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“But who do you say that I am?”


Matthew 16:15


I: — I wince whenever I hear jokes about the mainline churches that appear to have become “sideline.” I wince for several reasons: one, it’s painful to have to watch one’s denomination decline day after day; two, the mainline denominations began centuries ago with great promise as they exalted the gospel and magnified Jesus Christ and met human need; three, I still hold out hope for the mainline denominations. Dr. Ian Rennie, a Presbyterian minister (now retired) who used to be academic dean of my seminary; Ian Rennie told me he prayed every day for the restoration of The United Church of Canada. “I pray every day for the revival of faith within the Canadian nation,” he said, “and in light of the place the United Church occupies in our nation, revival can’t appear in Canada unless the United Church is restored.”

As a United Church minister I have been embarrassed as moderator after moderator made pronouncements that were theologically indefensible, pronouncements that denied what the apostle Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” It’s no surprise that for 30 years the United Church has been the fastest declining denomination in Canada , its book membership today being what its book membership was in 1927. Right now it leads the nation in ecclesiastical haemorrhaging. Other mainline denominations, however, aren’t far behind.

Of course there are church spokespersons who want to make the haemorrhage appear less frightening. Figures can be juggled to ease the shock; altering year book totals, for instance, to include all the families on any military base where a denomination has one chaplain. It all reminds me of Admiral Nelson’s order to have the decks of his warships painted blood red; that way, in the heat of battle sailors would be slower to recognize and be shocked at the blood of shipmates running on the decks.

From time to time I hear nervous church leaders quoting Christ’s promise to Peter: “On this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death will never triumph over it.” They quote the promise to relieve their anxiety. They assume that the promise guarantees the preservation of an institution.

And they are wrong. Our Lord has promised no such thing. His promise — always to be counted on — was never made to an organization. His promise, rather, guarantees that he will ever cherish, protect and preserve his people, his followers, his community, his fellowship. He will protect and preserve the fellowship that looks to him and clings to him in the midst of an unbelieving world. We shouldn’t think, however, that this means he’s going to preserve any denomination. History is littered with the dry bones of long-dead denominations.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that we can’t coast on the faith and faithfulness of our foreparents. “Everyone must do his own believing,” Luther liked to say, “just as everyone must do his own dying.” In fact I have long felt that as the Spirit of God brings to birth a new manifestation of the church — eager, ardent, compassionate, self-renouncing — this new manifestation has about one and a half generations before it slides into “Let’s coast on our grandparents”, only to find that it can’t.

Francis of Assisi melted hearts as he and his band of men revitalized the church through their cheerful evangelism (forget Assisi ‘s nature-mysticism; he was chiefly an evangelist) and through their self-forgetful service. One hundred and fifty years later Franciscan friars were notorious for their greed, their corruption, their lechery. When Franciscans appeared in a village parents kept their daughters indoors. John Wesley and his followers flared into a fire that Anglicanism could neither welcome nor douse. Yet within seventy years of Wesley’s death Methodism had grown so cold, so callous, so spiritually inert that Methodism couldn’t accommodate William Booth.

Christians of every generation are slow to hear that God has no grandchildren. God certainly has children: we become God’s children as we seize Jesus Christ in faith and vow never to let go. Grandchildren, however, are those who try to ride on the coattails of their parents’ faith, sooner or later to find that what they assumed to be possible — faith at arm’s length, on the cheap — isn’t possible.

Jesus Christ puts the same questions to every generation. His community lives, thrives, only as it answers these questions for itself in every generation.


II: — One of many questions which our Lord puts to each of us is, “Who do you say that I am? Never mind what anyone else is saying; who do you say that I am?” When the first disciples were addressed they gave the answers that they were hearing all around them, answers that they overheard others proffer. “Some people say you are Elijah all over again.” Elijah was to herald God’s new age. “Some people say you are John the Baptist.” John had fearlessly urged repentance on his hearers. “Some people say you are a prophet.” A prophet announces God’s judgement as well as God’s mercy and the future only he can give his people. “Never mind what ‘they’ are saying,” replies Jesus, “it’s time for you to speak for yourselves. Who do you say that I am?” Speaking for the twelve Peter cries, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

To be the Son of God is to possess the very nature of God. And to possess the very nature of God is to incarnate God’s purpose, God’s will. When Jesus pronounces the paralysed man forgiven, critics accuse him, “But only God can forgive sin.” “You’re right”, says Jesus, “only God can forgive sin, and I have just forgiven it. Either I am the crudest blasphemer or I speak and act uniquely with the authority of God himself. Now which is it?” Months later Thomas will cry out in the midst of confusion and frustration, “Just show us the Father and it will be enough.” Jesus will reply, “To see me is to see the Father.”

We who are disciples of Jesus Christ are not Unitarians. We do not believe that the truth, the decisive truth, the whole truth is told about Jesus when he said to be a helpful teacher and a moral guide. The Church has never been built on the suggestion that Jesus is the high point of humankind’s aspiration after the good, the true and the beautiful. We do not believe that Jesus is the lucky winner in that treasure hunt that is sometimes called “The Human Search for God.” The community of disciples does not arise from a public admission that Jesus is a spiritual genius, the random development in the religious world that Mozart was in the musical world.

Without denying the humanness of Jesus in any way; without denying the fact that from a human perspective Jesus was a child of his times, in some respects, disciples of Jesus yet are constrained to cry with Thomas when Thomas looked upon the crucified one raised and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

Frankly I am offended and dismayed at the doctrinal slovenliness of so many denominational statements. Recently I was given a pamphlet on worship stating that worship is chiefly a matter of feeling good about ourselves. No, it isn’t. Worship is giving public expression to the unsurpassable worthiness of God. I am weary of receiving Christian Education literature at Christmas time telling me that the purpose of Christ’s coming was “to tell us that God loves us”, as though lack of information were the root human problem. The root human problem isn’t lack of information; it’s a corrupted heart. The good news of great joy that thrilled early-day Christians was that they’d been given a Saviour; a Saviour, not an encyclopaedia.

Doctrinal slovenliness always breeds ethical confusion. It’s no wonder I’m told that the life of a murderer is so precious before God that it mustn’t be taken, while the life of the unborn child is so insignificant that it needn’t be protected. This kind of confusion is what I’ve come to expert from those who dismiss Peter’s confession, “You are the Son of the living God.”

“Peter said more than this,” someone wants to remind me. Indeed, Peter said, “You are the Christ; i.e., the anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Ever since Isaiah 53 — “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter… — ever since Isaiah 53, discerning Israelites who knew God’s way and will knew that to be an obedient servant of God would always entail harassment and suffering. Peter knew this.

Yet Jesus seemed so alive, so fresh, so full of life that he appeared indestructible. Jesus had to be an exception. Other servants of God may be set upon, but not the servant. Surely the Messiah is here to end human distress, not become another victim of it. Peter argues in this way with Jesus until Jesus finally shouts at him, “Satan! You, Peter, are satanic.” Satan is the one who frustrates God’s work. Satan is the deceiver. Plainly Jesus is telling Peter that not to acknowledge him, Jesus, as suffering Messiah is to deceive oneself and to frustrate the work of God. Jesus speaks to Peter as harshly as he does because he can’t allow his disciples to persist in a misunderstanding that misleads people and impedes the work of God.

Jesus isn’t finished with the twelve. After he has jarred them by insisting that he is no exception to Isaiah 53, he jars them again by telling them that they are no exception. “If you want to be my disciple,” he insists without qualification, “you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Followers of Jesus simply cannot avoid self-renunciation. For being a disciple means that we both cling to him as Son of God and identify ourselves with that Messianic community whose self-renunciation is quickened by that of the Messiah himself. These two aspects are welded together inseparably.

Yesterday the Globe & Mail published an article on the new, six million dollar fence that will soon appear on the Bloor Viaduct. It will prevent any more people from leaping to their death. Four hundred and fifty have done so already. My sister is a volunteer in a program that provides assistance for people who are distressed on account of sudden, untoward disruption: car accident, house fire, drowning, suicide, etc. On one occasion my sister had spent the night bringing what comfort she could to a twenty-eight year old fellow who was tormented by what he had seen that afternoon. He had been driving across the Bloor Viaduct when he noticed a man standing on the railing with a rope around his neck. Immediately the young fellow wheeled his car around in a “U-turn,” leapt out and ran towards the man on the railing — who jumped off the Viaduct at that moment.

Until my mother was felled by a major heart attack she belong to the same assistance program. At age 70 my mother often headed out into the night to sit with someone she had never seen before, someone whose house had caught fire or whose husband had died at work or whose child was missing. Last Wednesday in our mid-week discussion group I mentioned that my parents had lived in Edmonton for eleven years (1938-1949), and during that eleven-year period my father visited convicts in Fort Saskatchewan Penitentiary every Sunday afternoon. I grew up in a family, which knew that discipleship always entails self-denial.

