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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to identify an elephant

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 16:13-20.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is a great fable from India that tells the story of 3 blind men who are tasked with understanding the what an elephant looks like.

The first man grabs hold of the elephant's tail and asserts, "An elephant is like a rope".

The second grabs the trunk and says, "An elephant is like a snake".

The third lays hold of a leg and claims, "An elephant is like a tree".

There are different variations, but as the story generally goes, the three men cannot agree with one another on the nature of an elephant based on their own individual perceptions, and actually begin beating one another up because they are so sure of those perceptions.

I get the impression that this is precisely what has happened to Jesus over the years.

Jesus is of course the namesake and role model for our faith as Christians, or at least he ought to be.  But the problem is that we often have such radically different interpretations of who or what Jesus was or is.  This is compounded by the various ways in which Jesus has been understood or appropriated by different groups over the years.  How are we to know who, exactly, Jesus is?

In a sense, it is rather unfortunate that Peter answers the question for us in today's Gospel.  When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?", Peter responds, "You are the Messiah".

This kinda closes down the discussion, doesn't it?  It's in the Bible, so it must be true, right?

Not so fast.

Jesus is a pretty versatile character.  The disciples called Jesus rabbi, which means teacher.  They also called him friend.  MLK Jr. portrayed Jesus as the ultimate liberator.  Today, Christians use Jesus as a moral role model by asking "What would Jesus do?" (remember, freaking out and throwing over tables therefore becomes an option).

In reality, you and I need to ask, "Who do we think Jesus is?", because as Christians, we should know who and what he is to us.

There is an interesting corollary to this Gospel passage that often goes unnamed.  Peter tells Jesus who he thinks he is, but then Jesus tells Peter who he think he is.

Rash Peter, who whips out his sword and cuts off the Centurion's ear; reckless Peter who jumps out of the boat and nearly drowns; impulsive Peter who says, "Let us go to Jerusalem to die with you!"; cowardly Peter who chokes and denies Jesus three times when the chips are down.

Now, Jesus was a bright guy and he must have know what Peter was about.  Despite Peter's pretty obvious flaws and character defects, he still chooses Peter as the rock upon which he builds his church.

If Jesus can look on Peter and see that which was good about him instead of his flaws, maybe we need to ask ourselves how Jesus would see us in return.  Would he see our weaknesses and deficiencies, or would he see us simply as gloriously flawed human beings, worthy of love?

And how ought we see ourselves and others?

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