by Daniel Harrell
Protestantism, now in its 501st year, is nothing if not fissiparous. I learned that word from an Economist article Bob Neal sent me about Martin Luther and the Reformation. Fissiparous means “inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups.” At last count, there are more than 33,000 Protestant denominations spread over 240 countries, this without counting all the more independently-minded, unassociated and unaffiliated congregations out there. It doesn’t take much to start a denomination, even less to start a church. You only need a few people and a Bible, a cool website, and these days, a catchy name. Older, established congregations are thinking about their names too. While many Protestant churches still identify themselves with a denomination moniker, Christ Presbyterian or Mt. Olivet Lutheran, others, such as Wooddale or Grace or Eagle Brook, have long discarded their Baptist labels. Churches worry that their brandnames offend some segments of society, especially younger people who’ve fled churches in droves. One Minnesota church consultant suggests congregations choose names you can turn into a verb or a noun. Trinity Baptist Church in Maplewood therefore now goes by the name “LifePoint.” Members there are no longer Baptists, but Life Pointers. Eagle Brook attendees are Eagle Brookers. Upper Room, Upper Roomers. Colonial, colonize? Colonists?
The Star Tribune article reporting on these church name changes had online respondents worrying that someone might end up a Baptist or Lutheran or Presbyterian and not know it. To them, Life Point sounded like the name of a yoga studio. Another respondent wrote, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still gonna be a pig. If people aren’t attracted to church, it isn’t the name that’s driving them away. The fastest growing faith in America is no faith at all.”
Blame the Reformation. Protestantism replaced the authority of the church with the authority of Scripture. But once it became clear nobody could agree on what the Bible meant, the authority of conscience became boss. People were free to believe what they wanted and choose what sort of life to lead. You could even stop believing at all and choose something else. Some say that modern converts to unbelief have abandoned a faith worth leaving. Compromised by politics, too enamored with money, complacent with status quo, diluted by cultural accommodation, tamed by technology, consumeristic, weak and irrelevant, exclusive and rigid, many American churches are no longer worth their salt. Jesus warned that once salt loses its flavor you can’t get it back. “It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” A name change alone doesn’t do it. True transformation requires something more—something much deeper. A motto of the Reformation is Semper reformanda: the church must “always reform.” With Christ, reforming is unavoidable. And so we yield to will of the Lord and pray to hear and to heed what God is calling us to next.
While the Reformation’s sad side; it’s long, violent and fissiparous slide toward secularism seems almost complete, converts to unbelief still have their doubts. People jettison faith in favor of rationality and science, but soon wonder whether there’s not something more. As one author sighed, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” God still exists and the Holy Ghost haunts our secular age. Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists, having devoted enormous amounts of research to human faith in God, conclude that our minds are wired for faith. Natural born believers. Death is always before us and we worry and wonder what happens after. Eternity and afterlife raise questions about ultimate meaning. Jesus declares himself the way, the truth and the life, but how do we know?
Here in Matthew 16, Jesus is on retreat with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. It’s been fourteen exciting chapters thus far in Matthew—a lot of miracles and healing and wisdom and drama. It’s time for a mid-gospel review. “Who do the people say that I am?” Jesus asks. They reply, “John the Baptist”—a radical revolutionary who upended the status quo, back when being a Baptist wasn’t embarrassing; “Elijah”—a wonderworker who flew off to heaven spectacularly in a blazing chariot of fire; “Jeremiah”—the doomsday prophet who foretold of a glorious new world order amidst the rubble of a demolished Jerusalem. An impressive list to be sure, except John and Elijah and Jeremiah all would have Jesus a Messianic runner-up or wannabe. Despite being a miracle-worker and smooth talker, Jesus was not much of a looker—dirt poor and born in a barn to an unwed teenaged mother on the run, an uneducated construction worker and Bible nerd from Nazareth. No way was he the Way.
Raised in scandal, his life threatened early by a crazy king, Jesus made his adult debut as a random rabbi walking the streets. Baptized in a river as if he needed saving, he told everybody to repent and get ready, the kingdom was both coming and already here. A small seed sown in the dirt. A little yeast kneaded into dough. A buried treasure right under your toes.
At his home church for the holidays, Jesus was invited to preach. He offered a hint from Isaiah of his true identity, but it was hard to be sure. “Isn’t this that carpenter’s son?” the home folks whispered. “Mary’s boy? We know this guy.” Israel’s hope and heart was set on a Savior more heroic. Matthew reports the congregation actually took offense. Whether with sadness or snark, Jesus assessed the situation and concluded: “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” It feels like the parent who rides his kids over and over about something they need to learn, only to have some stranger say the same thing one time and your kid’s like, “I told you so, Dad.” Or like the preacher who pounds home a point Sunday after Sunday, only to have some one time guest speaker make the same point, and everybody wonders why you can’t preach like that guy. (Not that this has ever happened to me.) Nobody likes being told what to do from somebody you know and who knows you too well. Maybe this is why we find it so hard to listen and do what Jesus says. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves.
But do we know him? The temptation is to squeeze Jesus into categories we’re already comfortable with so as not to offend and to avoid having to change. Liberals paint him as a progressive, conservatives paint a traditionalist. Jesus is a CEO for business types, an academic for the intellectuals, a wise guru for the enlightened, a regular joe for the working class, a life coach for the well-off, a yoga instructor for the health conscious.
What about his disciples? Having traveled almost fourteen chapters with Jesus up close, he wants to know, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon says, “You are the Christ. The Son of the Living God.” Delighted, Jesus pronounces Simon blessed, because he had not figured this out on his own. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” God broke through popular misconceptions and self-serving depictions so Simon could see. And discovering Jesus’ true identity, Simon also discovered his own. “You are now Peter, the rock,” Jesus declared, making one of the biggest name changes in history.
I had my name changed, sort of. My parents named me Daniel, a Biblical name meaning God is My Judge. I wasn’t named after the prophet; however, but after my great-grandfather, a portrait photographer. Being Southern, Daniel was judged too uppity-sounding, so my folks just called me Danny. This made for a lot of teasing in grade school—Danny-fanny and Danny-panties—but I endured and went by Danny Harrell for the first forty years of my life. As midlife approached, I had all kinds of crises: betrayal and a broken marriage, an uncertain career and vocational disillusionment, theological doubt and therapy, intense spiritual struggle and shame, bad choices and guilt. Danny wasn’t going to do it anymore. Dan means ‘to judge,” so Danny meant “judgy.” I needed the “el” in Daniel; it’s from Elohim, a Hebrew name for God, and I needed God as my judge, my truth and redeemer. So I retook the name I was given, by my parents at birth and now, re-gifted, I believed, by Jesus.
Last Sunday, God came to earth and wrestled Jacob into Israel, another huge name change meaning “to wrestle with God.” Jacob struggled with God and got blessed. He won a new name, but a name that meant he’d keep on wrestling. Here in Matthew, God came to earth and grappled with Simon, who like Jacob-Israel, got his blessing too: keys to the kingdom, authority and his own new name. But like Israel, Peter’s transformation was rocky. Given the chance to walk on water, Peter succeeded for a second, but then sank like a stone. Given the chance to support Jesus’ mission as Messiah, Peter’s head became hard as a rock. Given the chance to stand up and defend Jesus on trial, Peter’s faith crumbled. Jesus rose from the dead and Peter was no where to be found. Jesus called Peter the rock on which he’d build a church stronger than hell, but Peter was a shaky foundation. Minnesota may know me as Daniel, but travel south to North Carolina and I’m still Danny there. In Boston, where I changed, I’m still mostly as “Danny-I-mean-Daniel.” Deep transformation is not something we can do for ourselves. God alone is our Judge and Redeemer.
Revealed as the Christ, Jesus swore his disciples to secrecy. He didn’t want everybody to know who he was. It was an odd strategy for starting his church. If God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it, why keep quiet? Jesus was immensely popular as a healer and preacher, the problem was his plan for salvation. Jesus let his disciples in on the secret. He told them what being the Christ truly meant. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious establishment, be rejected by the leadership and be killed on a cross, and on the third day be raised.” This made no sense.
Years ago in Boston, the ever-popular rock band U2 wanted to slip into town to play the cozy confines of a small, local theater. U2 had to keep it a secret or the crush of their fandom would have ruined it. As Son of God and Savior, Jesus planned to slip onto earth and save the world on a cross. He had to keep it a secret or the crush of is fandom would have ruined it. The crowds were huge enough with them thinking him only a prophet. What would happen once Jesus was known to be God’s Son himself? Had word got out that he really was the celebrity Savior everybody wanted, no way would they let him be the suffering Savior everybody needed.
Still, a Son of God who gets killed on a cross? Peter sacrificed family and home and a job and his good name for this? The disciples were offended too. “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” Same with a Savior. Told Jesus has to die for our sins, we’re offended because how can our sins be so bad as that? Told Jesus dies as a sign of God’s love and we’re offended, because who kills their only son to show love? Told Jesus dies to score a victory over evil and death and we’re offended because a man with a gun can still walk into a church and shoot entire families without God lifting a finger to stop it. Peter will pull Jesus aside and rebuke him for talking this way. “God forbid this would happen to you!” Jesus will bark back about the will of the Lord and call Peter “Satan.”
While that had to hurt, at least Satan and the demons recognized Jesus to be the Son of God too. Of course, they didn’t like it either. But then came the outsiders and known sinners, the marginalized and the scorned, prostitutes and prisoners, the abused and rejected, the oppressed and the guilty, they all saw and believed. In time, the Holy Ghost pressed into the disciples hearts and into Peter’s hard head. At Pentecost, he got filled and fired up to start the first church, one packed with outsiders and sinners, the marginalized and oppressed. In China, 500 years after the Reformation, the Protestant church explodes with growth, drawing its strength not from cultural accommodation or political cahoots, but from political persecution and cultural disapproval. In Colombia, where our Confirmation class traveled last summer, Protestantism has become largely a women’s movement, serving to reform gender roles in a machismo society. Male Colombian converts who previously spent up to 40% of their pay in bars and brothels now channel paychecks to their families, raising the living standards of women and children. Peter later writes of a church built of “living stones,” followers of Jesus the true rock, rejected by society yet precious to God, we are strong in the spirit through no merit of our own, powered purely by grace.
Some scholars doubt whether Jesus ever renamed Simon. The whole rock and church and keys thing reads like textual addition by someone with a papal ax to grind. Last year, another group of our students traveled to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the home church of the Pope. History tells us St. Peter’s was built with medieval money exploited from the poor by selling them tickets to heaven. It was these tickets, so-called indulgences, which ignited Martin Luther’s ire and freed his protest. Thesis 32 of his 95 tweets reads: “Those who believe they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgences will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.” Catholics and Protestants have fissiparous ever since.
St. Peter’s Basilica is always packed, though mostly with tourists. Not so many people show up for church anymore. Still, there was some worship going on in a few corners. Priests cordoned off altars with sawhorse barriers, closing God off from those just in town for a show. Somehow, three of our high school students got caught inside the barrier—knuckleheads trespassing where they weren’t supposed to go. But rather than kicking them out as Protestant tourists and foreigners, the priest gave them communion: the shed body and blood of Jesus the Christ, dead on a cross for their sins and for love and for new life. Far from being offended, they were happy to have it. And so are we all.