Philip Casmer

Who Do You Say We Are, Lord?

by Philip Casmer on October 22nd, 2023
Ephesians 2:8-10, 19-22

This last week your pastors attended a getaway conference up in Elkhart Lake. It was nice. We started with a worship service at Trinity Lutheran Church in Kiel, WI – which is a beautiful space. In the sermon, the preacher was expanding on the life and work of John the Baptist and asking us pastors “Who do we suppose we are?” Midway through the communion hymn a little later, I was listening to the pastors behind me robustly singing – and I enjoy that – that’s what pastors’ conferences are about – fellowship with peers who sing over-loud… Still, I was thinking in that beautiful church with wonderful singing and camaraderie how nice it would be to finally be here and with you. And because – I don’t know about you – but I’ve been thinking about us and who we are for weeks and weeks and weeks… Up to and on this rather momentous day, we might be asking in various ways, “Who are we?”

Similarly, in the gospel reading you heard, we have Jesus asking his disciples a version of that question. Not really about them, except what they thought about him. And what a resounding, ringing moment! Peter gets it right, right in front of his peers, contrary to the wrong assumptions of everybody else: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Right answer; good work, Peter.  Jesus had asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

Imagine this with me… What if, on this day, we were standing before Jesus and we posed the question to him? To have him opine about us and all this? We’d ask, “Who do you say we are, Lord?” And Jesus does provide the answer to that question through St. Paul in Ephesians 2. He wrote: 

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Very familiar, but very important… By v.8, Paul’s repeating these kinds of words – to solidify the idea – listen to how he builds it. Of all the things about us, central in our relationship with God is this – you were rescued / saved. You were stuck on the rooftop of the burning building, you were hostages in a war, you were hurtling on an out of control train toward death. We were, because of the sin in the world and in us and in our own actions, we were hurtling toward death and hell. But God pulled us out. And the reason why, is not that we were worthy; no, it’s only by grace – undeserved kindness – shown to those who cannot repay, who don’t deserve. And more, that status comes to us not by faithfulness, where you do – but by trust – where God does and you wait with open hands to receive. And to make it sure, Paul says, “it’s not from you, it’s a gift,” – not payment / but a present. And to be most explicit, it’s “not by works” of yours or mine, so that there isn’t any boasting or bragging about who we are. In fact, to the depths of it, “we are God’s handiwork…” his creation…

That’s important to know for this day… Because we’ve done something – the biggest thing we’ve ever done, arguably – and we’re naturally thinking about who we are. And we could think or say or even just project – man, we’re good… But looking at Ephesians 2, that would be like this: imagine if, this afternoon, you heard me telling people about our new altar and what a beautiful work of mine it was – I just knew quarter-sawn white oak would be best, and there would be chatoyance and pyrography would work best for these crosses and… Altogether, it was my creation. If you overheard that, that would be absurd, wouldn’t it? It would be offensive because it would be lies. I didn’t build this thing, nor did I dream it up. I didn’t even know there was a word, “chatoyance”… Not my creation, not my work… We could do that too – boasting about us in this; boasting about what we’ve given or the hours we’ve put in; boasting of the brilliance we’ve achieved. I’m truth that would just raise all this like some tragic totem to the god of boasting about whatever we do, honestly. “Look at what I’ve done…” 

But what God emphasizes first about us today (any day) is not our work. It is not that we are so great, but that we have been so graced… Because the Lord who is with us is the one Peter confessed, the one emblazoned on top of and in front of this altar, the shining star of our window. He is the anointed one, chosen to rescue us; which he accomplished because he is not just human like us; he is God’s own Son, the one in whom the world of God above and humankind below collide and meld and meet – God’s Christ comes in between. He provides his death at the cross as the payment for our sins and his life as the perfect cover over all we have ever done. Jesus Christ is victorious, we say. Because despite who we are, in his forgiveness, the holy, holy, holy, mighty Triune God is merciful and he makes us anew, makes us into his own creation… We are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do…”

