“Who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.”
The camp speaker joined us in our cabin and Harry was on the edge, struggling with Jesus again. Harry had been to camp many times and each time he’d said “yes” to Jesus. Each time he meant it. And each time he returned to his neighborhood where the peaceful clarity of summer camp gave way to the reality of violence that eventually swallowed him up.
The camp speaker, who had seen too many urban kids succumb to forces too big to deny, was pushing Harry hard. I sat silently, unsure what to do. Harry’s friend, named Junior, finally stepped in and said, “That’s enough!” Junior said that Harry had been to camp five times and each time he said “yes” to Jesus and each time he returned to the neighborhood where things got confusing. Each time he felt worse for having denied Jesus. Junior suggested that maybe Harry’s “denial” of Christ back home was harder on Harry than it was for Jesus.
Emboldened by Junior’s words, I asked the camp speaker to back off. The speaker left our cabin dismayed (mostly with me).
A year later Harry was dead, gunned down in the street by rival gang members, only a few blocks from my house.
In this week’s text, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. It was the farthest away from Jerusalem Jesus ever travelled, (except as an infant, when his family fled to Egypt as refugees from state sponsored violence). Far away from the pressure cooker of Jerusalem, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am? Peter responds with clarity, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
Not long afterwards, the clarity Peter found in Caesarea Philippi was swallowed up by the fear and violence of Jerusalem. Peter denied Jesus three times.
One way or another, we’re all headed for Jerusalem.
In retrospect, maybe I should have let the camp speaker push Harry further. Maybe I denied Harry the opportunity to name Jesus as the Christ one more time. Maybe I denied Harry again when we returned from camp and he came by my house one evening; he offered me his gun as a way to protect myself in a heated summer of violence. It was a generous and kind offer. I refused the gift. Maybe I denied Harry yet again when I stopped hosting our regular gatherings in order to reach out to younger kids. I denied Harry a lot more than three times and I am not alone.
Maybe I’m thinking about this because summer is coming to and end. I’ve enjoyed some underserved but much needed time away where I’ve experienced glimpses of clarity about Jesus, myself, and our mission. And yet there is a pit in my stomach. Jerusalem beckons. I’ve seen what happens when one sets their face toward Jerusalem. I know too well my own cowardice. A big part of me wants to stay in Caesarea Philippi and ponder what I’ve seen.
Harry was killed nearly 25 years ago. I don’t know if Harry is Peter or Jesus, or just a kid whose life has marked me forever. What I do know is that Harry keeps me honest about the Gospel and this crazy, beautiful, mixed up world. Harry bridges the gap between Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem and beckons me to cross it. He insists that we proclaim a Gospel big enough to honor him as herald of Christ, denier of Christ and Christ himself, all the while being Harry, a kid from Portland who loved going to camp, and who is calling us back into the city where Christ is fully and finally revealed as the merciful one, not in spite our denials, but because of them.