Year A, Proper 16
August 24, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Who do you say that I am?”
Now that is a good question. “Who do you say that I am?” A very good question. When I was in seminary, that question was posed to me as part of a final paper for a class called “Contemporary Interpretations of Jesus.” Writing that reflection was one of the watershed moments for me in my journey to the Church because it was the first time I was ever invited to ponder the Jesus that I knew, that I wondered about, hoped for, was searching for… It was the first invitation I had knowingly received to apply my life, my knowledge, my longings and fears and hang-ups and dreams to the person of Jesus Christ. I was raised in the United Church of Christ, a good liberal New England Congregationalist, so we didn’t have a lot of bad, negative thinking about God and all of that, but I don’t remember much good thinking, either. I don’t remember much thinking in relation to God at all, actually. I found that paper from that class on my hard-drive and it was terrible, but it was a moment, the moment, where I began thinking, when I first brought reason to bear my faith.
This is third and final part in an accidental series on the three legged stool of Anglican theology, our doctrine of religious authority. Let’s remember the three legs: Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Scripture is… the Bible. Tradition… the church, her structures, practices and habits over time, with particular deference to the practices of the early church. And reason… well, we’re getting into that now. We apply these three ways of knowing to questions and situations we encounter as we seek to understand God’s will in the world.
It would seem reasonable to go back to the original text that lays out this whole idea of the Three Legged Stool. It comes from Richard Hooker, who was the most influential theologian of the English Reformation. At the very end of the 16th Century, between 1594 -1597, he wrote a book with the most boring title imaginable: Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, five volumes of it. As its title suggests, it is all about how churches should organize themselves, what their purpose is, how their derive their authority from God. Remember, the English had been thrown out of the Roman Church in the 1530s under the reign of Henry VIII, and there had been a constant battle between folks loyal to the Roman forms of church and the Puritians, the radical Protestant reformationists of the time. Hooker set out to find a way to make sense of what was happening in the English church and suggest what should be happening in theological terms. Most of the conflict revolved around Martin Luther’s notion of sola scriptura, scripture alone as a source of God’s revelation and the authority of the priesthood of all believers (as opposed to the magisterium of the Church) on one side, and the high reverence given to the sacraments and all that implies about the nature of The Church on the other.
So to address that tension, the doctrine of the Three Legged Stool arose. So here it is, the sentence that made us what we are today: “What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; (so scripture has priority, but is not alone, for…) the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; (force of reason; that’s pretty clear, and finally…) after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.” (The voice of the church is tradition). And these are purposefully laid out in descending order of importance; scripture is primary, followed by the force of reason, and if all else fails, the church and her traditions sound in. That’s the history that leads us to this very moment, to an Episcopal church in Eugene, 2014. So now with that in mind, which way is it to the Living God? Now that is a very reasonable question to ask. Reason.
We’ve all heard the great line from Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” right? I like to think of a life of faith in a similar way: an unexamined faith is not worth having. That is the beginning of the application of reason to our lives in Christ.
An examined life, an examined faith makes for a reasonable life, a reasoned faith. Reason. Questioning. Thinking. Comparing and contrasting. Not taking anything for granted, “…whatsoever anyone can necessarily conclude by force of reason.” We must not check our minds at the door… that is a religious imperative in the Anglican Communion. As Anne Lamont says, the opposite of faith is not doubt (it is not questions), but certainty.
Of course our reason, our process of reason can bring us to certainty, (I am certain about some things, maybe more than I should be) but reason is the process, the winnowing of various ideas, of feelings and senses that you have. Reason involves the confirmation of the inner knowledge that we all carry with us about the most important things. Reason is the application of your life to your relationship with God. Reason is the very logical inclusion of God in the cloud of relationships you live within here and now. It accounts for learning, growth, experience, intuition. It is the full manifestation of the priesthood of all believers in that you and your conviction is recognized as having authority in discerning the will of God. Reason is powerful.
Now beware, reason, reasonable, does not necessarily mean rational. This is where we loose a lot of our humanist brothers and sisters. The application of reason does not mean that something is rational or even understandable. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is utterly irrational, three persons, one substance all that, homoousios vs. homoiousios, similar essence v. same essence, beyond rationality, intentionally reflecting the mystery inherent in holiness, but it is a reasonable way to begin to attempt to describe that which is; I am becoming what I am becoming. Turn the other cheek is not a particularly rational way to combat Imperial domination, though reason demonstrates that applying love towards our enemies is the most potent weapon available to humans under oppression.
Remember, reason does not only mean a cause, an explanation or justification. “I have a good reason for hitting my sister.” It is not just that. Reason also implies the power of the mind to think, to understand, to form judgments by some process of logic. That is the key, logic. Logic is not static, it is not restricted by the bounds of rationality. The logic of the cross defies any rationality, but bringing the powers of the minds and spirits of the faithful to bear, to apply the “force of reason” to the crucified God… that is the heart of a living faith. Maybe the fruits of reason are best summed up in a line from a poem by Wendell Berry, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
So let’s bring this back to our reading today, and Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” He asked them what others were saying about him. “…John the Baptist… Elijah… Jerimiah…” were some of their answers. Then He posed that question to His friends, and Peter, the rock of the church, answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This is one of the great Christological affirmations in the Gospels, very, very important, but how did Peter know this?
Scripture pointed towards a messianic promise. The prophets, Isaiah in particular, spoke of the fulfillment of God’s promise in an anointed one, a chosen, but it didn’t say whom. And tradition… there was a long tradition of messianic figures in Judiasm, of men claiming or having the mantel of messianic responsibility thrust upon them, but there was nothing specific pointed to Jesus in the tradition. So how did Peter know that Jesus was the one?
Well, Jesus tells us. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.” It was not scripture or tradition: those pointed to the existence of a messianic promise, but not specifically to Jesus of Nazareth as that Messiah. It is not “flesh and blood” that revealed it, not rational deduction or empirical evidence, but rather, it was revealed by “…my father in heaven.” God reveals all sorts of things to us if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. The process of reason, the power of the mind to think, to understand, to form judgments by some process of logic revealed Christ’s true nature to Peter in his intuition, his experience of the man, in the burning that must have been in his heart when he heard the Rabbi teach. That is reason: that you know the presence of God when you see it, hear it, feel it.
So, “Who do you say that I am?” Who do you say that Jesus is? That question is really for you. You all have some homework. Really. Think on it. Pray on it. Maybe even write something down. “Who do you say that I am?” And the fruits of that? Just another glimpse of the Living God, with authority; your own. AMEN.