TEXTS: Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Sometimes when our grandkids come over we play games, and on of their favorites is a game called “Hedbanz”. The equipment for the game consists of about six plastic adjustable head bands and a deck of identity cards that can be fit into the front of each headband. Players then take turns guessing the identity of the character on the card (which they can’t see because it is on their own forehead) by asking other players “yes” or “no” questions. I am particularly poor at the game, because the version that our grandkids have is “Disney Characters”. You see, I am not that familiar with many of the Disney characters that have come out in more recent times, so sometimes I wouldn’t know the name of the character if I could see the card!
In the Gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus and the disciples engaged in a similar guessing game, except that it was not really a game at all. The disciples were not trying to guess the identity of a person on a card set upon their foreheads, but rather were trying to guess the true identity of this man who they have been following around the countryside for what was possibly two years at that point. Sure, they knew his name and the basics of his earthly identity. His name was Jesus and he was from Nazareth. We was the Son of Mary and Joseph. He was the brother of James, and so on and so forth. But this was no ordinary man. This was a man who was able to do things that people were just not supposed to be able to do. He seemed to know things that were so deep and so amazing that they seemed to come from some source far beyond any of them.
When Jesus asked the question: “Who do people say that I am?” it most likely didn’t probably strike the disciples as all that odd. In the days of Jesus it was not unusual for people to believe that a person could be the incarnation of another person, long dead and gone. So disciples began to recite what they had heard about Jesus, “Some say John Baptist and others Elijah or Jeremiah or even Moses or one of the other prophets, since you speak the word of God with authority.
But then Jesus turns the table on his friends. No longer is he asking for a recitation of what others think or say; now he asks his disciples what they think: “Who do you say I am?” My guess is that there was a big pause at that point as there often is when persons are asked a very direct and very personal question and are asked to express their personal opinions. So there is a pause – until Simon, son Jonah, impetuous Simon blurts out, “You are the Messiah; the Son of the living God!”
How many of us could have come up with that? Oh we might think we could have answered so astutely, but that thinking is based upon two thousand years of doctrinal hindsight. How many us can say it, even in this day and age, with a straight face and absolute conviction? Oh I know that we stand up together each Sunday and recite the Apostles Creed or one like it which includes statements about who we believe Christ is; but I’m talking one-on-one here. This is not a recitation of well-worn creeds with a crowd of people who are doing the same. I mean responding to someone coming up to you out of the blue, on the street or in the grocery store and asking, “Who do you think Jesus is?” Ah, there’s that lengthy pause again and maybe a bit of stammering. “uh – er – ah – well . . .” Maybe we could come up with something. Maybe we could paraphrase a creed. Maybe we would be so surprised that we would simply draw a blank. (“Can I get back to you on that?”) And maybe, just maybe, we would be able to make a true confession of our faith, because that is after all what our answer would be; a confession of faith.
Anyway, back to Peter. Matthew makes it clear that in the mind of Jesus, Peter got it right. He answered correctly, “You are the Son of the living God!” And so Jesus applauded his response. And then Jesus turned the whole business around and identified Simon. Jesus identified him first with his known identity, Simon son of Jonah and then with a new identity, “Cephas (Aramaic) – Petros (Greek) – Peter – literally “the rock”. Simon became Peter, just as Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah; just as Jacob became Israel and as, sometime after Jesus, Saul became Paul. Peter’s confessional statement of the identity of Jesus was powerful enough that there was a perceptible transformation, a noticeable change, a change enough to warrant a new name. “You are now Peter.”
In our faith we have kept the tradition of connecting confession to naming with some traditions being more astute at it than others. A key part of every Christian baptism is the act of naming the child. In the Roman Catholic tradition I believe that it is still acceptable for young people who are being confirmed to choose another name, and that same thing can happen when a person enters a holy order of church. Sometimes a change in name comes with the simple addition of a title or qualifier, usually offered up by those who are in a particular relationship with the person. If I answer phone and the person on the other end of the line addresses me as “Pastor Dan”, I am immediately cued in on the type of relationship that I have with that person. My wife might call me “blockhead” at times but she certainly doesn’t refer me often as “Pastor”, nor would Reinhard refer to Helga as “Dr. Schwartz”. In same manner, if someone calls me “Danny”, I know that they either are from my home congregation back in Indiana or knew me in my primary school days.
Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome that we should not be confirmed this world, but should rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ. That statement was true for the first century Church and it is true for us today. We must, in our heart of hearts, confess Christ as the son of the living God, and in that confession be transformed into the image of Christ, into a people who live for Christ in every aspect of their lives. We must be a people who are so deeply affected by Christ that they take on a new identity, an identity that may just be worthy of a new name.
Let me make a bit of a radical shift here and say that this kind of transformation that can lead to re-naming need not be for people only. Institutions can transform. Places can transform. Even history can transform. For all the challenges that our Parish Hall has set before us over years, we must also admit that it has transformed life at this church, and so it could not be referred to simply as “the parish hall”, but was given a name (and an appropriate one!). Faith Hall is and will forever be a very physical confession of Zion Church; a statement of what we believe, a confession of who we are in relationship to each other and in relationship with the community that surrounds us. Therefore it is imperative that we continue our efforts to make Faith Hall what it was originally intended to be, an expression of the collective faith of this congregation and of our need to be a resource to the community in which live.
And so, my friends, we celebrate. We celebrate the generosity of those who will continue to support the ministry that is Faith Hall. We celebrate the continuing ministry of Zion Church even when that ministry is not connected in any way with Faith Hall. We celebrate each other; every one of us with a distinct identity, striving as best we can to offer our individual confessions, joining together in just a few minutes to unite in a common confession that unites us.
The world around us is and will continue to be constantly at work striving to get us to conform; to conform societally, to conform politically, to conform racially and ethnically, to conform to our gender identity, and especially to conform commercially. (“Aren’t you glad you use dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?”) I say to you today, “Do not be conformed to this world, but rather be continually transformed in Christ.” For in Christ there is the incarnate presence of God Almighty and In God there is eternal peace. Amen.