This is Holy Ground

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on August 23, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my God in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Have you ever had a God moment? It’s a moment where you very clearly experience the presence of God, through something you do or experience. 

One of those profound God moment experiences I’ve had stuck out for me after reading this scripture. I was a volunteer at the camp I grew up at in Alaska, and we were at our staff training before the campers arrived. The dean for the week was the District Superintendent for Alaska, Carlo. Carlo was giving us an overview of his intention for the week, and he requested we go down to the campfire to do it. Instead of going into rules and regulations, Carlo started talking about holy ground. “This is holy ground”, he said, quoting scripture from the story of Moses at the burning bush. 

At one point, he asked us to take off our shoes, and to start to walk around, feeling that holy ground on our feet, in our bodies. So we did. As I started to walk around, I felt the moisture of the dirt after a hard rain. I felt the roughness of the rocks surrounding the fire. I felt the muck on the edge of the lake as I dipped my toes in. We sat back down, and Carlo invited us to imagine this week as a week of encountering and really feeling the holy ground that is before us. If we really want to live into this Jesus thing, we can’t just say the words. We also have to feel it in our bodies. 

What is something you do that helps connect your brain to your body?

I take a lot of walks. It’s a way to clear my head and ground myself in what’s important, not the words on a screen, but how I’m living out the things I believe. To me, it’s a sign of the Divine in my life. 

This idea of embodiment, of connecting our hearts and our minds, it’s at the heart of our scripture from Matthew today. Jesus sets the scene, by asking his disciples who they think that the Son of Man is. The Son of Man is an interesting phrase in the bible, because it has a way of speaking to Jesus’ Divinity, but not by name. It also indicates a holy relationship to the disciples and to all people, a connection and common ground. The disciples don’t really know how to answer the question that was posed, who the Son of Man is, even though Jesus has referred himself as this.

Jesus then asks another question. “Who do you say that I am?” Well this time, Peter gives the right answer, responding “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Messiah means the one that we need, so that phrase as a whole indicates that Jesus, the one who comes from God, is the one that we need. That’s what Peter is saying, in response to Jesus’ question.

The question Jesus asks isn’t really about his own identity, but about ours. 

Who do you describe Jesus to be? What word would you use to describe who Jesus is to you?

This is a passage about identity, who we are because of who Jesus is. Because of Jesus, we are. Our identity is what it is because of who Jesus is. That’s powerful. And because of Jesus, because our identity is transformed because of who Jesus is, we are called to act on that. 

At the end of the passage, it is said that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Confusing, right? Because we just talked about how powerful and foundational our identity in Christ is, and now Jesus is not just telling, but ordering his disciples not to reveal him as the Messiah? 

So the context for this, the backstory, is that claiming Jesus was the Messiah was dangerous. Because claiming that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the one we need, was saying that Caesar was not. It’s making a statement that the Caesar, this hierarchical and dominating ruler, whose ruling courts cling tightly to the power they have, it’s saying that this Caesar is not nearly as important or needed as Jesus, the one who flipped over tables in the temple to challenge earthly authority. That is dangerous. 

So this order Jesus gave to the disciples, that they couldn’t tell anyone he was the Messiah, we should be putting the emphasis on ‘tell’, because it’s not that Jesus didn’t want people to know who he was, it was just that he wanted it to be revealed through action first, until it was time to tell them, until it was a better time for that to be revealed.

“Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus asked. 

His question was more than a question. It was an invitation. An invitation to embody Jesus in our own lives, actively proclaiming our faith like Jesus did. Jesus wanted his disciples, and he wants us, to be the church, the church that is at work in the world, responding to the needs of the world. Jesus wants for us to heal people, pray for people, help people, be in relationship with people, all kinds of people. This, Jesus says, is how the Messiah, the one we need, should be revealed. 

So again, the identity of Christ, it’s active. It’s not just a way of naming who Jesus was, like slapping a label on a person. It’s an invitation to act, to go beyond our words and lean into our works. It’s a way of showing who Jesus is instead of simply telling people. And when we can show that, we proclaim and affirm and reaffirm our faith, again and again. When we act, the way Jesus acted, by showing up for people, we in turn experience joy too, because we are living out our faith through our actions.

Today, I want to invite us to affirm our faith here, in this space. This may feel like a vulnerable thing to do, to tell the world, or in this case, to tell the church, how you will share your identity in Christ. But I’d challenge us all to do it together. 

So here is the final question for you that I’ll end with, that I’ll ask you to respond with in just a moment. How will you proclaim your faith today? 

In the UMC, we are asked to proclaim our faith often, through baptism, through confirmation, through communion, through membership. When we proclaim our faith, we’re making a commitment, committing to the truth that Jesus means something to us, so much so that we feel led or called to do something about it, so that others know about this amazing figure in our lives, Jesus Christ. Even virtually, we are called to profess our faith and make that commitment in community.

Here are some ways you might be able to actively proclaim your faith: 

You could write a letter to a local official. You could send a card to someone living alone. You could make a meal for a neighbor and drop it off at their doorstep. You could Google “action steps for *insert cause that’s important to you* and then do that action step. You could call a friend. You could hang a sign on your window or make a banner.  You could join an organization you care about, or commit to volunteering.

 We talk a lot about helping people, about loving people, and while that’s great, it’s not specific, and just like telling people Jesus is the Messiah, it’s often less powerful than actually doing that work and making it specific. I’m guilty of this, I will admit that. I talk a lot about loving people, but it’s much more powerful to instead commit to the specific action.

So my action is to create videos for people experiencing religious trauma. That’s an action that follows Jesus’ actions, one that I’m also passionate about, and one that I feel called to do. I’m committing to that today, here, in this space, because it calls me to follow through, and because I’m naming it here in community, I’m accountable to actually doing it, to showing who Jesus is through my specific action. And this is what I’m asking you to do today. 

How will you commit to proclaiming your faith today?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was interviewed about his 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march with Dr. Martin Luther King. They asked him if he had time to pray. He answered, “I prayed with my feet.” 

As we leave this place today, may we see our faith as an embodied practice, a practice that calls us deeper and deeper, the more we act. May we affirm our faith like Jesus ordered his disciples to affirm it, not through words, but through action. Go in peace, Friends.

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