We have entered full bore into the political season, as the presidential campaigns grow ever more intense as we get closer and closer to election day.
Last week we had the Democrats’ political convention; this week it will be the Republicans’ turn. Even in this era when the candidates were chosen months ago, the conventions still serve a purpose.
They are a time for leaders of both parties to share what they believe, and how they identify themselves. We have seen — and will continue to see — arguments and debates over the foundational and core issues for both parties.
The conventions are defining moments in our political process, a time for candidates to define who they are.
A few moments ago we heard the story of another defining moment.
Jesus and his disciples are walking on a dusty road north of Palestine. Jesus has been busy in recent days, healing the sick, feeding thousands, teaching and debating with religious leaders.
He is aware that word of him is spreading rapidly throughout that part of the world.
So he asks his disciples, “What do you hear people saying about me?”
The disciples are happy to report some of the things they have heard.
“Some people say you are John the Baptist, returned from the grave.
“Others are saying that you are the reincarnation of the great prophet Elijah, who was whisked straight into heaven to be with God.
“I heard someone say you might be the great prophet Jeremiah come back to life.”
People of Jesus’ generation expected that the long-awaited Messiah would appear soon. But before the Messiah’s appearance, they believed, others would come to announce the impending arrival of the divine, and prepare the way.
The disciples were hearing the rumbling of people who thought that maybe Jesus was one of those forerunners, someone who had come to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Jesus next has a harder question for the disciples.
“That’s what everyone else is saying. But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, always the most impetuous and brash of the bunch, bursts in before anyone else.
“You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” he says. Other translations say, “You are the Christ.”
Nowadays we use the word “Christ” as if it were Jesus’ second name. But Christ is not Jesus’ name, it’s his vocation, his title, his identity. Christ is another word for Messiah, the anointed one, the savior and liberator who is sent by God to redeem the world.
Peter’s recognition of Jesus is a great moment — a defining moment in Christian history.
But it was just a moment.
Jesus’ true identity has been revealed. But even Peter will soon forget his moment of divine inspiration. Even Peter will deny knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, will deny knowing that he even knows this man.
And so the question, “Who do you say that I am?” must be asked again and again.
It’s a question that must be asked of every Christian in every generation. It is a question that must be continually asked of the Church, because how the Church answers this question determines what kind of church we are.
Who do we say that Jesus is? The answer to that question is foundational to us and to the church.
But today I’d like to answer that question by turning it around. If we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, then when do we say we are? What is our identify?
What difference does believing in Jesus make in our lives? How does it affect what we say and do?
Of course there are a variety of answers to that question. Different people and different churches answer that question very differently. Sometimes I hear or read what others who identify as Christians say or do in the name of their faith and it seems to me to be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
And I’m sure others may same the same about me, or about the Episcopal Church.
We are living in the midst of difficult times. The pandemic, social unrest, racial unrest, an economy in shambles, millions of people unemployed.
In the midst of the upheaval institutions that we thought were rock solid are suddenly shaky, even our democracy itself.
To paraphrase one of our founding fathers, Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try our souls.”
Psychiatrist Heinz Kohut called such periods a time for “reshuffling souls.”
Times like these can raise deep questions about our identities and our character.
But it is precisely in such times that we must ask “Who do we say we are?” through the lens of our faith in Jesus.
Who are we? Who are we called to be? As individuals and as a church?
When I think of these questions of identity I instinctively turn to our baptismal covenant, which we renew every time someone is baptized into the body of Christ. To me it is the best description of how to live a Christian life.
In it we promise to be faithful in worship and prayer, studying scripture and the teachings of the church. We promise to repent when we stray from what God would have us do.
Those things — worship, prayer, study, confession — are the foundations of our life in faith. They prepare us to do the next steps — to work for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
There are Christian churches that see faith as self-centered. To them living a life of faith is following a strict purity code — not drinking, sometimes not even dancing or playing cards, being pure in mind and body. Their goal is to stay pure, to draw the circle tighter, to not let in anyone who is not like them so that they won’t be tainted. Their goal is individual salvation.
We profess something different. Personal behavior and codes of conduct are important, of course. But what I love about the Episcopal Church is that we seek to draw the circle wider, to bring more people in, to break down the barriers that divide us.
Our goal is to bring us all closer to the kingdom of God.
Through worship and study we know that Jesus did those things. That he was less concerned about individual purity and piety than he was about seeking out those on the margins, those who society shunned, and telling them that they are beloved by God, worthy of being treated with respect and justice.
We know that he did not hesitate to criticize governments or religious leaders who failed to care for those on the margins.
When we are at our best as a church that’s what we do. That’s why we were at the forefront of the movement to bring equality to gays and lesbians, both in the church and in society.
That’s why many Episcopal churches are engaged in ministry to Hispanics and other immigrants, welcoming them as Christ did.
That is why St. Dunstan’s recently hung a banner in front of the church proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, a position supported by the Diocese of Atlanta and the national church.
All of these actions say who we are as followers of Jesus.
They are not always interpreted that way, of course. The Episcopal Church has over the years been criticized from within and without for its stance on things like women’s ordination, the inclusion of LGBTQ people, and welcoming people of other races and creeds.
I’ve experienced it in recent weeks as some of our church neighbors have voiced concern and anger about the Black Lives Matter banner.
We have been called godless Marxists and worse from some who have no interest in hearing why that banner is an expression of our faith, a sign that we are following Jesus.
But lest we get too smug about our faith, we need to remember that these are also times to ask when and how have we fallen short of what our faith demands.
Who is being excluded when we are included? How have we erected barriers? Who is suffering because of how we live? Who is being left behind?
Sometimes we do not know the answer to those questions. Sometimes we prefer not to know. But they are part of our identity too. That is why confession and atonement are essential parts of our faith.
Who do we say that we are? Who do others say that we are?
In this time when our souls are being tried and reshuffled, these questions are invitations to go deep and examine who we really are, and who we can become if we truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.