by the Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber

Lectionary link:

May only God’s word be spoken, and only God’s word be heard.

Relationships are messy.  And our lives are webs of relationships.  Connections to friends, family, partners, coworkers, neighbors, service providers and more.  Our lives are made up of relationships, and to a surprising degree we can end up simply being defined by our relationships. 

Today’s Gospel story from the 16th chapter of Matthew has Jesus asking the disciples who people believe he is.  Then he asks the disciples themselves who he is.  When Peter replies that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus responds by telling Peter who Peter really is. 

Peter discovers who he is because of his relationship to Jesus.

But not all relationships are like that. 

Most of us have been in relationships very different than the one described in today’s Gospel passage.  We have had one or more relationships that do not help us fully live into who and what God made us to be.  Many of us have been in relationships that warp us, or relationships that diminish us. 

A couple of years after graduation, I went through a really tough breakup with my college boyfriend. 

As the relationship was ending, in some sense it felt like coming out of a trance.  I realized I didn’t have a clear sense of my own self.  Who was I?  What did I like?  What were my own personal life goals?  I had no idea.  Over the years of our relationship, I had neglected my “self” in an attempt to be fully present to the relationship.  Which meant that over time, there was less and less of “me” actually present in the relationship.  My “self” was subsumed by the relationship.

After the breakup, my friends told me that they had  felt helpless as they watched me become subsumed by this relationship and they didn’t know what to do.  So they told me that even though the breakup hurt, they were so glad that I was re-learning the freedom to be myself, to become myself more and more completely, and to once again share my full self with my family and friends. 

Our broken relationships can come in almost any form.  Sometimes, like in my story, they are romantic relationships.  But just as often, these warping relationships, these diminishing relationships are relationships with a particular group of friends, or a family member, or even a job.  We can lose our “selves” in all sorts of relationships.

But today’s Gospel shows what “right relationship” looks like.  The relationship between Jesus and Peter here is a model for all our relationships. 

Jesus and Peter had spent a lot of time together.  They knew one another well.  As we listen in to today’s passage, Jesus and the disciples were talking about the many things other people were saying about Jesus. 

In healthy relationships, you can talk with one another about the roles you have been given, about the boxes people put you in.  You, together, can examine which parts of those might be true for you and which parts of them don’t fit. 

That’s what Jesus and his disciples were doing in today’s reading.

After they had a conversation about other people’s understanding of who Jesus was, things got much more personal.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” 

Having deep conversations like this with a good friend can be clarifying and affirming.  It can remind you of parts of yourself that you had forgotten, or help you realize parts of yourself you hadn’t noticed before.  It can give you a clearer sense of who you are to become.

Peter sums up all that he knows about his friend Jesus by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter’s response to Jesus resonated within Jesus to help solidify and clarify what Jesus is coming to understand about himself and his call.  That friendship, that deep relationship, offered meaningful truth as Jesus was deepening his understanding of himself.

And then, in response, Jesus offers Peter the truth of his unique gift and call.  Jesus clarifies for Peter that essence within him that other people might not have been able to see, or to support.  But within this close relationship, Jesus names that truth and calls it out for Peter.  “You are the Rock, and upon this Rock will I build my church.”

As these pandemic days drag on and on, I wonder how well you know yourself.  I wonder which relationships in your own life might be warping or diminishing you.  I wonder if you are focusing on and strengthening those relationships that help you clarify your “self”…those relationships that remind you of the most alive parts of your self…relationships that speak the truth about why you were created and have your being. 

And who in your life are you building up?  Who do you know well enough to speak about the gifts you see that God has given them?  Who needs you to invest your clarity and wisdom in their life so that they can more fully invest in themselves and the unique work God has given them to do? 

These days are not easy for any of us.  They are more terrible for some than for others.  All of us–all of us– could use a good friend like Peter or Jesus about now.  We could all use someone who helps us sift through other people’s perceptions of who we are and discard those things which are not true.  We could all use someone to claim and name the essence of our true selves, the Godspark within us, the gift we have been given to share with the world. 

In the coming weeks and months, I invite us all to follow in the footsteps of Peter and of Jesus.  Let us commit to naming Goodness in one another.  Let us invest our time in relationships that build one another up.  Let us love one another, and in that love become more our “selves.”     

I speak in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, one God.  Amen.

Listen to this sermon via Sound Cloud, or view it in Facebook.

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