“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Week #3: Hunted
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 4, 2018: Lent 3
Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26
We are headed today into the third week of Lent, just about the mid-way point to our celebration of Easter. This season we have been thinking about the question Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter quickly chimed in and exclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” to which Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Confessing who Jesus is sweeps us up into the divine life of God. Confessing who Jesus is also helps us to better understand who we are as Christ’s followers and what Christ calls us to do. We saw last week the image from Mark’s gospel of Jesus being abandoned at his most desperate moment. That moment in the garden, that image of Jesus utterly alone, assures us of God’s presence when we are most alone and it compels us to be the presence of God for the lonely we meet every day.
Building on the images we’ve seen and heard already, today we meditate on an image of Jesus from gospel of Matthew, one where Jesus is a hunted man. In order to fully understand what this means for us today, we need to do a little review of Matthew’s gospel.
The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel is a genealogy that traces the bloodline of Jesus all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. It is a lot to read, a lot of names to remember, but Matthew is doing something very particular. By starting his gospel with Jesus’ family tree, Matthew is helping his readers to understand that Jesus isn’t just some random guy who suddenly appears on the scene. By linking Jesus all the way back through the ages to Abraham and Sarah, Matthew is making a statement that Jesus is a continuation of all the work God was doing through the Old Testament matriarchs and patriarchs. This makes Jesus legit; prophet’s and messiahs were a dime a dozen in the time of Jesus, but Matthew knows that Jesus is way more than all of that. Matthew’s genealogy powerfully points out that everything has been heading towards Jesus, and in Jesus, God is still speaking.
After the genealogy, Matthew moves on to the birth of Jesus. The birth story begins with Joseph having a dream, where an angel tells him to stick by Mary’s side even though the whole pregnancy thing makes him want to run. But after Jospeh’s dream, we don’t get to see the baby Jesus or the manger. No, Matthew skips the birth all together and goes from Jospeh’s dream to several weeks or months later. Matthew begins chapter two with, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” That seems simple enough—Wise Men have come from the east to find Jesus. The Wise Men go to King Herod and ask where they can find, in their words, ‘the Messiah’—again, seems simple enough. But think about that for a moment. The Wise Men—educated, wealthy, powerful—have stepped into the court of King Herod, the second most powerful man in the world, and they have asked him where they can find the Messiah. Remember how messiahs were a dime a dozen in the time of Jesus? That’s because messiahs weren’t really about salvation or God or religion. A messiah was someone who had the power to upset, overthrow, the current order of things, civic or religious. One of the reasons the disciples never understood Jesus when he talked about suffering and death is because this is how they understood a messiah—in their minds, messiahs were warlords, literally, with power and weapons…messiahs didn’t suffer.
So the Wise Men have asked the King where they can find the person who might kick him off the throne. Matthew skipped all the birth stuff, because Matthew wants it to be clear that Jesus presents a direct challenge to worldly rulers. That’s why he drops King Herod’s name all over the place. The challenge begins the moment Jesus comes into the world and those educated, wealthy, and powerful Wise Men ask Herod where they can find him. In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus isn’t just a healer, isn’t just a teacher, isn’t just a powerful prophet. In Matthew gospel, Jesus is the very hand of God working to overturn all the powers and principalities that sit on thrones and use their power to limit the abundant life God desires for all people. From his first breath to his last, this makes Jesus a hunted man.
When you present a direct challenge to the person on the throne or in the capital building or in the denominational office, your days are numbered. When you present a direct challenge to those same people, and then develop a following, forget it. That’s exactly what Jesus did. He first collected twelve disciples. Then he gained an even greater following after the Sermon on the Mount, some of whom were leaders in the synagogue. Jesus spread a message that the powers that be absolutely despised. Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the poor…mourners…the meek…the merciful…the persecuted.” The government never likes it when the powerless are given power. In Matthew 8, Jesus cleanses a leper and then tells the restored man to go and show himself to the leaders in the houses of worship. The church never likes it when someone does their work and does it better and does it without their permission. In Matthew 10, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” These words solidified Jesus as an armed revolutionary in the minds of the most powerful.
Matthew says in our reading today that all the chief priests and elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. We call that ‘premeditated murder.’ Jesus is hunted like a wild animal for who is he and what he is doing. The chief priests and elders of the people watched their power slowly erode for nearly three years as this Palestinian Jew preached all over the region, and they finally had enough. It is a miracle that the chief priests and elders even spoke to one another—the separation of church and state isn’t just an American ideal. These folks hated each other in the ancient world, each jockeying for power and importance, but their hatred for Jesus brought them together. And their hatred for Jesus led them to turn him over to someone everybody hated, Pilate the Roman governor. It is Pilate who gives the final word to crucify Jesus and release a known murderer.
This image of Jesus being hunted was very comforting for a Presbyterian minister named Thomas Calhoun Barr. That name might not sound familiar to you, but the name of his daughter might: Ann Weems. Ann Weems has been called the Presbyterian poet-laureate because her poetry digs deeply into the intersection of faith and life. We have used a lot of Weems’ poetry in our worship services over the past few years. This past week I stumbled on a poem of hers where she talks about her dad. In this poem she writes that as a child she never really understood everything that was happening in church, but she knew it was about Jesus. She then says, “It was also about Jesus when my father was tried by the church for heresy. He had preached sermons about racial equality and higher wages for the poor and loving people of other faiths, as well as preaching a sermon on peace just before World War II.”
The internet is a beautiful thing because with just a few key strokes I was able to access the records from when Thomas Calhoun Barr was tried by the presbytery of Middle Tennessee for heresy. It is just as Ann Weems writes. One Sunday, Barr ascended the pulpit of The First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, TN, and invited the colored people sitting in balcony to come down and sit with the rest of the congregation. He then went on to suggest that, based on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, those same folks should hold their employers accountable on payday. Finally, Barr said to his congregation that if on the way out of the church that day they were not willing to do something to improve the life of one of their neighbors, they should skip church the next Sunday and every Sunday after and just go straight to brunch.
This is why Barr was tried for heresy. Thomas Barr preached a nuanced gospel of Jesus Christ that put a target right on his back. Barr made it clear that Jesus didn’t come into the world to make us feel good about ourselves and the current state of things. With careful and reasoned interpretations of the Bible Barr proclaimed that Jesus came into the world to show us how much we are loved and to tear down the evil and wicked structures of humanity that prevent the divine will of God from flourishing. In another controversial sermon, Barr wondered out loud why the The First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, TN, had no entrances that were accessible to people with mobility issues. The Scripture he cited in this sermon was of Jesus healing a paralyzed man who sat by the pool of Siloam and watched every day as the able-bodied folks got in and out of the water—none of those folks ever offered to hep the paralyzed man in and out of the pool. Do you know why the church leaders had such a problem with Barr’s thoughts about accessibility, thoughts that were way ahead of their time? They so upset because of how much it might cost to install a handicapped ramp at the church.
My friends, it is easy for us to look back on Thomas Barr and his heresy trial and laugh at how much time was wasted on such common-sense issues. That’s because, generally speaking, we as a church have reconciled some of the issues Barr was so passionate about. But trouble still tears the church apart. The greatest threats to the church of Jesus Christ don’t come from the outside, but from within, with members of Christ’s body warring with each other. And the issue at the heart of it all is not foreign policy or investment strategies or environmentalism or liberal or conservative theology; the issue at the heart of it all is wild differences in who we say Jesus is. Everything we do hinges on who we say Jesus is, or who we say he isn’t. Some say he was a powerful social and political revolutionary, while others say he calls us to stay out of it and enjoy a relationship with God. Some say that Jesus calls us to weave our faith into every aspect of life, while others say that Jesus wants us to keep things separated and compartmentalized. Still others cling to Jesus with one hand and hold a protest sign in the other, and some come to spend time with Jesus each Sunday and then leave him in the Bible, or the pew, or the stained glass window when worship is over.
I don’t propose to have the solution today for this; the Book of Acts tells us that only a day or two after Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers were at each other’s throats. The problem isn’t new. But what I can tell you, and the good news I share with you today, is that because Jesus Christ was hunted down for the way he lived his life, you and I have been set free to live our lives in ways that transform us and the world we live in. We might not agree on how far Jesus calls us to take things, or just how much change Jesus wants us to make, but on this one thing I think we can all agree: faith teaches that love is only love when it is given. We may disagree on to give the love of Jesus Christ, but we must rejoice that it is given at all. I might think that love is given in protest or marches or picketing; you might think that love is given in serving meals or fundraising or organizing. I might give love through prayer and study and pastoral care; you might give love by lobbying or debating the issues or demanding change.
No where in the Scriptures does it tell us that any of these things are wrong. The Scriptures do tell us is that only God knows the heart and the mind, and we never have the right or responsibility to tell another follower of Christ that their way of giving God’s love is wrong or heretical. The greatest mistake we can make as Christ’s followers is to think we have the corner market on the best way to follow Jesus, or that we can hunt down those disciples we think are doing it wrong. The gospel gives us tremendous freedoms, but that is not one of them. Instead of going on hunts for heretics, instead of picking up our toys and going home when we don’t get our way, Jesus calls us to the hard work of unity through diversity. That is the only and most beautiful way the gospel will change the world we live in.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we all share the common calling of following Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. How we do that is determined by who we say Jesus is. Every single person in this sanctuary answers differently when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” But may we always be guided in our discipleship by the One who was hunted down, wrongly convicted for preaching good news to the poor and outcast, brutally beaten, and then nailed to a cross to die. It was this One who then rose from the grave to set us free from the powers of sin and death. This One says to each of us, “You are the rock on which I will build my church, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.” May it be so. Amen.