On Unity

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The symbols of St. Peter, by John Piper, St. Peter’s Church, Babraham, Great Britain. 

Matthew 16:13-20

Details have been obscured in the following stories to protect the guilty. 

Somewhere in America that I feel compelled to tell you wasn’t the South, in a church that is a member of a denomination, a pastor who happens to be a friend of mine decided, given the current times, to make a theological statement on the church’s sign. Given that it seemed unclear from the news, this particular pastor decided to make the statement, “God cherishes Black lives.” 

Just that. 

No hot button slogan, no political essay, nothing else. Just a signal to the Black members of that community that this particular church, predominately white itself, believes Black lives to be equally valuable to everyone else’s in God’s eyes. No one who wasn’t a member of this church was asked to sign on. 

Seemed simple enough to this pastor. No one in the congregation gave a word of objection. However, a couple of people that this pastor had never met before saw fit to send messages decrying their disagreement with this simple and profoundly true theological statement. 

In another town and another place, a different pastor posted a political article on the pastor’s personal social media page. It may or may not have conflicted with the message in the previous story. Immediately, someone who isn’t a member of their church commented, “What happened to the separation of church and state?” 

She’d forgotten, as people often do, that pastors and churches aren’t one and the same.

In fact, I couldn’t find where this pastor said anything about representing the church with this view. 

Why would someone decide to critique a sign at a church they don’t go to? 

And why would someone equate what a pastor says on their personal social media page with their church’s official statements — and in any case, if you don’t go to that church, why would it matter? 

Beats me, but it’s a tale as old as time. For some reason, many Christians feel personal ownership over the messages put out by any church (and in some cases, over pastors speaking only for themselves). I’ve been guilty if it myself.

I chalk it up to our individualized view of faith. We can’t manage to comprehend that a church community might hold a view that is outside of our view of God, or even sometimes that other individuals can hold such views. But it’s true — they can and they do.

And it’s gotten worse in our current polarized times. Because I believe in Jesus and you believe in Jesus, all Christians should agree on, well, everything!
And so we bicker and we nitpick and we call churches we don’t attend over what’s on their sign. 

This morning, as preachers everywhere tackle “Who do you say that I am?” some will take a classic individualized angle: who do you say Jesus is? 

My records do indicate that this is how I’ve preached this passage in the past. And it really is a question worth considering, individualistic or not.

I’ve found that my own answer has changed throughout my life, and you probably have found the same. It’s much like who we say our parents are changes throughout our lives. 

When you’re a baby, your parents are your protectors and providers, and the only thing standing between your vulnerable little baby body and the great beyond. When you’re a toddler, they become your teachers (though they’re also still your protectors; toddlers do, as you all know, act like tiny little drunk people and need similar types of supervision). 

When you’re a child, your parents move further into the teaching role. By the time you’re an adult, they become the people you call when you can’t figure something out, or when you need comfort. And when your parents go to be with Jesus, they become the ones who have gone before you into the great beyond, continuing to pave the way. 

I can’t imagine why Jesus would be any different for us. If Jesus asked each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” — if there are twenty of us, we’d give at least 23 different answers. For some of us, he’s a Friend. For others, a protector, for others, a comforter, for still others, all three and more. 

So, to be clear, “Who do you say that I am” is certainly a worthwhile question on an individual level. But as I’ve shown, we probably think too individualistically for our own good in these times. 

Peter’s answer isn’t individual; it’s communal. Peter’s answer so profound that it gets him dubbed “the rock on which I will build my church.” 

He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Peter does a rare thing, in his time, our time, or any time: he doesn’t speak as an individual; he speaks for the whole church. He distills all of our individual answers down to the most important thing: Jesus is the Son of the living God. This was an answer that the worldwide church might someday proclaim — and would, and does.

Regardless of our individual politics, and regardless of our individual answers about who Jesus is, we can all say to Peter’s answer, with confidence: “Yes, that is who Jesus is.” 

“The Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

We’re all too quick to individualize and personalize everything, and insist that we get exactly what we want, even from church signs that we drive by or pastors who speak for themselves on the internet. 

But today, God is calling us to pull together, and Peter is calling us back to the most basic of statements, a foundation that we can actually build on together. And weirdly enough, I often find that when I can get back to the basics and connect with others, I do find myself affected individually. I find myself understanding others better when we can get back to a sound foundation.

It’s just about building that foundation with a simple statement. 

A foundation like, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Or a foundation like, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” 

At the table, all are seen and all are loved. It’s not a common thing in this world that we live in — which is why we’ve got people calling up pastors over their church signs. 

Who we each say Jesus is will vary widely, but together, we proclaim that Christ is the Son of the Living God, present at our table in bread and in wine. In an age where we agree on so little, I do believe, is a message that we can all get behind. It’s just as simple and profound as that. And it’s as easy, and as difficult, as that.

So let us meet the Christ, the Son of the living God, and be here united. Then, and only then, can we tackle the hard stuff. Amen.

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