For this reason I was all the more stunned on my first pastoral charge when I stumbled upon a government facility in Chatham , NB (now the city of Miramichi .) My charge was forty miles from Chatham ; I went in and out of the town principally to visit parishioners who were hospitalized there. One day I walked around town instead of getting into my car and heading home, only to come upon a large residence that housed intellectually challenged adults whose I.Q. was 55 (more or less.) With an I.Q. of 55 they could be toilet trained (you need 20 for that); they could be taught to thread beads on a string or cut up panty-hose and hook a rug. But of course they were never going to be gainfully employed. It should be noted as well that they were harmless.

I entered the residence and workshop. Icily a staff worker stared at me and hissed, “We have been operating five moths now and you are the first clergyman to appear in this facility.” When she had recovered her composure she told me that upon hearing that the government planned to accommodate these handicapped adults in Chatham , townspeople (church people included) had circulated petitions throughout the town asking the government to locate these disadvantaged persons somewhere else, anywhere else. She also told me what joy and what help church groups could have brought to these people: musical entertainment, dancing, men to kick around a soccer ball with residents, and so forth. I visited the facility once a week thereafter and discovered that I had as large a ministry to the staff as I had to the residents.

At the next meeting of the Ministerial Association I said gently, “Folks, there’s a facility in this town full of people whom the world disdains, together with a staff whose work no one appreciates — and it seems the local clergy doesn’t care.” Gently I commented on the town’s attempts at disbarring wounded people who, unlike most of us, can’t speak for themselves. How did the chairman of the ministerial association respond? He called for the next item on the agenda.

To be a disciple is to cling to the One who is uniquely the Son of the living God, the suffering, self-renouncing Messiah. To cling to him, therefore, will always be to deny ourselves in a self-renunciation born of his as we are found in that Messianic community which knows and loves and obeys the Messiah himself.


III: — What finally comes of it all? Jesus promises that the keys of kingdom are entrusted to that community which is unashamed of its Lord and unhesitating in its self-renunciation.

What are the “keys of the kingdom”? Do we have magical power? Does it mean that we (or at least some of us, perhaps the clergy) have commandant-like power whereby we can decide who is admitted to the kingdom and who not? Of course not. It means that the ongoing event of the congregation’s faith and faithfulness and self-renunciation are precisely what Jesus Christ uses as the vehicle of his bringing others to know and cherish what he has already brought us to know and cherish. Our lived awareness of his forgiveness, for instance, will be the event whereby he brings others to the same reality. Our self-renunciation will be the means of his bringing others, now fellow-disciples like us, to know the “open secret”: service is freedom, self-forgetfulness is self-fulfilment, crossbearing binds us to the crucified One himself whom we have come to know to be life. As we have stepped through the doorway into the household of faith, other people will find through our faith and obedience and service the same doorway unlocked, and shall then run to join us on the way.

The symbolism of scripture is endlessly rich, so very rich that many different symbols are used to speak of the same reality. Instead if thinking about doorways and keys, let’s think about boats. In Mark’s gospel there’s a great deal of water, and Jesus is always getting into and out of a boat. (The boat is an early Christian symbol for the Church, and was widely used as a symbol by the time Mark’s gospel was written — 65 C.E., approximately.) In Mark’s gospel, only Jesus and the disciples are ever found together in the boat. The crowds, the “multitudes,” are never found in the boat. In other words, there is a special relationship, a unique relationship between Jesus and his followers. At the same time the boat, rowed by the disciples, “conveys” Jesus to the crowds who aren’t disciples at present but have been appointed to become disciples. The boat (the Church) conveys Jesus to the deranged man whom Jesus restores. The boat conveys Jesus to the hungry listeners whom he feeds. The boat conveys Jesus toe the agitated and perplexed whom he describes as “sheep without a shepherd” even as he becomes their good shepherd.

To be given the keys of the kingdom is the same as being used by our Lord to row the boat that carries that him into the midst of those who are on the way to becoming disciples.


I have never doubted Christ’s promise, “I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall never submerge it.”

I have never doubted the confession to which the promise is made, “You — alone — are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

I have never doubted the commitment that must accompany the confession, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let her deny herself, renounce herself, take up her cross, follow me, and never look back.”


                                                                                               Dr Victor Shepherd      

January 03