Eleven days ago, when militant Islamists in Paris gunned down cartoonists in the offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, a chill went through our hearts. We all know it wasn’t the first terrorist attack in a big western city. It wasn’t even the most brutal act of terrorism in world news that week, tragically: Boko Haram killed two thousand people in Nigeria during that same span of time. But the attackers in Paris knew what the impact would be of their partially symbolic action. We westerners pride ourselves on freedom of the press. We pride ourselves on tolerating a diversity of views. Lots of us grew up reading Mad Magazine. Some of us are big fans of The Onion, or Jon Stewart. Some of us lament the passing of what we call the “Stephen Colbert persona.” An attack on a satirical newspaper in Paris would frighten and radicalize even leftists who have long opposed American and European policies in the Middle East.
And it did work to some extent, didn’t it? Violence does cause fear. On the one hand, there was a massive, and welcome, show of support for the slain journalists. The slogan “Je suis Charlie”—I am Charlie—began to appear everywhere. And, predictably enough, many of the entrenched debates in our culture acquired a renewed sense of urgency and vigor. Just how fiercely do we all support freedom of speech? What exactly are the ethics of satire against a violent oppositional force that claims to speak for a stigmatized religious and cultural minority? We heard from all the annoying voices on the left and right, some of whom we agreed with, and some of whom left us muttering angrily over our coffee and newspaper at the breakfast table. Everybody jumped in. Everybody took a stand. Everybody was required to. Presidents and Secretaries of State who did not physically stand with the protesters were apologetic. Popes whose comments were taken to imply a less than fully sympathetic stance were roundly criticized. “#Je suis Charlie” was met with the hashtag “je ne suis pas Charlie”—I am not Charlie. And then we had to read the article that explained why not being Charlie was really the answer to the violent conflict that increasingly besets us. You either had to be Charlie or not be Charlie last week, as pundits and thoughtful observers tried to find a place to stand that made them feel they had the correct response to this terrifying attack.
“I am Charlie.” “I am not Charlie.” All in all, however well intended, a disheartening struggle. All in all, a discouraging chorus of voices, in my view. All in all, a reduction of complex issues into the politics of the public gesture and the catchy slogan.
It’s an unsettling backdrop for this morning’s Gospel. Against this backdrop, we may hear Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” We can hear in Matthew a distant historical echo of the debates that were swirling around Jesus: “He is John the Baptist”; “He is Elijah”; “He is Jeremiah.” Faced in their own day with something frightening that they couldn’t control, the inhabitants of first-century Palestine, like us, divided into camps and argued. And it sounds, at first, as though Jesus himself were taken in by their gossip, as though he were looking for a high number of “likes” on Facebook, or re-tweets. It almost feels as though he were engaging in impression management or message control or whatever it is that media consultants tell clients to watch out for these days. It’s easy for us to imagine that he’s happy Peter got it right because he is concerned with his brand. And that would make our own task easy, too, as hearers of this Gospel. All we have to do is get the brand identification. We have to know that Jesus is the Messiah, not a prophet. #je suis justified.
What’s harder for us, things being what they are in our world, is to see that Jesus wants us to do something more than “friend” him on Facebook. Getting the language right, knowing what we are meant to say and believe about Jesus, is far and away the easiest part of discipleship, even if we struggle to believe. Identifying with the right answer is such a reflexive gesture for us. But an abstract identification with Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t by itself get us or the world very far. The world is already full of Christians who wear the label unthinkingly, and that world is a mess. If we aren’t careful, our profession of faith will become one more badge that we wear to demonstrate that we are superior, right-thinking, and in control of the baffling mysteries of this universe in which we live.
Jesus wants much more. Jesus wants to build his church on us. He wants our fundamental confession of faith to be the building block of something much larger. He doesn’t tell Peter, “Great, you’ve got it now. Think up a great meme and we’ll go viral.” On the contrary, he tells the disciples to remain quiet about who he is, because he has deeper work to do. And in later verses that are left out of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus begins to teach the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem and be killed, and rise from the dead. That’s when we realize that Peter’s confession, profound and true though it may be, is superficial unless it’s sacrificial.
Christian faith, that is, is superficial and even destructive if it isn’t about telling the truth about how hopelessly sinful we humans are and how desperately we need the salvation of our God. Christian faith is broken if it can’t address the real trouble we are in. Christian faith is just a gesture if it doesn’t teach us that the people we resent, ignore, exclude, despise, fear, and even torture and kill are people in whom God dwells. They are the people in whom God very pointedly dwells.
Jesus built his church on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith, not because it was an A+ answer but because it was a first step into the deep mystery of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. “If you really know who I am,” Jesus is saying, “you will follow me into the truth that frightens you: the truth about dropping your defensiveness, surrendering your desire to win, surrendering your compulsion to look blameless.” If we really know Jesus as our Messiah we will be on the road to Calvary. We will be learning to acknowledge that we are part of what Christ dies about, that we are ourselves caught up in systems that oppress and kill innocent victims. That there is no “us” vs. “them,” and in God’s eyes there never will be, and there never can be. We will stop looking for the perfect stance and the perfect gesture. The cross of Christ says everything we need to say. The cross of Christ, which strips away our pretensions, gives us the only identity we need.
This is the full confession of Christ’s kingdom. This is and always will be the rock upon which Jesus builds his church. Our salvation comes from knowing that in and beyond the suffering of the innocent is God’s unceasing redemption of the world.
This week, beginning as it does with our celebration of the Confession of Peter and ending next Sunday with the feast of the Conversion of Paul, is a week that we set aside to pray for Christian unity. Many of us will gather at the Roman Catholic basilica this Tuesday night, at the invitation of the Catholic Archdiocese, and we will humbly ask God’s forgiveness for our sad divisions and our bitter history of mutual contempt. In its quiet way, this is a beautiful step toward acknowledging that we, the church, the rocks upon whom Jesus has built, are forever in need of his forgiveness and redemption. It is a quiet way of trying to be Christian, with God’s help. It acknowledges that we have no righteous stance of our own from which to preach to others. It is the work of repentance that God offers us for our genuine salvation. It won’t have the viral appeal of a hashtag or a meme, and it won’t in all likelihood leave us feeling as though we have won out over any enemies. But it will allow the grace of God to work through us, and it will help us take some small step away from the “us vs. them” mentality through which we are forever working destruction. Can you join us? Not so much to take a stand, but to ask for help? That’s all we need to say, and we need to say it more than ever.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
18 January 2015
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia