I have a routine that I follow for sermon preparation each week. Over the years, that routine has changed; the methods I’ve used have changed, and the resources, the books and articles I consult, have changed. My current practice is to work with something called Pulpit Resource by Will Willimon.
You may recall that Will was one of my teachers at Duke, and that he was my thesis supervisor.
This Pulpit Resource has some background thoughts and inspiration on the text, culled from Will’s decades of preaching in the Methodist church. Each week there is also a sample sermon. Well, ten days ago, as I was preparing last week’s sermon, I skipped ahead to read what he would say about this week’s Gospel story, the story that Shirley read for us this morning. I found Will’s sermon to be a powerful one, so powerful that it brought tears to my eyes as I read it.
The sermon seemed to say so clearly what I would like to say to you about this text, about what I believe, about how I would answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” I thought it might be best to go ahead and do what, to my recollection, I have only done once before in fourteen years of preaching: to preach a sermon prepared by someone else (with full disclosure of course!).
Early this week, I re-read Will’s sermon and I realized that I couldn’t preach it here. Not because I don’t believe what it says: it does say what I believe about Jesus, and about the purpose of the Church. I couldn’t preach this sermon here because I think it doesn’t reflect what many of you believe about Jesus and the purpose of the Church and I didn’t want to offend you.
It occurred to me that the tears that came to my eyes as I read the sermon the first time the week before perhaps had more to do with this dawning realization that I don’t believe the same way that many of you do; and that that is becoming more of a challenge in our relationship, and more of a challenge for my preaching here.
The last time I preached on this story, it was the version from Mark’s gospel. That was in September of 2015. At that time, I talked about the theological diversity of the congregation: the range of views from orthodox or traditional understandings of the divinity of Jesus; through the more liberal perspective of the 1968 New Creed; through to those who could affirm the words of former United Church Moderator Bill Phipps, who said “I don’t believe Jesus was God.”
When I preached that sermon I was challenged by a wise elder in the congregation who called me on the ambiguity of my words that day. He said that I seemed to hint that one of these views was better than the others, though I didn’t quite come out and say that. He said, “It sounded like, if you were speaking just for yourself, you would say more.” This wise elder wanted me to say more, and to say it more clearly.
Since that time, I have—sometimes haltingly—moved in the direction of being more clear, more explicit about what I believe, and a number of you have noticed that. Last month I preached about how I’ve changed over the six years I’ve been with you.
As I say, a number of you have detected a change and some of you have spoken with me about it. Some of you have been thrilled with the change you’ve detected. Some of you have been alarmed. Some of you have been intrigued. Some of you have told me that I’m no longer preaching to your lives in the same way, that you miss how I used to preach.
Some of you have told me that you feel like I’m judging your beliefs, or that you’re saddened that I don’t seem to affirm your beliefs from the pulpit.
I thank you for your feedback and I commit myself to listening, with the Holy Spirit, for what I am being called to do as a preacher and a pastor. So thank you for your courage and your care in expressing what matters to you.
I’ve said in the past that you don’t have to believe what I believe, and that I don’t have to believe what you believe. I had hoped that that was enough to indicate that I’m not intending to judge anyone’s beliefs. I don’t have the capacity, the ability to be able to do that. And it’s not my job to do that.
But sometimes Scripture seems to judge our beliefs, or Jesus does. And then it’s my job as your preacher and pastor to point that out. As we say in a New Creed, Jesus is our judge, and we all together—pastor and congregation alike—stand under Jesus’ judgement. But it is Jesus’ or God’s judgement that matters, not mine.
What I have tried to point out are the implications of what we believe about Jesus and the purpose of the Church. I’ve been trying to say that how we answer the question Jesus asks, Who do you say that I am?; and what we believe about the purpose of the Church has an impact: on our personal lives, and on the kind of community we create here at Trinity, and on what we do and say in the world.
I’ve come to believe that how we answer these two questions—Who is Jesus? and What is the purpose of the Church?—is of fundamental importance to us as a church. That the answer to these two questions is more important than any question about programs, or initiatives to attract new people, or to attract young people.
Before we do any of that we need to be able to say what it is we are inviting them into, what we are asking them to be a part of. My heartache comes as I realize that we don’t have consensus about that. My guess is that maybe a quarter to a third of us hold fairly orthodox or traditional ideas about Jesus and the Church. Maybe another quarter to a third would be comfortable agreeing with Bill Phipps that Jesus is not God. And I guess there’s a large middle group that isn’t sure, or would rather not say.
The genius of the United Church of Canada has been to find a way to hold all these perspectives together for the past ninety-plus years. And the truth is, we don’t have to all agree on all of this; diversity is natural and normal. But I think we do need to have a shared sense of what our centre is. Each Sunday as worship begins I say that we are gathered around the font and the table, the wisdom of Scripture, and in the presence of Jesus Christ. For me those things are central: Jesus, Scripture, and the sacraments. Can we agree on that?
Our brand of Christianity is on the ropes right now.
I don’t want to get bogged down in statistics but when 90% of our participants are seniors that says a couple of things: first, it says that our future prospects are not great, that we are likely facing institutional extinction; secondly, it says that we are not doing a very good job in connecting with the people in the community around us.
My argument—and you don’t have to agree with me—is that the church became a lot less interesting to people when we stopped articulating the Gospel: this wild and unbelievable story of a Jewish carpenter’s son who was born, lived briefly, died violently, and rose from the dead unexpectedly; this story which the Church asserts is a revelation of God.
The Church—the big ‘C’, historic, worldwide Church—affirms that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, and not one or the other. Where we might offer the world a merely human Jesus—Jesus as a wise teacher—the Church has said that that is not enough to get us out of the scrapes we get ourselves into. We don’t have everything we need within ourselves; we need a Saviour who comes from beyond our merely human life.
And where we might want to focus on spirituality and the spiritual plane, or the world of the mind as opposed to the world of the body, the Church has said that God is intimately invested in bodily life, so much so that God became a body in Jesus. This is a sign to us that bodies matter: that all bodies are meant to be cared for, cherished, nurtured, fed, loved.
The Church affirms that this Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, is Lord, Messiah, Son of God. The Church is the gathered people who commit to wrestling with this affirmation, and who commit to letting it take hold of our lives—all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Church is the gathered people who commit to living our lives in light of the Good News that Jesus is Lord, Messiah, and Son of God.
That’s what I believe, anyway. That’s what I believe needs to be the foundation of our life together. Because nothing else is strong enough to convince us to set aside our differences, nothing else is powerful enough to save us from ourselves, nothing else makes us courageous enough to put the needs of others—strangers even—before our own needs.
If we don’t believe that Jesus is Lord, Messiah, and Son of God, we aren’t very likely to find the motivation to make the changes we need to make as a church. Only an affirmation that God is speaking to us, and is present with us as the risen Jesus is going to be enough to pry us off our commitment to our own comfort, and open us to the wild adventure of being the Church.
This is what I believe I am called to preach. You may not agree with me. In the end you may be right, and I may be wrong. When we all get to Heaven we can have a good laugh about it!
This is what I believe I am called to do as a preacher and pastor in Christ’s church, and so I need to do it. I will continue to listen to you, and to welcome your feedback and your wisdom. All together, we need to be listening for how God is speaking to us, calling us, through the words of Scripture, through the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and in one another’s words and deeds. Our future path is not entirely clear to me, but I have every confidence that as we trust in God’s leading we will not be disappointed.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, you have come to us as the Messiah, the anointed one of God who is the power and love of God present to us. You have come to us as God’s Son, the very presence of God with us.
Help us to greet you when you become present in our lives. Enable us to lay aside our preconceptions of you and meet you as you are rather than as we would have you be.
Above all, help us to follow you, to walk with you where you lead, to love you as you are, and to be the disciples you would have us to be. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.
 Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource.