8/23/2020 Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 16: 13-20.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi, there to ask one of the most important questions in all of Christian theology. But before we get to the question, and the disciples’, and ultimately, Peter’s answer, let’s take a look at the setting Jesus chose for this query and response session. It’s likely not mere coincidence that Jesus chose this particular region to pose the question of who people are saying he is. It seems there is very little, if anything Jesus did in his ministry that wasn’t clearly thought out and planned. So then, why choose Caesarea Philippi?
This area was in the foothills of Mount Hermon, at the very northernmost reaches of Jesus’ ministry travels. It was about 25 miles from Nazareth. And if we consider that the most common form of travel in Jesus’ time was on foot, we can appreciate that this was quite a long way from home for Jesus and the disciples. Again then, so why there? The city was originally known as Paneas, named after the Greco-Roman god Pan, who according to ancient mythology was said to have been born there. There were temples erected to honor Pan and other Roman gods all over the area.
Around the year 20 B.C., the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus gave control of Paneas to King Herod, the Roman-established ruler of the Jews. Herod’s son, Phillip renamed the city Caesarea, in honor of the emperor. Thus, the area became known as Phillip’s tribute to Caesar, ‘Caesarea Philippi’. The most striking feature of the area is a massive cliff, or rock, that stretches for 500 feet and is over 100 feet high. Most of the city is built atop this colossal rock. So here we find Jesus, rather far from home, in a city that was originally named for a Roman god, Pan. And now the place is named for the emperor Caesar, whom the Roman overseers who occupied Israel, compelled the people to worship as a god incarnate.
If this were a modern movie shoot rather than a biblical gospel lesson and the film producers were scouting out the perfect location for the scene, this would be the place they would pick. What an ideal spot for Jesus to ask the question that follows in Matthew; ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ The disciples give it their best shot; ‘John the Baptist’, ‘Elijah’, ‘Jeremiah’, etc. I can imagine them, hands raised and waving like school children; ‘Oh I know, I know; pick me, pick me, Jesus!’. And, as he often does, Jesus takes the opportunity to turn the situation into a teaching moment. Not content with what the crowds think, he asks his chosen followers; ‘But who do YOU say that I am? Now it’s not specifically stated in the gospel story, but can you just imagine the scene? The disciples have offered up their options as to who the people think Jesus is, and they are probably greatly pleased with themselves. They have given what they think are the right answers, based on what others have said.
But as our teacher friends will surely confirm, the questioning generally doesn’t end with what students think the teacher wants to hear. It now becomes the disciples’ turn to speak up. Can’t you just picture them, eyes cast down, poking the dirt with their sandals, hemming and hawing, looking sheepish? No one wants to speak up for fear of giving the wrong answer.
Thankfully, Simon breaks the silence; ‘you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. I don’t know about you, but I am impressed! Throughout the gospels Simon Peter is proven over and over to be as dense as a box of rocks. Just when we think he’s going to get it, he falls short; and Jesus has to set him straight, again and again. But this time he’s right on target, and as Jesus tells him, it’s not of Simon’s own accord, but because God has revealed the truth of Jesus’ Messianic nature to Simon.
And here is where the significance of the location Jesus chose for this scene comes into play. Jesus tells Simon that he will now be called Peter; in the Greek; ‘Petros’. Meaning ‘rock’. Then Jesus tells Simon Peter; ‘and on this rock, I will build my church’. Remember, Jesus and the disciples are standing on a rock; in a city that serves as a place of great importance to several pantheistic belief systems; Greek, Roman, pagan. But Jesus declares that here and now, on this pagan rock, the church of the one true God is to be brought into being.
And in these two short statements, the Christian faith was established. Simon is now to be called Peter, the rock, and upon this foundation Jesus will build his church; he will initiate the coming kingdom of God. But perhaps we shouldn’t focus exclusively on Peter. While he was the one whom Jesus said God initially provided the truth of Jesus’ identity, he hasn’t been alone over the centuries in proclaiming this testimony. It’s probably fair to say that if it were not for St. Paul and his writings and missionary travels, Christianity might have remained a localized, rather outcast, Jewish, middle eastern cult consisting of a very few fanatical, Zionistic extremists. Most of whom believed that Jesus was the One, the Messiah who was to free them from the tyrannical yoke of their Roman oppressors. And very many of these early followers were quick to abandon this messianic hope the moment Jesus was hung on the cross.
But the church Jesus started with Peter was to survive, and thrive, in great measure through the efforts of many who built upon Peter’s initial revelation as to the true nature of Christ Jesus. Three hundred years after Paul, the Emperor Constantine was to proclaim Christianity as the accepted faith of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic popes were able to keep Christian faith robust even through the Dark Ages, and into the Renaissance. The founders of the monastic orders and the great theologians; Benedict, Augustine, the Dominicans, and others surely did their part to further the advance of the Christian faith. And just over 500 years ago, an upstart German monk named Martin Luther turned the Christian church upside down. It seems Jesus has appointed many ‘rocks’, many ‘Peters’ over time, upon which the church has been built, expanded, evolved; and thanks to Brother Martin, reformed.
