Good morning! What a great thing it is to be back with all of you after 3 months away. I have missed this family. I have had a wonderful adventure this summer but there is nothing as nice as coming home again. And St. James’s is my home.
Thank you for giving Melissa, Marshall, Eliza, and me this gift of a sabbatical. It was the experience of a lifetime. And while I loved traveling and time off from work, I must say the most magnificent part was having so much uninterrupted time with my family. That’s a rare and precious gift. I wish it for every family. Thank you for making that possible.
Thanks to Dana, Whitney, Doug, and all the staff for carrying the load in my absence. It has been a busy summer around here and they have done a great job, as I knew they would. They worked harder so that I could step away from work completely. For that I am extremely grateful. Moreover, I want to thank our Junior and Senior wardens – Pierce Rucker and Ruth Ellett. They have their own fulltime careers but they graciously stepped forward and provided excellent leadership. Their ministries bless us. Thank you.
I have a lot to share about my travels. I took 1,500 pictures on the parish pilgrimage to Turkey and 1,300 on our trip to Europe. Whitney has scheduled me for an Adult Forum this fall. I look forward to boring you to tears with one of those interminable family slide shows.
During the last week of my sabbatical as I began to take sift through all my pictures, I started to see a pattern emerging. The older something was, the more pictures I took of it. Byzantine crosses in the caves of Cappadocia as early as the 2nd or 3rd century, the tomb of St. John and the outdoor theater where Paul preached in Ephesus, the stone on the island of Iona the austere St. Columba was said to have used as a pillow, gold coins from the time of the Emperor Constantine. Looking over my pictures, I realized I craved getting as far back in history as I could. I think it was this craving to touch and experience the things and the places closest to the time of Christ and his disciples. It was as if the older something was the closer I hoped I could get to Jesus. I recognized my desire to peel away the layers of 2000 thousand years of history between my Lord and me. I wanted a better understanding of those early centuries, those first Christians with that fresh, new faith. It was great fun and I felt like everywhere I turned I was discovering treasure from the past that I hoped would touch me in the present.
But although I learned a great deal and gained new spiritual insights, our faith teaches us that you won’t find Christ by looking backwards. Our Lord isn’t an historical remnant trapped by the passage of time and the ruins of history. Rather, Jesus is the living Lord, not just a part of the dust of history. Jesus has risen from the dead. He is alive and well, and with us right now, right this very minute. That’s the essence of our faith.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus stops in Caesarea Philippi for a little conversation with his disciples. Jesus wants to know if they have figured out the essential truth. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him what they have heard from the crowds. Some say he is John the Baptist, others say he is Elijah, and others that he is Jeremiah or another of the great prophets. Jesus then puts the question to them directly, personally, “But who do you say that I am?” It was a powerful question full of implications that are not obvious to us as modern readers. You see Caesarea Philippi was a place rich with meaning. In ancient times it had been the site of a powerful Baal cult. In Helenistic times it was called Paneas the city where people came to worship the god Pan. And now as a Roman city it was the location of a great temple dedicated to the worship of the Caesars. Standing in this place with so much history, Jesus wanted to know if his disciples could see the truth about him when they were surrounded by so many other allegiances, so many other gods. It was Peter who found the courage to speak – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In that one simple sentence Peter was bold enough to declare that when all is said and done, when the cults of Baal and the worship of Pan and the temples to the Caesars are all long gone, footnotes of history, Jesus the Messiah will live and reign. In that one simple sentence Peter declares that Jesus is not just a man in history but God’s eternal Son who also transcends history.
Jesus puts this same question to us today. Can we acknowledge him as God Incarnate, the awaited Messiah, the One for whom all creation has groaned and longed?1 Can we claim Jesus in our lives as something more than just an interesting historical figure? A lot of us find Jesus interesting, fascinating, a person to be admired, a great first century Jewish teacher. But it requires the risk of faith to claim him as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
One of my favorite fables of Aesop is entitled The Hunter and the Woodman. In this story a hunter goes searching in the woods for the tracks of a lion. He comes upon a man cutting down oak trees and asks him if he has seen any marks of the lion’s footsteps or if he knows where the lion’s den is located. “Oh yes,” says the woodman, “I will take you to the lion himself.” At this the hunter turns pale with fear and says, “No, thanks. I did not ask that; it is only his tracks I am looking for, not the lion himself.”2
Just as Whitney preached so eloquently last Sunday about the dangers of apathy when it comes to our faith, so too we must be on guard against the dangers of being luke-warm and half-hearted in our faith. It is easy to be an admirer of Jesus without ever committing oneself to real discipleship. It is easy to spend our spiritual lives looking for Christ, studying about Christ, reading about Christ, without ever committing ourselves to Christ – heart and soul, hands and feet. “I need a little more evidence,” we say. “Perhaps if I study him so more,” we argue. Like the lion hunter, many look for Jesus but many less really want to find and serve the Lord of heaven and earth. They are admirers of the Jesus of history, but they keep their distance from the Son of the living God.
Our faith is a living faith or it is nothing. Our faith is one where Christ is alive and active in the world right now or it doesn’t matter at all. At the end of the day, if all we have is a picture book of historic relics and ancient ruins then we are wasting our time. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter declared that day in Caesarea Philippi so long ago. They were the words Jesus longed to hear because they meant his disciples knew the truth. They are still the words our Lord longs to hear from every single one of us. These are the words of faith, the words of commitment, the words of discipleship. And for anyone who calls him/herself a Christian, they are the only words that matter. Amen.
1. Isabel Anders
2. Munachi E. Ezeogu