Define the Relationship
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
August 24, 2014

Matthew 16:13-20 [link]


Today’s sermon title comes right out of the Urban Dictionary, under the heading “DTR.”  What does DTR mean?  It means “Define the Relationship,” and it’s what happens “when two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship.”[i]  For example: One cheerleader might ask another, “Have you DTR’d yet?” meaning, “Have you and what’s-his-name defined your relationship?”  Or someone might ask the high school quarterback, “Is she your girlfriend?” and he might answer, “I dunno what she is.  I guess we need to do a little DTR’ing tonight.” 

But defining the relationship is risky business.

I still remember the time a girl asked me if I loved her.  It was back in college.  We’d been going out for a while and I liked her a lot, but one night she caught me off guard completely.  She said, “I love you; do you love me?”  And I didn’t know what to say.  I finally blurted out something like, “Love is such an overused word.  We say things like, ‘I love pizza,’ and ‘I love going to the movies.’  I hope you would be able to tell by my actions how I feel about you.”  But on that night I think she was able to tell by my words that we weren’t in the same place relationship-wise.  That’s why it’s so risky to define the relationship, and why a lot of young people these days stay far away from it.  If you ask them what they’re doing they’ll say, “We’re just hanging out,” which means, “We’re spending time together, and we’re enjoying it, but we’re not ready to put a label on it.”  Why not?  Because one of them might label it “casual dating,” while the other labels it a “serious relationship” and then the whole thing would be off balance.  The two of them would be off balance.  

So they don’t say anything at all.

But Jesus says something in today’s Gospel reading.  He is on the road with his disciples, up near Caesarea Philippi, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  It’s about as far away from Jerusalem as you can get and still be in Israel and that may have been the point.  It was quiet up there, peaceful, the perfect place to pose this question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” he asks, and the disciples fumble for an answer.  “Some say John the Baptist,” they say, “but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  “But what about you,” Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?”

And there it is, right out there in the open, because Jesus isn’t asking them to define who he is to others, but who he is to them.  He is asking them to DTR.  And it is Peter (bless his heart) who finds the words leaping from his lips before he can catch them and pull them back in: “You are the Messiah!  The Son of the Living God.”  Jesus is impressed.  “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah!  Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.  From now on you are Peter, the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  And can you imagine how proud of himself Peter must have been?  Peter, who was always the first to shout out an answer, or leap over the side of a boat, or cut off somebody’s ear; Peter, who got it wrong so much of the time had finally gotten one right! 

But think about it.

If you had been Peter what would you have said, what could you have said?  If you had been mending your nets when Jesus called you and invited you to come fish for people?  If you had heard him preach the gospel of the coming Kingdom, and seen him heal every disease and affliction among the people.  If you had gone up on the mountain with him and heard him say, “Blessed are the poor, and the meek, and the merciful”?  If you had learned to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?  If you had watched him cleanse a leper, and heal the servant of a Roman centurion, and cure your own mother-in-law of a fever?  If you had been in the boat when he quieted the storm and calmed the wind and waves?  If you had heard him say to a paralytic, “Rise, take up your bed, and walk”?  If you had seen him raise a little girl from the dead?  If you had watched him open the eyes of the blind and the mouths of the mute?  If you had heard him say, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”?  If you had heard him debate with the Pharisees, leaving them speechless again and again?  If you had heard him tell those parables of the Kingdom, and describe the way it was already coming into the world?  If you had helped him feed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish?  If you had seen him walking on the water and gotten out of the boat to come to him?  If you had felt yourself sinking beneath the waves and felt his strong arm pulling you up again?

What would you say if you had had all those experiences?  What could you say except, “You are the Messiah!  The Son of the Living God!”  But we haven’t had those experiences.  We’ve read about them.  We’ve heard others talk about them.  We may have even had a few experiences of our own.  But I’m curious.  How would you define the relationship?  I don’t mean, “Who is Jesus?”  I mean, “Who is Jesus to you?”

On his blog last week a preaching professor named David Lose challenged working preachers everywhere to answer that question for themselves before they asked it of their congregations.  You’ve heard of preaching to the choir?  Lose is preaching to the preachers.  And forgive me for this long quote but maybe you’d like to hear what it sounds like when preachers get preached to.  He writes:

I want us to wonder together for a moment or two what we actually mean when we say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the Living God. Or that Jesus is Lord. Or, for the theologically inclined, that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity. Or, in the words of the Creed, that Jesus is light from light, very God from very God, begotten but not made.

You see, I think it’s really hard to align our lives with our confession when we don’t really understand what that confession means. And I’m not sure most of us really do—myself included. (We can take some comfort, I think, that Peter didn’t understand what he said either, as we’ll learn next week.) Because this whatever-it-is that Jesus was and is…it’s really hard to put into words that we can understand. And so we come up with titles and formulations and all the rest, trying to get at the mystery of what God has done in and through Jesus, and that’s understandable. But all too often I fear that those words only keep the wild and unpredictable God of love and grace at arms’ distance from us, and Jesus remains inspiring and exemplary, but ultimately rather tame and eminently safe, kind of like the prophets of old seem to us.