And while the initial tenets of our faith have never wavered, how that faith is expressed continues to grow and evolve. The major confessional declaration of the Christian faith is attributed to one St. Ambrose of Milan, in a letter he wrote to the pope at the time, in the year 390 AD. I did the math; that was 1,630 years ago. And we will declare this letter as the profession of our faith during our worship this morning; it evolved and became the Apostle’s Creed.
So, from Peter’s initial revelation to our Sabbath recitation of the Apostle’s Creed; the message, the revelation remains the same, unchanged for two millennia. Jesus remains ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. And, unfortunately, the world hasn’t changed very much either. Sure, technology has brought about many improvements to peoples’ lives, our knowledge of the universe around us continues to progress, and for the most part, the world is a vastly different place than it was in Peter’s time. But here’s where things haven’t changed all that much. Many are still living under the thumb of an oppressor. We seem to be experiencing war in more places than there is peace. And the global pandemic continues to decimate lives and societies. Even in America, arguably the richest nation on the planet, one in six children go to bed hungry.
In Jesus’ time there was war, oppression, intolerance, divisiveness, poverty, hunger, sickness, and alienation. Today there is was war, oppression, intolerance, divisiveness, poverty, hunger, sickness, and alienation. It seems we haven’t progressed very far after all. Perhaps, not at all. But Christ’s church still thrives, still serves as a beacon for all to see. Because the understanding of who Jesus is has not wavered since Peter first figured it out. God chose to walk among his creation, in flesh, as one of us. Jesus was, and is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’. So now, what do we do with this knowledge, this understanding of what the person of Jesus embodies?
In the final verse of today’s reading Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Don’t you just love that part? ‘Yeah, okay I’m the Son of God, but don’t tell anybody’. C’mon, really? The church grew and thrived because the disciples, and others after them did exactly what Jesus told them not to do. They told everybody about this Jesus Christ; who he was, what he came to do, and what his message of faith, hope, mercy, and love was all about. Completely contrary to the warning they were given, to keep it to themselves, they couldn’t stop blabbing about it to whoever would listen.
All those we spoke of earlier, Paul, the popes, Martin Luther; they couldn’t keep this ‘Good News’ to themselves either. Paul was imprisoned countless times because he couldn’t stop preaching about the reality of Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; all blabbermouths! And Luther went around nailing pamphlets on church doors.
And because all of them, and others, defied Jesus’ command to ‘not tell anyone’, the knowledge of the nature of Jesus the Christ was broadcast to the world. Seems to me that this may be the one command that was meant to be disobeyed. That must be the case, since so many have in fact defied the order to remain silent regarding Christ’s identity. So, the truth of Jesus’ nature has been revealed and remains unchanged. But the world’s problems, they also continue unabated.
Over the centuries people have disobeyed the command and have spread the ‘Good News’ that Jesus Christ the Son of God came to earth and remains among us. Yet, the issues that plague humanity are also unchanged.
So, what do these things tell us? Well, the truth of Jesus hasn’t changed, and neither has the state of the world. What’s the missing part in the story? It’s the blabbermouths, the people who don’t keep quiet about who Jesus is, and who refuse to keep the ‘Good News’ to themselves. Those who would never consider hiding their light under a basket, or would keep silent out of fear of ridicule or derision.
Oh, and by the way, when we say ‘those’ people, we really mean ’these’ people. When we refer to ‘them’, what we actually mean is ‘us’. We are the ones next in line to spread the word that the Son of the living God has come among God’s people and remains with us. To tell the world that Jesus died and rose for us, for the forgiveness of our sins; that we might live, although we die. It’s our turn to be like Simon Peter the rock, and all those who came after him. It’s up to us to lead lives that reflect our understanding of Jesus as Savior. Our actions must portray why we are who we are, and who it is we follow. Our behavior needs to depict us as people willing to defy this one command of Christ; and boldly confess that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. And that we, as his followers are ready, willing, and able to shout this to the world, so that all might know Christ and be welcomed into God’s kingdom. And sadly, we Lutherans tend not to be very vocal evangelists. We often forget that the “E” in ELCA stands for “Evangelical”. And that we profess to evangelize. To spread the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.
And this evangelizing doesn’t have to take the shape of monumental actions. It can be as small and simple a thing as offering an understanding shoulder to one who is hurting. Preparing a meal for one who hungers. Donating a coat to one who is cold. And whenever these things, or others like them are done, they ought to be done with an eye toward disobeying Jesus’ warning to ‘not tell anyone’. For whenever we feed, clothe, or shelter those in need, we do so in the name of the One who commands us to do these things.
Even though we might disobey that one little order he gave to Peter and the disciples, to keep quiet about who he is. It’s up to us to be the next ‘Petros’, the next rocks upon which Christ is still building his church. It’s up to us to shout out that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Because if we don’t, who will? I don’t think Jesus will be too upset with us if we do ignore this one little command. So, go forth, be like Peter. Tell the world that you follow “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, we are thankful that you revealed the truth of your Son to Simon the Rock. And we give you thanks that you have also blessed us with this same revelation. Give us hearts that are willing to disregard the command to conceal that Jesus gave; and strengthen us to passionately reveal Christ’s truth to a suffering world.
And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who asks also us, “who do YOU say I am?” say. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.