Stop and think about the cosmic significance of a word like that on a day like this… Literally Paul said, God prepared these good works ahead of time, “so that we should walk in them.” That’s bad translation but good illustration. Today, you’re going to walk through this space and you’ll walk among all the things – see the altar, look at a paschal candle, move a 150lb screen door, check out a vesting room, hear an organ – all the things prepared in advance for this day to be our good things. But God prepared all this for us to do! In his wisdom before we were made he plotted out on his cosmic map that people in Brookfield, WI would establish a church – a little one – and add on to it, and make a school, and build a gym, and finally knock cherished stuff down to raise something grand and new in place. He knew and planned all the good work that is here – so that today I would preach and we would preside, and you would play or sing, and soon we will baptize, and together we’ll commune. According to Paul, I can say, “Good work! Good work people of God that you have given and worked to produce this – which God prepared…” Especially because, from these good works, we’ll each go out full of his love and in his peace to walk around in all the other good works he’s prepared and planted in our pathways – that each of us will do – you servants of the Servant will explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore… Because the Lord says on this day – whatever we think we are, whatever we have achieved – we are his creation for good. Good things like this one; and even better things only you can do wherever you go from here…

That’s a good question, actually. Where do we go from here? Because we’ve arrived – and finally… No more chairs to stack, no more sound system setup, no more holy moments with hoop-shadows… But now, after this day? As our church president said to us pastors some time ago – something like this – “We don’t want to just arrive – get there and be finished – we want to keep going strong!” Conveniently, that’s what the Lord says about us anyway – we’re his holy building project. Listen to how St. Paul describes who we are and moves on to where we go… 

 19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The Lord, through St. Paul, is describing his Holy Christian Church – all believers everywhere – built up on the foundation of his Word and lined up and perfected in Christ. And, in that Church and this one, this is the kind of work that will be ongoing…By God’s Word, as believers in Jesus Christ, “the whole building is joined together…you too are being built together…” 

Back in 1 Kings when Solomon was building the temple, they didn’t use round rocks stacked up in some wobbly wall. “In building the temple, only blocks dressed at the quarry were used…” (1 Kings 6:7) Blocks chiseled and cut and dressed, prepared exactly to fit with one another. God is doing that work here – working on us each, chiseling away, fitting us in. He’s forgiving sins. He’s blessing us. He’s encouraging us by his Word “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature.” (Eph 4:13) Our Lord is constantly fashioning us to fit, building us up in his grace, raising his building project. And that won’t stop. But not only on you or you… God is building us together. Just think: over years now we’ve put heads and hearts together to achieve this… and, actually, it’s not to each of our fancies… but it is what we made. In his love, God builds us so that we will not be most about what each of us desires, but most about what he has done and desires and together we will design to do many things, good things… things designed to bring more and more to be fitted in with us and to be built up too…

Even as we sit in this beautiful space, our Lord says that’s who we are and where we’re going. We are not just a gathering of people and this is not just a new building, not just a community presence or a place to gather… This church as part of His Church is “a holy temple in the Lord.” A temple is a reverent, striking place, God’s house – I hope that you feel that here. It was made to be a place for worshiping the Triune God, for celebrating his sacraments, for singing his salvation. A dwelling for God’s Holy Spirit so he can dwell with you wherever you are – to live and work in you, to bless and empower you, to accomplish his will in your good works – in us all a holy building project that will never end.

Whatever we say about ourselves, the Lord says we are his creation for good – worked by his holy hands to work with ours, things like this and even better ones that God has already prepared… The Lord says we are his holy building project – where his Spirit keeps on fitting us together and adding more stones into a holy house that rises in glorious praise to his holy name. Founded on God’s Word that proclaims Jesus Christ and calls us saved by him and together in him – there are so many blessings yet to receive, so many more stones yet to add in, and so many good things yet to do… And so, on Dedication Sunday, we have not really finished this project… we’ve only just begun…

Holy Spirit, come and live in this house, put strength in our stride, that we may run with faith to win the prize of servants good and faithful. And as we hear told the triumphs of your grace, may we hunger for the day when with Christ we stand in glory.

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