Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man Is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16: 13-18)
I wanted to preach today because I’ve had a concern for quite some time about the Christian church that I really feel moved to talk about. My concern is this – from my perspective, most expressions of the Christian Church are not giving Jesus His rightful authority. Now there are some exceptions. The main reason I came to The Church of the Saviour was that I see Gordon Cosby and The Church of the Saviour as really following the true Jesus. But we who come from The Church of the Saviour tradition still have to be careful. This topic is a difficult one and I’ve prayed that what I have to say is what Jesus wants me to say. …
I don’t see the Bible as the infallible word of God. I see the Bible as a beautiful resource that is about the word of God that I’m glad we have. But we must remember that for many years after Jesus’ crucifixion, people didn’t have Bibles. Jesus didn’t die. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the bottom line, and His spirit would be with us even if the Bible didn’t exist. And in the bottom of our hearts we know the truth of Jesus because it has been written there. There’s a great story about a Hindu woman who heard a man speaking in a loving way about Jesus. Afterwards she went up to the man who had been speaking and said, “I’m so glad you came to speak today because I’ve always worshipped Him and now you have told me His name.”…
A friend of mine once asked me, “How is Jesus any different than Gandhi?” And the answer that came to me was “grace.” Gandhi was a great man who probably taught us Christians a lot more about Jesus than we could have taught him. At the same time, Gandhi was fallible. From what I’ve read, he wasn’t the best father. And he made statements like this: “A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.” I don’t see Jesus ever making a statement like that. Can you imagine if Jesus made that kind of statement to Peter after Peter denied him? We have all had cowardly moments – I know I have. Although I of course want to be courageous, I need the grace of knowing I’m not going to be any less loved if I fail. As wonderful a man as Gandhi was, I believe that he could have grown in the way that he loved if he had seen Jesus for who Jesus was and followed Him….
So what about Buddha? If it weren’t for Christ, I’d probably be a Buddhist. Sometimes on Fridays I meditate with a Buddhist mindfulness group near where I live. I believe Jesus and Buddha are very similar in their awareness, their centeredness, their presence in the moment, and their nonviolence. At the same time, there are some differences. For one, Jesus had a personal relationship with God as Abba. Some translate Abba as father, but a more accurate translation is Daddy. Jesus called God “Daddy.” A very intimate term. Buddha did not adhere to the idea of a Supreme Being, much less one seen as “Abba.” For Buddha, the goal is Nirvana, or complete freedom from suffering.
But I don’t believe Nirvana is enough for the human soul. I think in the bottom of our hearts we human beings need to know there’s a Supreme Being who loves us unconditionally like the perfect daddy or mother. Jesus brought us that understanding of God. Second, Jesus was passionate in addition to being self aware. I don’t think Buddha fully embraced the kind of passion Jesus showed in the temple or in Gethsemane. I believe we human beings need to know that there’s a God who feels passionately and loves passionately. God loves each of us with infinite passion. God can’t get enough of any one of us – each of us unique. And we human beings need to know that in the bottom of our hearts, and we need to find ways to express that kind of passion ourselves. …
Although I’ve often felt that Christians spend too much time talking about how Jesus died and not enough time about how He lived and continues to live on in spirit, the importance of the way Jesus died can’t be denied. I don’t believe that Jesus died as a sacrificial lamb to appease a wrathful God. But I know this – that Jesus’ way and the dominant culture’s way are very different. And I think it was inevitable that Jesus would be killed because God’s way of unconditional nonviolent love is such a threat to the powers that be. And if Jesus lived today, I think he’d either be killed or locked away somewhere. And I think this would probably happen at a relatively young age – like 33. A person who manifests God’s nature perfectly is bound to pay an extreme price. Jesus paid that price because He loved us so much. And his death was much more than just physically painful. He died a humiliating death; He was mocked and seen as a ‘loser’ in the world’s eyes. That part of His death seems even more painful to me. And the way I see it, the kind of love Jesus showed us in being willing to die the way he did and forgive us the way He did stands out from the kind of love anyone has shown….
In the scripture I read at the beginning of this sermon, it is clear that Jesus was very pleased when Peter saw him for who he was. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [which means rock], and on this rock I will build my church…” I don’t think Jesus cared about this for ego reasons. I think Jesus is much more interested in how we love than how we view him from an intellectual standpoint. At the same time it is clear that Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah meant something to him. Before we can love as God loves we have to be able to recognize God’s love and nature – and when I say recognize, I mean to recognize in the heart more than in the head.
Jesus’ mission was to show what God’s love looks like when it is perfectly incarnated in human form, even though it meant he would be mocked and killed. In one sense the incarnation is unbelievable, but it makes sense when you contemplate it more deeply. If God wanted to show us how much he loves us, wouldn’t He or She show this love in a form we can understand and relate to, as a human being who shares the same emotional and physical needs that we have? It is impossible to define what love, and nonviolence, and goodness are in words. Jesus is that word, the complete definition of what divine love looks like in a human being. Jesus wanted this divinity recognized because God wants us to live and love as Jesus did, and our capacity for following Jesus’ way is dependent upon our seeing God’s love perfectly lived out in him. And although there are many great people who have walked this Earth that we can follow and learn from, I don’t believe there’s anyone else who has ever lived who has manifested God’s nature perfectly like Jesus did. Jesus is unique in His authority….
Now I don’t see our job as going out and attempting to start arguments with people of other religions and say ‘my guy is better than your guy’ or trying to intellectually convert them to our way of thinking. Our job is to love and follow Jesus, to talk in authentic ways about Jesus whenever the time is right, and to learn new things about the nature of Jesus from people of other faiths. People such as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh have much to teach us about aspects of Jesus’ nature that most Christian churches have lost touch with.
I heard a great story once from a man at Virginia Tech who was sharing his faith journey. This man had been turned off by Christianity as he had experienced it. He spent a long time as a student of eastern religions and one day he was in the middle of meditation – I can’t remember for sure but I think he may have been in Tibet at the time – and he said that the revelation came to him that Jesus really was who He said He was. This man came to Jesus through Buddhism. So I encourage people to explore other religions if they are moved to do so. My viewpoint is fundamentally this: We can learn much about Christ’s nature from other people, often people of other faiths, and we can grow to a great degree in following other spiritual teachers. But there will come a point for all people who want to understand God’s nature fully that they have to recognize Jesus as Peter did, and as the Hindu woman I mentioned earlier did, and then to follow Him. …
How do we talk about Jesus? Now some would say we shouldn’t talk about Jesus at all, keep your faith private. But that idea doesn’t work and leads to spiritual death, not life. We do need to find better and more authentic ways to do it … if Jesus is what is important to us, we have to talk about Him. There are people out in the world talking about all sorts of violent things in violent ways and that’s seen as acceptable, but we can’t talk about Jesus? You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t have a specific blueprint about how to do it genuinely, and how to do so is probably a little different for every person. But we need to do it….
Excerpts from a sermon by J. Blair Pettyjohn