So here’s what I want you to do, [preachers]. I want you to spend a little time before composing your sermon trying to say in plain and simple words what you mean when you confess Jesus is the Messiah. How would you describe Jesus, that is, to someone who never heard of him before? To a child…or adult…or friend…or stranger who happened to ask you about Jesus. And then, when you’ve given some thought to that and when you’ve found words that, even if they still don’t feel adequate are at least concrete and reasonably clear, share that confession with your people.

I know that can be a little scary, so I’ll go first. I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. In this sense, Jesus revealed God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and think seriously about ending their lives, a heart that is upset and angry when a young black man is shot dead for no explicable reason, a heart that is torn up in grief at the desperate situation and violence that rips apart the land we’ve named Holy, a heart that loves us like only an adoring parent can and so not only wants the best for us but is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love.

But it’s more than that, too. I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give in to the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.

So there it is. Not perfect—there should probably be more about forgiveness—and shaped by some of what’s going on in the world. And a little too wordy (the peril of the preacher!), and I can imagine it changing a bit as I do. But at least when I formulate it this way I have an easier time imagining what it means for me to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Because I think it means that I try to live filled with and sharing God’s love, aware of the brokenness of the world but even more aware of God’s grace and the power of the resurrection. It means, I think, that I look at all of my life—my time, my relationships, my hopes, dreams, finances, and all the rest—through the lens of both the power and possibilities created by seeing God’s heart laid bare in Jesus.[ii]

That’s not bad, is it?  As I tried to think about my own response to that question I remembered something Brian McLaren once wrote that resonated with me at the deepest level.  He wrote, “As a pastor and as a human being, I have had one lasting obsession: the fascinating, mysterious, uncontainable, uncontrollable, enigmatic, vigorous, surprising, stunning, dazzling, subtle, honest, genuine, and explosive personality of Jesus.”[iii]  “Yes!”  I wrote in the margin.  “That’s how I feel, too!”  Because I often hear people talking about how grateful they are for what Jesus did for them on the cross, and how his death makes possible the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.  “Yes,” I say.  “Yes!  I’m grateful for all of that.”  But even more than his death I am fascinated by his life, by the things he did and the things he said and the way he did and said them.  That’s what draws me to Jesus; that’s what makes me want to grow up to be just like him; not his death but his life.  So if you ask me to define the relationship, if you say, “Who is Jesus to you?” I might say something like this:

He is the One: the One who has shown me what a life full of God looks like; the One who has revealed the heart of his heavenly Father; the One who has given himself completely to the will and the work of God.  He is both the bravest and the freest person I have ever known.  He is the One who inspires my dreams of God’s Kingdom, the One who calls me into deeper relationship with him, the one who challenges all my previously held assumptions and knocks the props from under my existing prejudices.  He is the One who helps me see the world that has not yet come and to pray for the day when it will.  The one who looks at the world as it is through the eyes of God’s love.  The One who looks at me through those same eyes.  He is the One who loves me, saves me, and sets me on my feet again, the One who sees in me something worth redeeming even when I am covered in sin.  The One who looks at me with a twinkle in his eye and says, ‘Come, follow me.’  The One who makes me think I could walk on water.  The One who lifts me up when I am sinking down…

That’s just a start.  I could go on and on.  But I also see how that is my confession of faith and not everyone’s.  Another preacher, a woman, answered that same question in a more intimate way by saying, “Jesus is my Lord, my beloved, my confidante, my redeemer, my friend, my helper and savior, my companion, the one I can count on and pour my heart out to, the one I worship and adore.”[iv]  You might answer the question more like that, or you may have an answer that is uniquely your own, but whatever it is the answer is important.  It may be the rock on which Jesus will build his church.  It may be the key to the Kingdom.  After giving his own answer David Lose writes: “Perhaps we can end the sermon there, inviting our people to come up with a sentence or two that describes what they believe about Jesus and then ask them to let that confession shape their lives more fully this week.  Because the thing is, I don’t think Jesus asks us to confess who we believe he is for his sake, but rather for ours, that we might be caught up in the power of his love and life.”[v]

Did you hear that?  Jesus doesn’t ask us to confess who we believe he is for his sake, but for ours, “that we might be caught up in the power of his love and life.”  And that would be my prayer for you: that you would take some time today to define the relationship, to answer the question of who Jesus is to you, so that you might be caught up in the power of his love and life, not only for the rest of this week,

But forever and ever,


[i] From the Urban Dictionary, an online dictionary of contemporary slang written by and for its readers.

[ii] David J. Lose, “Who Do You Say I Am?” from his blog, In the Meantime, August 18, 2014.

[iii] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus (Thomas Nelson, 2006), p. 5.

[iv] From a comment on Lose’s blog by a woman named “Ruth.”

[v] Lose, Ibid.

Jim Somerville 2014
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