Last Saturday I spoke at the wedding of my cousin Julie at a ridge-top ranch near Calistoga. She had called me a month or so ago and said that she and Andrew, her fiancée, had talked it over and decided that they wanted a touch of something traditional, even religious at their wedding and would I be willing to provide it. I said I would.. If it sounds a little vague, that’s because it was. A subsequent conversation a week or so before the wedding didn’t make it any clearer exactly what I was being asked to do. But I finally got more specific instructions at the rehearsal on Friday evening. Andrew and Julie’s “life coach”, named Kate, who was officiating, let me know that I was to give an invocation and prayer at the beginning of the ceremony, right after the entrance procession and her opening words of welcome.
So I composed something that I thought would be suitable for the occasion, and at the appointed time I made my way to the front of the assembly and offered it. It wasn’t a bad place to pray, with Mt. St. Helena filling the horizon behind me, and a flamboyantly-attired collection of my family, the groom’s family and assorted hipster bohemians from San Francisco baking in the sun before me. I did use the “G”-word, right up front, but I carefully avoided gendered pronouns and I left Jesus out of it. Basically I invited us all to become aware of God’s eternal loving presence, to give thanks for our blessings, and to pray for further blessings for my cousin and her husband. It was over in a little more than a minute and then I returned to my place.
If anybody took offense at what I said, they were polite enough not to say so to me. And several people told me they appreciated it. In particular, Kate, the life coach, thanked me for helping her get “grounded” as she put it, for the things she had to say, and the role she had to play. And I was especially touched on Monday when Andrew, the groom, came by with Julie to pick up their dog, which we’d been babysitting for the weekend. He told me that he hadn’t really anticipated what it was that I was going to bring to the ceremony, or how different it was going to be from what Kate had to say, until I got up there and started saying it. And he wanted me know that when I did what I did, he realized it was important, and that he would have missed it if it hadn’t been there.
In her words at the wedding Kate had many wise and meaningful things to say about Julie and Andrew and their relationship, about the importance of the assembly of family and friends that was there to witness and to offer support for their marriage. But all of it was on the human level. There would have been something incomplete about it without the acknowledgment that all of these good and praiseworthy things come to us from God and speak to us of who God is.
As I reflected on this experience this week I thought about how privileged I am to belong to a community where we get “grounded”, as Kate put it, every week, where the “something different” that Andrew talked about is at the center of everything we do. And I thought that this might be what Jesus means when he says in today’s reading from Matthew, “on this rock I will build my church.”
I could contribute that missing piece to Julie and Andrew’s wedding because I’ve learned a little about how to pray. I’ve come by what I know not by magic, but by regular and repetitive practice. If I know something about what it takes to help a group of strangers to become a community of blessing, it’s because I have participated regularly for many years in assemblies like this one here. And if I have a sense of trust and confidence in addressing myself to this “God” character it is because I have come again and again to hear what the Bible has to say about her and to be nourished at her table.
When Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” they answer him on the human level. “Well, some say this person, some say that one—but all agree that you are some kind of rerun of one of the great prophets of the past.” But when he asks “Who do you say that I am?” he’s asking them a different kind of question. And it is Peter who is able to give a different kind of answer, “You are the one we have waited for from the future, the one who is coming to make everything new. You can only be understood in relation to God’s own self.”
Now the point of the story is not that Peter was the contestant with the right answer, and so won the prize. What matters most is that Peter understood that Jesus wasn’t asking for a right answer, but a creative response. “Who do you say that I am” is a question for all of us. What we are being asked to do is not to repeat Peter’s answer because it is the “right” one, but to give our own answer, an answer that says “In you I recognize God. Whoever I thought God was, whoever I thought I was, you have shown me that there is something different going on.”
Each person comes to this question, “who do you think that I am?” by a different path. And we may not always even recognize our response as a faithful one. When I first came back to church in my late twenties it was the music and the communion that spoke to me, but much of the rest of it, the Creed, the confession, the scriptures, the congregation with its social events and its committees, was an obstacle. It took me a long time to appreciate that, while I had to answer the question for myself, I wasn’t doing it alone. It took me a while to understand that he “you” in the question “who do you think that I am?” is plural.
Peter may have been the first to give Jesus a truthful answer, but later on in the story, on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he will deny him three times. It will take the witness of the women at the tomb, and Jesus’ forgiving presence in the resurrection community, for Peter’s answer to become rock-solid. It is for the sake of that resurrection community, against which the gates of Hades will never prevail, that God revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Christ. In the same way, any answer we would give is just an opinion about the past, unless it is fitted in some way into this thing we call “the church,” this new and different thing that someday will really be.
Knowing that we are founded on this rock give us the confidence to give our own answer to the question even if it is provisional, partial, and shot through with uncertainty. And we can do it in all kinds of circumstances, with all kinds of people, using all kinds of language. We find ourselves in situations all the time where talking to people about Jesus is not going to be helpful. But that does not mean that Christ is any less present.
We don’t worry too much about whether we have the answer exactly right, because the true, objective fullness of who Jesus is has yet to be revealed. But even with our imperfect faith we can proclaim that he is the Christ because we belong to the body in which God reveals it. It’s not an idea for us, not a doctrine we try to believe—it’s the ground on which we stand, whether we or not we feel it on any given day. Sometimes when I make my way along the communion rail putting pieces of bread in your hands and saying “the Body of Christ,” it is your faces, your hands, your postures of prayer that make these words true for me. And sometimes, for you, it is my saying them.