But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?

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JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?

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Named as saints – a sermon

My final sermon at Saint Paul’s is available on the website, or you can read it here.


Some of you may not know this about me, while some of you have experienced it firsthand.  I am terrible with names.  So bad, in fact, that there is a voice inside my head that actively encourages me to steer clear of them whenever possible.  As I’m shaking your hand, giving a hug, or just making eye contact, I can hear it start.  “You think her name is Sue, but you aren’t sure.  You should know her name, but you’ll mess it up and hurt her feelings.  Just don’t do it; just say, ‘Hello dear,’ or something equally pathetically innocuous.”  Being bad at names is really a poor quality in a priest.  Names are powerful.  We feel known when someone calls us by name.  We feel equally unknown when we are called “buddy,” “darling,” or “dude.”  More than that, our names carry meaning in them.  Some carry generations of family history.  For example, after my grandmother died, we found in her genealogy records that my dad, John Pankey, carries the same Americanized name that our ancestor Jean Pantier took when he emigrated from France in the early 18th century.  How cool is that!?!  Other names carry the weight of even more history, names that are imbued with meaning from deep in the past.

In fact, names have carried meaning for thousands of years.  The Old Testament is rife with names with deep meaning.  Even in the very beginning, we get the name Adam for the first man from the Hebrew word which means both “man” and the “dust” from which humankind was created.  His wife, Eve, is named the Hebrew word for “life” because she is the mother of all humanity.  Place names were important as well.  After wrestling all night with God near the Jabbok, which means “emptying,” Jacob (trickster) gets a new name, Israel (God prevails) and he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.”  All throughout the Old Testament names do more than simply name people and places, but they fill them with meaning.  Nowhere is this more true than in our lesson from Isaiah this morning.  Here we find ourselves in the middle of the story of King Ahaz who is fearful as he is about to come under attack from the Assyrians.  Isaiah, God’s prophet and mouthpiece, promises that if Ahaz remains faithful to God, he will prevail.  The sign of the promise will be the birth of a baby to a young woman who will be called Immanuel, or God with us.  Ahaz is ultimately unsuccessful; he just can’t keep the faith, and the promised birth of Emmanuel doesn’t happen.

More than seven hundred years later, Matthew interprets the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to his young mother, a virgin named Mary, as the fulfillment of that ancient promise.  The child’s given name is Jesus, which means “God saves;” a name given to both of his parents by an angel of the Lord, but there is no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus is the child promised to Ahaz as the assurance of the final victory of Israel, when God moved into the neighborhood for good.  Emmanuel, God with us, was born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved;” she will experience both in her life, and her betrothed Joseph, whose name means “may God increase.”  What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years after it was supposed to take place, is that once Emmanuel came to be God with us, God never left.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life-giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of a virgin and to live and die as one of us.

For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in the Old Testament, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason.  This morning [at 10 o’clock], we welcome Hadley Caroline Wing into the Body of Christ.  I’ve not had a chance to talk with her parents as to why they chose Hadley Caroline, but even if they just thought it was pretty, it still comes with great meaning.  Hadley is an Old English word for a field covered in heather, a gorgeous purple flower.  Caroline is a feminine form of the name Charles which means strong.  May she be a perfect balance of splendor and strength.  She is born to her parents Andrew and Kacey.  Andrew means manly and Kacey is the Gaelic word for watchful or vigilant.  Hadley Caroline, under the care of strong and careful parents, today receives a new name, one that all of us who are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ share: saint.

Though names are also important in the New Testament, what with Simon (listener) becoming Peter (rock) and Saul (inquired of God) becomes Paul (humble), what seems to be even more important is our common relationship in Jesus Christ.  Throughout the New Testament, all the disciples of Jesus are referred to again and again as saints.  In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, or consecrated.”  To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God.  Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God.  We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned.  The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God, which is why in the Episcopal Church we baptize infants.  This is the sign for us that none of us are able to work our way into God’s love, but rather it is the gift of a God whose very nature is love and relationship.

In response to the gift of God’s love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, we engage in the work of holiness, which is summed up in the Baptismal Covenant that we will all reaffirm in just a few minutes.  By the power of the Spirit, God with us at work in our lives calls us to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  Today, on a day that the Scripture lessons are all about names, we welcome Hadley Caroline into the family of saints, and make our vow to labor alongside her in building up the Kingdom of God.

