Who do people say Jesus of Nazareth is? Some say, a great moral teacher, others say a spiritual sage, and still others say he was a lunatic, a criminal, a fraud. And you, what about each of you? Who do you say that Jesus of Nazareth is? This is one of the foundational questions we must answer as disciples of Christ – we must know who it is in whom we place our trust, who it is that offers us abundant life, who it is that bids us to come and follow him.
When Jesus posed this question to his disciples, Peter spoke up and made his confession – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Here is the definitive answer to the question of Jesus’ identity that Matthew has been inching toward for some time. This is the true confession of who Jesus is. Perhaps Peter’s understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, was still a little off – his expectations still somewhat distorted since, as we’ll see next week, he still doesn’t understand the full implications of what this means for Jesus. But the confession, at least, was correct.
In the context of our lectionary readings this morning, I wonder if there isn’t another question that begs to be asked in relation to Jesus’ identity. Not just who do you say that he is, but how do you say who Jesus is? How do we answer that question? Is it simply a matter of language or title? Or is there something more that is asked of us in order to truly answer that question?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts his readers to present their bodies as living sacrifices; he tells them, and us, that this is our act of spiritual worship. If Jesus is more than just a prophet, more than just a spiritual sage,or moral teacher; if Jesus really is the Son of the Living God who both is worthy of and demands our worship, then that worship must encompass more than the words that fall from our lips. The entirety of our lives – body, mind, spirit – must bear witness to who it is we claim Jesus to be. This act of spiritual worship is a day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment sacrifice because it is a choice we must make in every interaction we have with others, in every transaction we engage, in the ways we consume food and information and media.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. For the last two-thousand years, Christians have filled pages and books with words in myriad attempts to answer that question. And yet, Paul’s exhortation pushes us to answer that question in a different way – not by a verbal confession but by an embodied confession. This kind of confession is more than an intellectual or emotional assent to some proposition about who Jesus is. It is a way of being in this world that rejects all that is contrary to the desire and will of God. We cannot make this confession through assimilation to the world’s demands. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul tells us. The tactics of empire that lure us into systems of power and domination, of greed and competition, are the very definition of anti-Christ. The distorted ways of being human in this world that rely on violence, deception, and manipulation to maintain whatever semblance of security they falsely promise can only lead to destruction.
“Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” This is a call to a new way of thinking, a new way of living in relation to one another. Every aspect of our lives becomes an expression of our love of and devotion to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Contrary to what some Christian writers of our day and age would tell us, this is not a first-century pitch for some sort of esoteric self help scheme. Our capacity for transformation has nothing to do with our efforts to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It is not born out of our effort or privilege. Transformation occurs at the intersection of God’s grace and our response – and our response must be complete, must encompass the totality of our beings.
This is the call to holiness, a call to live our lives oriented not to the ways of this world but to the transformation that God offers and that God promises to make complete within us. It demands from us a constant discernment between right and wrong, between that which brings life and that which snuffs it out, between love that seeks the good of the other and distorted love that seeks only my own benefit. Holiness is not about verbal confession, nor is it about ritual purity. It is about all of the ways in which we express our love for God in the way that we love others.
Years ago, when I was first introduced to Morning Prayer, I was always struck by one of the antiphons prescribed to be said with the invitatory psalm: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness…” I sometimes wonder if we really understand what this means; I sometimes wonder if we stop a little short, if we see this as call to worship the Lord in beauty and fail to recognize that beauty describes holiness. Paul offers us a correction to this misunderstanding – it is holiness that is beautiful, a life that is lived counterculturally, a life that declares in totality that the death-dealing systems of this world will not have the last say. In the context of what Paul offers us this morning, we could say that beauty without holiness of heart and life is nothing more than idolatry; it is comprised of empty gestures, of hypocrisy and pretense. It is a life that bears false witness to who Jesus is.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. What testimony does your life give? Do your interactions with your family members, your co-workers, strangers you encounter in your neighborhood offer a living confession of who you believe Jesus is? Do your financial transactions align with the world’s agenda or with God’s? Does your consumption of food, of natural resources, of information and media live into the alternative reality that God desires or does it feed into the systems of injustice and oppression that our global market economy needs to be sustained?
Friends, each of us has an answer to Jesus’ question already – it may not be complete, and it may not be our final answer. But if we make the confession with our lips that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, then we must heed Paul’s admonition to present our bodies, our lives in their entirety, as living sacrifices. This requires us to operate within a paradigm that contrasts with world – a paradigm that is oriented toward God’s abundant love,toward completion of the redemption that God has offered us in Jesus Christ. This is our act of true worship.
May we each embrace the mercy and grace of God and open ourselves to the transformative power of the Spirit so that we might discern the will of God in all aspects of our lives.