning-making – I identified as the follower of a trailblazer.

But the trailblazer-follower relationship is only one of myriad possibilities. And this is why today’s story from the Gospel according to Matthew is so important for us today. You see, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s really asking them, “What kind of relationship do you want to have with me?”

This powerful secondary question hovers just beneath the primary one because no matter what the disciples say, they set up the presumption of a relationship. Let’s take Simon Peter’s answer, for instance. I imagine his words rushing from Peter’s mouth all at once, as if an unseen force reached into his heart and yanked them out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

So if Peter names Jesus “Messiah,” what title would Peter use for himself to relate to this identity? Would it surprise you if I said soldier? The title of “Messiah” was something of a political identity at this time in Israel. The Jewish Messiah was supposed to be a warrior like the great King David, who swept away the forces occupying Israel with his martial prowess. It’s not a coincidence at all that Matthew sets this exchange in the city of Ceasarea Phillipi, a city named for the Roman Emperor. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah tacitly sets Jesus against the power of occupying Rome. That Peter identifies as a soldier in the Messiah’s army is made clear both in his use of a sword when Jesus is arrested and in the very next passage after ours today. We’ll read it next week, but here’s a spoiler. Jesus reveals to the disciples what is going to happen to him – namely something basically the opposite of kicking the Romans out of Israel – and Peter is stunned to hear the Messiah will die. Another set of words rips itself from Peter: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It takes the rest of the Gospel, and indeed the rest of Peter’s life, to fathom Jesus’ understanding of “Messiah.” Peter’s journey takes him from confession to denial to redemption to proclamation as he struggles with his relationship to Jesus in light of calling him Messiah. By the end of his time in the book of Acts, Peter has moved from soldier to something of a herald of Jesus’ understanding of Messiah-ship.

So Peter undergoes a long transformation of his identity in the light of calling Jesus Messiah. I still think of Jesus as my trailblazer, and I try to follow his steps. But what of you? When Jesus puts this question to you, who do you say that he is? And what does that say about the kind of relationship you want to have with him?

Perhaps you answer that Jesus is “Lord,” which makes you his “subject.” If so, this means you cede your sovereignty over to him. You surrender your will to his. You are a vassal and he is your liege. We might not want to give up our autonomy to a higher power, knowing as we do how badly that turns out most of the time here on earth. But Jesus is a Lord who is trustworthy and true, and giving up our wills for his leads not to enslavement but to freedom.

Perhaps you answer not Lord but “Teacher.” This makes you Jesus’ “student.” If so, you desire to learn all you can from him, both by searching the scriptures and listening for his instruction as you pray. We have so much to learn from Jesus our teacher, and we will never graduate from his class, not until we “know fully, even as we are fully known.”

Perhaps you answer not Lord or Teacher, but “Savior.” Thus, you relate to Jesus as someone who needs saving. He is the knight in shining armor and you are in distress in the dragon’s lair. As our savior, Jesus accomplished the great work set before him between the cross and the empty tomb. But if we let him, his presence in our lives continues to save us from all the small, yet debilitating, ways we drift towards annihilation.

And if not Lord or Teacher or Savior, how about “Friend?” If Jesus is your friend, then you are his. This is not blasphemy, for Jesus calls his disciples friends in the upper room on the night of his arrest. As a friend, a companion, Jesus is not walking ahead of us blazing the path. Rather, he is walking with us, hand in hand, as we discover the way together.

Of course, these ways of answering Jesus’ question are not mutually exclusive. Jesus is trailblazer and Messiah and Lord and teacher and savior and friend. And that is just a small sampling. Answering his question – “Who do you say that I am?” – does not limit our relationships with him, but it does define them. Discerning how we relate to Jesus at any given time or in any given situation will only serve to strengthen our relationships with him. And the more we follow our trailblazer and proclaim our Messiah and serve our Lord and learn from our teacher and reach out to our Savior and walk with our friend Jesus Christ, the better and fuller and deeper will we answer his call in our lives.

Art: Detail from “Handing Over the Keys” by Raphael (1515)

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