I would be remiss to not mention that today also happens to be my last sermon here at Saint Paul’s.  On a day that is also about sainthood, I give thanks for the saints of this congregation.  You have loved me and allowed me to love you in return.  You have raised me from a baby priest.  You have cared for my family, loved on my children, and supported us in good times and in bad.  I will be forever grateful for our time together as we have sought to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus and saints of God.  May God bless Hadley Caroline.  May God bless her family.  And may God bless the Saint Paul’s family as you continue working with the Spirit to discern the power of Emmanuel, God in your midst, from this day forth and forever more.  Amen.

Title vs. Name

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For two days now, this blog has paid particular attention to the power of name.  This is very much in keeping with the Biblical tradition that treats naming with great seriousness.  In the Old Testament stories, especially, we are often given the specific meaning of the name of a person or place in order to make it very clear that names mean something.  From Adam (Heb. for Man) and Eve (Heb. for Life) to Israel (Heb. for God prevails) at Peniel (Heb. for Facing God) the Scriptures are rich with names and their meaning.  The Christian tradition has followed suit in this.  In Baptism, the neophyte is named.  Ordination was traditionally an opportunity for a name change.  Even to this day, Bishops are allowed to carry the name of the See City as their last name, should they choose (I’m looking at you Justin Cantuar).

While names are of significant importance, so are titles.  Whether one is called king or prophet makes a whole lot of difference.  Paul relied heavily on his title as Apostle, even if he felt he had to justify it with regularity.  In modern times, there is the ongoing debate between the various titles that clergy can carry: Father/Mother, Sister/Brother, Pastor, Preacher, Doctor, etc; although we should all agree that Reverend is grammatically incorrect and should never be used (The Reverend being appropriate only as written honorific), but I digress.

I bring up the importance of not only name, but title as well because Matthew seems very intentional to set this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the very abridged story of Jesus’ birth in the context of name: Jesus and Emmanuel as well as title: Messiah.  In fact, one could argue that the whole of Matthew’s Gospel is wrapped up in the title Messiah.  Verse 1 of chapter 1 says it all, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  The same happens here at the opening of this passage, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Messiah isn’t the word Matthew used.  It is the Hebrew version of the word that Matthew put into Greek as “Christ.”  Either way, the meaning remains the same.  Jesus is the Anointed One, with the capital letters used very intentionally.  Others have carried the title anointed one: kings were anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s blessing upon their reign, but Jesus is the Anointed One, the King of kings, the one, chosen of God, to rule for eternity.  Emmanuel, God with us.  Jesus, God saves.  Messiah/Christ, the Anointed One.  In one brief story that skips the details of the birth narrative that Linus has made so famous, Matthew makes it clear that the infant we are dealing with is God’s Anointed One, and more than that, he is the very God who has come to walk among us in order that we might be saved.

When did he tell them?

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Easter 4 is affectionately referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year (A, B, and C) we hear a portion of John 10, in which Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd for his relationship with those who will follow him.  In Year C, we catch the tail end of the story (no pun intended) as Jesus is challenged the Temple leadership, what John calls “the Jews” to show them his bona fides.  They want to know for sure, if Jesus is or is not the Messiah.  “Tell us plainly,” they demand.

“I have already told you.”

Getting the Gospel of John in fits and starts over the course of a three year period means that I very rarely take the time to look at the larger narrative arc of the Fourth Gospel.  When I read Jesus say, “I have already told you,” I can’t help but think, “has he really?” I guess I’m so used to Mark’s messianic secret that it is easy to forget that the other Gospels handle the question of Jesus’ messiahship in different ways.  I started digging through the first nine chapters of John’s Gospel, looking for places that it might be clear that Jesus or someone else had inferred that he was the Son of God.

  • While the priests and Levites were questioning John the Baptist, he saw Jesus and declared, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1.29)
  • While cleansing the Temple, Jesus calls it “My Father’s house.” (Jn 2.16)
  • When pressed for a sign by the Temple leadership, Jesus promised to rebuild the temple in three days (Jn 2.19)
  • Nicodemus came to Jesus saying, “We know that you… have come from God.” (Jn 3.3)
  • Jesus clearly infers that he is the Son in John 3.16-17
  • Jesus tells the Woman at the Well that he is a “gift from God” (not in that way) (Jn 4.10)
  • After Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he exacerbates the situation by calling God his Father. (Jn 5.17-18)
  • Jesus promises eternal life that can only come from the Father. (Jn 5.40)
  • Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” (Jn 6.35)
  • “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me.” (Jn 7.16)
  • The crowd wonders if the Temple leaders know that Jesus is the Messiah (Jn 7.26)
  • Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” (Jn 8.12)
  • Jesus says, “I am not of this world.” (Jn 8.23)

It seems clear that Jesus has made it known that was at least the Messiah, if not the Son of God, if not actually God.

