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Who Do You Say That I Am? – The Rev. Shannon Preston – Church Building

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“Who do you say that I am?”

Park Point is a seven-mile sand spit in northern Minnesota that creates the Duluth Harbor.  A sand spit forms when sand accumulates from currents from rivers or lakes.[1]  Park Point separates Lake Superior from the mouths of the Nemadji and St Louis Rivers.  Early residents dug through part of this point to form the Duluth shipping canal.  Today, Park Point is separated from the rest of the city of Duluth by an aerial lift bridge, one of two in the world—which still operates for personal boats as well as large ships carrying primarily iron ore as well as ocean going vessels.

Once or twice a week, sometimes more, growing up I would cross this bridge to go to our small Episcopal church, St Andrew’s by-the-Lake.  Park Point has about 200 residents, a small grocery store and two churches.  About three miles down the point is St Andrew’s—one small A-framed building with a sanctuary and fellowship hall.  One on side, a small path made from rocks from the North Shore leads out, over a sand dune with beach grass, to Lake Superior.  On the other side, the bright red doors open towards neighboring houses and the harbor.  Our little congregation of about 80 had one 3/4-time priest who introduced me to a faith I could think about and wrestle with.  I was supported and loved there, and I was shown God there—through people, through the land and waters, through the Episcopal liturgy, and service.  St Andrew’s will always hold a very special place in my heart.

I expect that each of us here has some place like this—a church home, for better or for worse, that introduced us to our faith and that began forming us for something more.

For some, Good Shepherd is this home—you’ve grown up here; been shaped by the people, the teaching, the prayers, the music, and the ambiance.  As with our faith, a church, too, is living–always growing, responding, listening to God’s call.

This fall on Sunday mornings and in our weekly study groups we approach this theme “formed for.”[2]  On Sundays from 9:30-10:15a in the Parish Hall—the original worshipping space of this church—we will look at a different theme each week that points us ultimately towards being formed to follow Christ, to be more like Christ.  And today, we approach “formed for” …hope and we do this through a feedback forum as part of Good Shepherd’s strategic plan.  Some of you will have participated in this already this morning, but for all others please join us after the service in the Parish Hall whether you’ve been here seventy-four years or seventeen minutes—to share your reflections, your thoughts, and hopes for Good Shepherd.

The process of strategic planning in a church—a community that follows Christ— is exciting to me because, if we choose to, we can approach this process as part of our spiritual formation.  One piece of which is formed for hope.

Hope, as CS Lewis puts it, is something that draws us to look for what we do not currently see—it calls us towards the Kingdom of Heaven not yet realized. To hope, in the Christian way, is not a form of escapism or denial, he explains, but of our promise as Christians to long for God’s kingdom.[3]  We all share something in common here—we are looking for more— for ourselves, our family, our world—even if we’re not conscious of what this is.  I believe we come here because we want more.

The more we seek is revealed to us by God.

The questions we wrestle with–we dance with here–for our whole lives grows from the question foundational to our faith.  Who is Christ?   Who is God? And as our gospel today illustrates, our “declaration” of what, of who we believe in, forms the foundation of all we do and know.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”[4]  And they’re able to come up with a list: John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Today I’m sure we could come up with our own lists.  But the question at the heart of this gospel, perhaps at the heart of the entire gospel, is: “But who do you say that I am?”[5]  And the answer Simon Peter gave/gives, is “You are the Messiah.”  Messiah comes from the Hebrew for anointed one and to claim Jesus as Messiah is to believe he is the Son of Man who fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies.  Peter declares, “You are the Messiah.”

And Jesus’ response to this declaration? The parallel passage in Matthew, “Blessed are you, Simon, Son of Jonah (Simon Peter)! For Flesh and Blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter and, on this rock,[6] I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”[7]

When Peter declares Christ the Messiah, Son of the Living God, he is given his call immediately—the rock of the church.  This is the cross he will bear.

We can comfortably go along answering the question of who God is by who people say that I am. Sure, Jesus is Christ—our Lord and Savior.  Jesus’ love is unconditional.  We hear these statements, we learn them in Sunday school, but at some point, we must as individuals and part of this broader community answer this question for ourselves—who do you say that I am?  This answer does not come from the intellect–although it certainly informs it—but faith is what sets us apart to answer this—belief in something more than we see, more than we know—that not only tells us who Christ is but also informs us as to who we are.

Who do you say that I am?

You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.  The answer is closer to us than we can comprehend.  It is in us.  You are the Messiah.  Of course, we stumble through this at times—Peter did a lot.  A million things get in the way of this answer.  These obstacles are real, they are part of life—which is why faith is a life long journey, but all those things, our fears, our doubts, our pains past and present—they are never greater than Christ.  Christ helps us break through all the forces that take us away from the truth of Christ as Messiah.  His declaration “Get behind me Satan”[8] is not directed at Peter, but at this first doubt of who God is. What God is.

And this basic desire, even just the desire, this basic belief that Christ is Messiah—forms the foundation of our entire church, the community of followers of Jesus.

Today….we are that church.  We respond to that question.   As we think about what Good Shepherd is and what Good Shepherd will be, we can choose to respond to the first question—who do people say that I am? But I don’t think we’re called to be a church as “people say that they are”—with some nice outreach, maybe a food bank and a friendly coffee hour. Rather our identity grows out of a call based on who we say Christ is.

This belief, this foundation begins with each of us. We are formed for so many things here—hope, love, joy, peace but at the heart of all of them—we are formed to follow Christ.  Formed to believe, to have faith in God, our Messiah. And our faith in this is what we come together to kindle, to nourish—it is what moves us, what frees us.

Peter declared Christ Messiah and was given a call that changed everything for him and for us today.  And if we choose to engage this question—if we listen to Jesus asking us, who do you say that I am? What do we say, who is He?  If we really believe that Christ is the savior then our attitudes and actions, the choices we make in our lives and for our communities will and must reflect this belief.

As we think about who we are, Good Shepherd—on the west side of the MoPac bridge, at the corner of Exposition and Windsor, approaching the Colorado—I invite you to consider, to pray with this question—who do you say that I am? For this is the rock, this is the foundation of the church we are built upon.  It is from this that we hope, and it is from this that we are formed.

[1] “Coastlines of Erosion and Depostion.” BBC.com 2018. <https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/z3ndmp3/revision/6>

[2] This theme is a variation on Forma’s approach to formation. Forma is a Christian education organization of the Episcopal Church.  <https://www.forma.church/vision-mission-and-objectives/>

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins 2001) 134.

[4] Mark 8:27, Matthew 16:13

[5] Mark 8:29; Matthew 16:18

[6] Rock is Greek is petra.

[7] Matthew 16:17-18

[8] Mark 8:33, Matthew 16:23