Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Proverbs 1:20-33)+Psalm 19+James 3:1-12+Mark 8:27-38

Like most institutions, the Episcopal Church has several layers of governance. Locally, All Saints is one of 90-some-odd churches in the Diocese of Newark which covers roughly the top one-third of the state of New Jersey and is overseen by a bishop, the Right Rev. Carlye Hughes. Within the diocese are committees and commissions, one of which is the Standing Committee of which I am currently president. Every diocese has a Standing Committee, and our responsibilities include acting as a council of advice for the bishop, approving the election of bishops in other dioceses, acting as the diocesan authority in the absence of a bishop, and approving candidates for ordination. (The list goes on, but you get the idea.)

According to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, before a person can be approved for ordination, the Standing Committee has to affirm that there “is no sufficient objection on medical, psychological, moral, or spiritual grounds.” Through what is usually a fairly long process of formation and discernment, this is usually not a problem, and we read through pages upon pages of material about the person before inviting them for an interview. These interviews might include questions about how the person’s understanding of ordination has changed during the process or what the experience of Clinical Pastoral Education was like.

When I served on the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Virginia, one of my colleagues from one of the more evangelical churches would always pose this question:

Who is Jesus for you?

Who is Jesus for you?

The usual response to this question, after a bit of stammering and stuttering, was either:

Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, co-eternal with God the Father, who suffered and died under Pontius Pilate and was raised from the dead on the third day, ascending to the right hand of the Father where he lives and reigns now and forever.


Jesus is my best friend.

Now, neither of these answers is wrong, per se.

But the first is an intellectual exercise. It’s all true, but is that really who Jesus is to any of us as we stumble through life?

The second answer lacks depth, and I often wanted to ask how one’s best friend has any hope of saving any of us.

Jesus is traveling north toward Caesarea Philippi when he poses the question, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). The disciples rattle off some possibilities, John the Baptist maybe or Elijah who, according to tradition, was supposed to return before the messiah came. Maybe some other prophet.

But then he asks the “who is Jesus to you?” question.

“Who do you say that I am?” (8:29)

Peter does not give a theological treatise in response, and he certainly does not call Jesus his best bud.

In Mark’s telling, he says simply, “You are the messiah” (8:29).

This is more momentous than it might sound at first. According to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides,

The King Messiah will arise and re-establish the monarchy of David as it was in former times. He will build the sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel.[1]

He will bring about the messianic age, and in the 4th chapter of Luke, Jesus tells us what that will look like:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

Peter is saying, “That’s who I say you are. The one who has inaugurated God’s reign.”

It’s pretty remarkable. If Peter had looked around, he would have seen that there were still plenty of unreleased captives, and countless blind and oppressed people. Is this really the year of the Lord’s favor?

We might say the same. Look around us. Prisoners are dying at Riker’s Island. Twenty years of war in Afghanistan produced little more than misery and sorrow for Afghans as well as Americans and our allies. A certain contingent of people in this country are threatening the safety and security of everyone else with anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-women, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-ballot access, and any number of other restrictive and threatening positions that certainly do not look like God’s reign to me.

And yet.

We live in an in-between time. In our liturgy, we sometimes say the words

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again. (BCP 363)

That final fulfillment of God’s purposes in coming to live among is not yet complete. Those of us who follow Jesus continue to do those things that Jesus did by seeking to release prisoners and liberating the oppressed, bringing Good News to those who suffer, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst.

So, who do you say that Jesus is?

If your answer doesn’t have something to do with the presence of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God – the one that moves you to places of courage you did not know you had and to the kind of sacrifice that most people would not normally make – then perhaps your understanding of who Jesus is might just be too limited. Too small.

But don’t worry about getting it wrong. God delights in our desires to please, and as the Apostle Paul reminds us, nothing can separate us for the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So be of good courage. Dream big. Be bold. Never doubt that the power of God working in us and through us can move mountains, even when those mountains seem insurmountable.

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He has shown us who he is and what is required.

So, who do you say that Jesus is?


ASEPSermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas