The politics of the election are starting to really heat up. What this means in practice, is that the name of Jesus is getting tossed about by those claiming to have the “correct” defining statement of his identity. Some claim to have the special insight as to which political party Jesus is present and where he is absent. Political mudslinging tries to label the opposition as against God or hurting God. Yes, politics is heating up and Jesus is being dragged into the middle of it to serve our purposes.
So the reading from Matthew is fitting for these days. Jesus asked the disciples what others were saying about him. The response was John the Baptist or a prophet. Then Jesus personalized the question to what the disciples had to say. Peter announced, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus didn’t praise Peter for coming up with the answer but the Father for revealing this to Peter. The reading ends with Jesus giving strict orders for this revelation to be kept quiet which seems strange. Why? Peter had the correct title but there was much more for him and the other disciples to learn. You see, Jesus’ question wasn’t a test to get the answers right. This was about allegiance to Jesus.
Caesarea Philippi was a town that was near a cave which housed a spring feeding the Jordan River. The cave had also served as a place where the Greek god, Pan had been worshipped. Herod had built a temple to honor Caesar Augustus there. At the time Matthew was written, Roman soldiers had destroyed the great temple in Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi was now the administrative center for Philip the tetrarch (Herod’s son). This was a reality not ignored by Matthew’s readers. So when Jesus asked about what was being said of him, he was really asking about allegiance…which God do you worship…what leaders do you revere…to what political power do you surrender your allegiance.
Peter had the right answer but not the understanding of what his response meant for life. If your allegiance is to Jesus, then you do the things he did. Jesus set people free as he announced the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He set people free from their illness. He celebrated with those despised “sinners.” He received the outcast and unwanted. He was and continues to be the way death’s power is destroyed.
Peter and the disciples had still much to learn about Jesus and following him. The church today still struggles in the same way. Jesus gave the amazing job description that is concerned with setting people free for the kingdom of heaven. What we do will either set people free or keep them in bondage. In following Jesus are we keeping people in bondage to ideology, race, division, fear, hatred, poverty, sickness? Or, are we working for people to be set free for the kingdom of heaven?
Another election is drawing near, meaning those seeking office are tripping over each other in the race to say who Jesus is to serve their purposes. Jesus is asking who we say he is to serve his purposes for the kingdom of heaven. Who do we worship…who will we give honor and praise…what power will we in the end serve? The difference is as big as freedom and bondage. How will we live out our answer to Jesus’ question?
When was the last time you felt welcome from others? It may have been a while. These days of polarization have made the concept of welcoming seem rather rare. Yet, the invitation to join a group, an organization, a family, a club gives the feeling of acceptance and that is a blessing. So as we turn to the reading for this coming Sunday, blessing is the order for the day.
The reading is a continuation of the past couple weeks. Jesus had been prepping the disciples to go out and tell the world of God who loves it. The act of telling about a kingdom where the hungry were fed, the sick receive healing care and the outcast received was to be their new identity in life. What were they going to receive from announcing this wonderful message? They were going to be prosecuted, persecuted and divided against family. There are times when families don’t always get along with each other and those times aren’t good. What Jesus was describing was even worse. In those days a person’s identity wasn’t defined by individuality, it was defined by community, your family. Separated from the family meant you lost what defined you. Jesus was sending them out and they were at risk of losing everything this world offers. Jesus now turns to speak words of blessing and welcome.
Jesus said to them,
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Matthew 10:40
Remember the importance of community? The “you” is not singular, it is plural. Jesus was saying that those who receive one of the disciples wasn’t accepting only the person but the whole community of those following Christ. To put it another way, the disciples were already a part of a community and that was the followers of Christ and members of God’s kingdom. Even a cup of cool water offered on a hot day to a disciple was an act of welcoming Christ, the kingdom and finding a new identity in Christ.
These days of polarization may leave you (singular) on the outside and feeling very much alone. Daring to speak of welcome and grace in the name of Christ may even leave you feeling more so. This is where Jesus’ words are such a blessing. There is a community that finds its identity in Christ. You are a part of that community. Anyone who welcomes you (plural), welcomes that community to define them well. You may feel isolated but you are not, you are a part of the kingdom (family) of God. This is a blessing.
The season of Lent is now here which means that many of us will be giving something up. At least, for a few weeks. So we’ll give up social media: Facebook, Instagram, etc. We’ll deny ourselves the “vices” like alcohol, fast food or cigarettes. In the past my big denial was chocolate. The positive was the effect of losing a couple pounds. The negative was on Easter morning gorging on the chocolate covered marshmallow bunnies and eggs. The result was gaining the weight back and sometimes a pound or two more. The great denial of Lent starts out with good intentions but the lure to return to former ways is strong. This is how temptation works. It just keeps pulling and pulling and pulling at our weakness like the taste for sweets, the excitement of how many likes are on Facebook or the social connection at the bar. Temptation feeds off our fears, anxieties, desires until it has caught us in its trap.
The readings from the first Sunday in Lent are about two great scenes of temptation: Jesus in the the wilderness, Adam and Eve in the garden. The temptations were much more that eating an apple from the forbidden tree or turning rocks into bread to fill an empty tummy. The temptations were really about our relationship with God.
The Old Testament reading is from Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. The serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit while Adam seems to be silent in the background. The serpent’s challenge is to the goodness of God who denied them the chance to be like God and know good from evil. Eve and Adam both took a bite; so do we. Yes we do know what good is because we have come to know evil so well. The desire to be like God has brought us war, poverty, division, ecological damage to creation. In the end, death comes.
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by the devil seems to focus on the devil getting Jesus to do what he shouldn’t but the temptation goes much deeper. “If you are the Son of God…” is how each temptation begins. Lets be straight forward. Jesus knew who he was and the devil knew who Jesus was as well. What was at stake wasn’t Jesus’ ability to do what the devil tempted but his identity. Jesus came as God incarnate to save a fallen world. Would he surrender that identity to fill his empty stomach, force the hand of God to serve him or worship what is evil for the world’s power? Jesus refused to give in and take a bite from that forbidden fruit.
The first Sunday in Lent seems to be about temptation but really it is about identity. The verses just prior to Jesus in the wilderness were on his baptism. The Spirit’s presence and the voice from heaven affirmed his identity, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Baptized into Christ, we are marked with his cross and declared to be a child of God. While we think temptation is about eating chocolate, the real temptation is to deny our new identity. Will we deny this identity to claim the place of God? Will we give up our identity to serve ourselves…get God to serve us…or, serve what is evil for power? Giving up our identity is temptation’s real goal.
Whether you decide to give up chocolate or Facebook or fast food for Lent is up to you but hold firm to who you are in Christ – a child of God.