Confessing More than We Understand
Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-23, Luke 18:31-34
Some of you may recall a short film I showed three years ago during our first SPC Together. It was called “What Do You Think?” It featured interviews with children answering questions about certain religious concepts. A 5 year-old boy named Mark is asked, “What is prayer?” Immediately he clasps his hands together and says, “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food. Amen.” Mark could not explain prayer, but he could say one. Later in the film a 4 year-old girl named Rebecca is asked, “What is a Christian?” She replies, “I know a boy named Christian.” Again, she has heard the word, but she does not fully understand what it means. My favorite scene in the movie is when little Rebecca is asked to describe God. She says, “Jesus is God.” Which is a profound answer. But the interviewer presses her asking, “So how is Jesus different than God?” Rebecca hesitates then says, “Jesus has birthdays, and God doesn’t.”
Little Rebecca has no idea how profound that answer is. What she knows is that every year she and her family celebrate Jesus’ birthday at Christmas, but they never celebrate God’s birthday. So she knows that Jesus has birthdays, and God doesn’t.
That is how children experience faith. Before they learn who Jesus is, they celebrate his birthday. Before they know what prayer is, they learn to say one. Before they know what a Christian is, they experience what it means to be around people who are Christian.
But here’s the thing: the same principle applies to adults. Adults, too, must sometimes learn the vocabulary of faith before they understand, let alone experience, what it fully means.
In today’s story from Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” That is not a bad answer. It would probably get him approved for ordination by the Presbytery.
Jesus certainly approves. He says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Then Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter [which in Greek means ‘rock’], and on this rock I will build my church.”
I don’t think Jesus means that the church is built on Peter. We will see in a moment that Peter is not infallible. The church is not built on Peter but on Peter’s confession of faith. The church is built on the bedrock confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
The thing is, Peter has no idea what that means. He demonstrates this when Jesus goes on to talk about his coming death. Peter takes him aside and says to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” The Messiah, as Peter understands it, is not someone who dies at the hands of the Romans but someone who defeats the Romans, someone who uses his power to liberate people and bring justice to the world.
As we heard in our first scripture reading, none of the disciples understood what Jesus was talking about. The all believed him to be the Messiah; that’s why they followed him. But the idea that the Messiah might save people by dying for them; that was totally beyond them.
Here, I think, is the lesson for us. Being a Christian means confessing more than we understand. It means learning the vocabulary of faith—like that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, or that Jesus is God with birthdays—before we fully understand or experience what it means.
In her book Amazing Grace Kathleen Norris tells of a conversation between a seminary student at Yale Divinity School and one of his professors, an Orthodox priest. She writes,
The student’s original question was centered on belief: “What can one do,” he asked, “when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?” The priest responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.” …
The student, apparently feeling that he had been misunderstood, asked with some exasperation, “What am I to do… when I have difficulty affirming parts of the Creed—like the Virgin Birth?” And he got the same response. “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually. … For some it takes longer than others” (p. 65).
Even as adults we must practice the vocabulary of faith before we fully understand what it means or begin to experience it. It’s kind of like marriage. When a couple stands in front of a minister or justice of the peace and says, “I take you to be my wife or husband, to have and to hold from this time forth, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in health and in sickness, to love and to cherish until death us do part”—when a couple makes that commitment to each other, do they have any idea what they are saying? Of course not. None of us do. We only understand that commitment when we make it and live it out. Only then do we experience the meaning of the words we say.
Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian minister who did the well-known Bible translation called The Message, tells of an encounter he had with a recovering addict named Jackson. Jackson had been a star athlete in high school but had developed a cocaine addiction while serving in Vietnam. He had recently come back to town after spending five years at the federal prison in Leavenworth for trafficking drugs. He was still serving another six months of probation in the local jail during which he could leave to work during the week but had to spend the weekends in his jail cell. A friend of Jackson’s named Donna brought him to Eugene Peterson to talk. This is from Peterson’s book The Pastor: A Memoir:
At their first meeting Jackson told Peterson of an experience he had had three days earlier on a Sunday evening in his jail cell. He said,
In the middle of the night I woke up, and my cell was full of light—a kind of pulsating light. It lasted maybe five minutes, it seemed like a long time. And then it was dark again. I was still in my bunk wondering what had happened, and then it came to me: ‘I think I’m a Christian.’ But I have no idea what that means. I don’t know any Christians. Donna thought you might be someone I could talk to.
He reassured Peterson that this was not a drug induced hallucination. He said, “I haven’t used cocaine for over five years” (p. 260).
So Peterson and Jackson began meeting every week for lunch to talk about faith, Jesus, prayer, and what it meant to be a Christian. After about six weeks of these meetings, Jackson said, “Don’t Christians pray before they eat?” Peterson said well, yes, but he did not want to make Jackson feel uncomfortable in a restaurant. Jackson, “If this is what Christians do, we better do it.” So they started praying before meals. One week Peterson asked Jackson to say the prayer. At first he looked startled, but then he bowed his head and prayed. It was a long prayer, an uncomfortably long prayer in a restaurant. Then a few weeks later Jackson came with a set of pamphlets about Christianity he had gotten at the jail. He said, “What’s a tith-ee?” “A tith-ee?” Peterson asked. “Yeah, a tith-ee.” Oh, Peterson said, you mean tithe, and he explained that a tithe was the practice of giving 10% of your income to the church. Jackson said, “And Christians do this?” Peterson explained that not every did it, but some Christians used it as a guideline. Jackson said, “Now that I’m a Christian, I think I better do it. Since I’m in jail on Sundays, how about it I give my offering to you every week?” (p. 261).
And so it went. Week after week Peterson and Jackson met to talk about the life of believing and following Jesus. When his six months of probation was up, Jackson started coming to church, then he started inviting others that he met at AA to come with him to church. And eventually Jackson and Donna decided to marry. They of course asked Eugene Peterson to perform the ceremony, and at the wedding that had a song played that had been recorded by Emmylou Harris. It was called “Farther Along,” and the chorus went like this:
Farther along, we’ll know all about it,
Farther along, we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by (p. 264).
That, friends, is pretty much the story of being a Christian: confessing more than we understand and living in to it until finally we understand it all by and by.