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Telling Your Story

St. John’s Lutheran Church
27 August 2023 + Lectionary 21a (13 Pentecost)
Matthew 16.13-20
Rev. Josh Evans



I had only been attending my new church for a matter of months.

Every week, the pattern of the liturgy was the same: alongside the scripture reading and the pastor’s sermon was testimony. Someone from the congregation would be invited, in advance, to share their story about how God was working in their life. Some of the stories were funny, others moved me to tears, but always, every story left me awestruck and inspired.

Then it was my turn. I opened the email from my pastor: Would I like to give my testimony? Um, no thank you…

Beyond the sheer stage fright, I truthfully didn’t think I had anything worth saying.

But then I gave it some more thought. If I had gotten so much out of hearing others tell their stories, who’s to say there wouldn’t be someone who might get something from my story?

There is power in personal testimony, even though it’s so much easier to want to just listen to the stories of others, as if we have nothing to contribute.

Jesus begins his conversation with the disciples innocently enough: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” What are the neighbors saying about me? What have you heard?

And they throw around some answers.

Then comes the real zinger: “But who do you say that I am?”

Talk about being put on the spot!

I imagine it feels a little bit like an initial interview with the staff of the Upstate New York Synod, when the first question the bishop asks you is: “Who is Jesus?” Woof.

You’d think, for someone in my line of work who has a master’s degree in this stuff, that I’d have a ready-made answer to that question. Still, it took me by surprise, as I began to mentally fumble my way through a host of possible responses.

It sure was tempting to reach back into my recollections from seminary and quote some brilliant scholar or theologian, or even a favorite bible verse, rather than risk coming up with something original.

I wonder what Peter was thinking at first, spinning through his mental rolodex, searching for the perfect words, before he finally settled on his own simple, profound testimony: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Not a quote from someone else. It’s his testimony, his experience, his confession of faith.

***

As I was mulling over this sermon this week, I happened to go back to the capstone of my project for my internship congregation. We started with an all-church book study, followed by a second round of small groups, all designed to equip participants with the tools they needed to tell their stories.

The project ended with a compilation of those stories, stitched together in a booklet as my parting gift to the congregation, simply entitled “Telling Our Stories.”

The nostalgia and warm fuzzies started coming back as I read through that booklet again this past week, now over six years later. Some submitted more traditional, first-person, memoir-esque essays. Others wrote poems or shared photographs. One person even pieced together a collage of clippings from magazines.

No two stories are identical, and each story bears witness to a unique life.

***

There are as many stories to tell as there are people in this room. My story isn’t your story. Your story isn’t mine. And Peter’s story is none of ours.

And just as unique as our stories is the faith they testify to.

Who is Jesus?

In response to Bishop Miller’s question, the answer I ultimately arrived at is that Jesus, for me, is someone who has done the hard things, challenged the status quo, and made it through on the other side, empowering us to do the same. Because Jesus has been to the places of pain and suffering, we are compelled to go there too. Because Jesus took risks for the sake of the gospel, we can take risks for the sake of our mission too.

If you think that’s a good answer and you’re tempted to steal it for yourself … don’t. Not because I’m not willing to share, but because it’s my answer, not yours.

Whether you think so or not, you have an answer to that question too. And your answer, your story, your testimony, will be better because it’s yours – formed out of your own lived experience of joys and struggles, and even your mistakes and failures.

***

Who is Jesus?

In Peter’s words, he is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And that Messiah, as the story keeps going (next week), is headed to Jerusalem, to suffer, to be killed, and, yes, ultimately, be raised. That Messiah is the one who takes up his cross and tells his followers to do the same.

Of course, that’s not the answer Peter wants to hear. That’s not the answer we want to hear.

But it is the answer we need to hear.

Jesus, who enters into all the pain and suffering of this world, and who stands squarely in those places, is the Immanuel, God-with-us, who was promised to Joseph way back in chapter one and who will repeat those same words himself to his disciples in the gospel’s closing scene.

This is the life-giving story of God’s love that intersects with our own stories.

Who then shall we say that this Jesus is?

Who then shall you proclaim to the world that Jesus is?

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