Who is Jesus?

Last week, in a real change of pace for this blog, I spent the whole week dealing with the lesson from Romans 12.  Conveniently, the Gospel lessons for last week and this week actually work better together, so this week I’ll get to deal with them both all at once here.

To review, last week’s Gospel lesson was from Matthew 16:13-20.  There we were in the third week of trying to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”  On Proper 14, we heard the story of Jesus walking on water in which Peter twice calls Jesus “Lord.”  The first time it is with some level of suspicion, “If it is you, Lord…” while the second time it comes in the voice of sheer terror, “Lord, save me!”  We also are told that once Jesus safely the boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus calling him “the Son of God.”  For Matthew, who is careful to not upset the Jewish Christians in his Church, who always talks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than the “Kingdom of God” this title is very important.  Jesus isn’t just any old Messiah-type person, and there were more than a few of them running around, but Jesus is the Son of God.  

On Proper 15, the Canaanite Woman calls out to Jesus with still another title.  Yes, he is “Lord,” but for this Gentile woman, he is also the “Son of David.”  Here too we see Jesus being given a Messianic title, but this time it about the fulfillment of prophecy.  As the Messiah, Jesus will restore the throne of David and God’s steadfast love will remain upon it forever (1 Chronicles 17:13).

Proper 16 begins the two-part story of Peter’s Confession, Jesus’ Passion Prediction, and Peter’s Rebuke.  Here we see Jesus called not just Lord, but “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  While the Canaanite woman is praised for her faith, as an outsider, she didn’t quite have the big picture of who Jesus is.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples who have followed Jesus, more or less faithfully, for roughly two years, gets it perfectly right.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of Man, who has come to bring salvation to the whole world.

Which brings us to Proper 17, and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, in which Jesus goes on to elaborate on just what it means that he is the Messiah.  Being the Messiah means upsetting the status quo.  It means being betrayed and arrested.  It means enduring great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders.  It means being killed by the Gentile occupiers.  It means a bunch of stuff that Peter and the gang don’t want it to mean, but it also means Resurrection.

Jesus is the Messiah and the Messiah has power even over death.  That’s who Jesus is, hard as it may be to hear and understand for Peter and, quite frankly, for us.  As the story unfolds, we’ll learn more about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but for this week, we’ll have to sit with the confused disciples and try to understand how the Messiah can be killed and still be God.

All Things

I always find it interesting when a theme runs through the various resources that I draw wisdom from each preaching week.  This time around, the focus is on the Woman at the Well; specifically, overcoming the longstanding bad reading of the story that she is a prostitute. Even in the midst of common threads, each author has their own particular take on the topic at hand.  For instance, in one of my lectionary resources this week, the author went on to make note of the fact that this Woman of Samaria that Jesus meets at the well is no theological slouch.  She is aware of some of the theological nuance that created such a strong rift between the Jews and the Samaritans.  More important to the story, however, is that she has set her hope on the Messiah who has been promised.

“I know that the Messiah is coming – the one who is call Christ.  When he come, he will tell to us all things.” – (John 4.25, author’s translation)

The language she uses to describe the Messiah fits ideally within the story as Jesus has just told her more than he could have ever known about her.  What got me was the underlying Greek idea behind what gets translated variously as “all things,” or “everything.”  The Greek root is apas, which means “expressing the totality of any object.”  Or, as we might say in modern parlance, “giving the final word.”  The Messiah comes, not to help us understand String Theory or to explain the process of evolution, but to be for us God’s final Word of salvation, the totality of God’s dream for his creation.

Jesus lives into this role quite nicely in our story for Sunday.  He offers the Woman living water.  He shows her that he knows and cares for her, even though she is a stranger.  He invites her to a life of true worship, a life of the Spirit.  And finally, he reveals his true identity to her with two simple words, “ego eimi,” “I am.”*

Jesus is the Messiah she has been waiting for.  Jesus is the Messiah we have been waiting for.  Jesus is the Messiah who reveals to us God’s final Word, God’s kingdom come.

* As a side note, if anyone can explain to me why this isn’t one of the 7 “I am” statements in John, I’d appreciate it