Proper 16A: Matthew 16.13-20 Recording:
Proper 16A: Matthew 16.13-20 by The Rev. W. Terry Miller
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2020
The Rev. W. Terry Miller
Before he became a pastor, Frederick Buechner grew up among the very sophisticated East Coast elite. Many of those he rubbed elbows with were urbane people, who fancied themselves too sophisticated to engage in anything resembling talk of God or spirituality. When he was a young man, Buechner mentioned at a high class dinner party that he was going to seminary to become a pastor. His hostess for the evening fixed an incredulous gaze on Buechner before asking, “A pastor? Really. Tell me, was this your own idea or were you ill-advised?” Many years later, Buechner taught a semester at Wheaton College, the respected evangelical Christian college. At lunch one day, sitting with some students, he overheard one student casually ask another, “What has God been doing in your life lately?” Buechner mused to himself that if a question like that were asked back in New York City, the ground would open up, buildings would crumble, and grown men would faint dead away.
Many times, how a question sounds depends on the setting! This is certainly true about the question Jesus poses to the disciples in today’s gospel lesson. Every now and then Jesus quizzes his disciples to see how much they are taking in, to see how well they’ve been following. Here he asks questions that touch on something truly central to what Jesus was up to: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Who do you say I am?” Jesus could have asked these questions in any number of places—in the Temple, on a mountaintop, or on a boat by the sea. But instead he chose to ask these questions during at trip to the region of Caesarea Philippi.
Now, Caesarea Philippi was a relatively new city back in Jesus’ day, but it was built near an ancient pagan shrine on the slopes of Mount Hermon. Because waters bubbled and gurgled up from caves at the base of the mountain, the people who lived there had long believed this to be the doorway into the underworld, a place where the spirits of the deep tried to communicate with the living on the surface. Those with keen faculties, they believed, would be able to hear the whispers of the departed and the voice of the underworld gods trying to communicate with those above. Sometimes sulfuric gases were emitted, and these only confirmed that belief. Over the centuries, a variety of religious sects had used the place as a cultic shrine. They cut niches in the rock walls of the mountain just above the burbling caves and set up statues of gods they thought might be resident there. More recently, that is, around 20 B.C., Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had given the town and its surrounding region to King Herod, you know, the one who tried to kill Jesus when he was an infant. Herod built up the city, including a temple of white marble dedicated to a new deity, the “divine” Caesar. After Herod died in 4 B.C., the region passed to King Philip, who further built up the place and renamed it Caesarea Philippi, literally “Philip’s Caesarville,” to flatter and honor his patron, Tiberias Caesar.
So Jesus and the disciple were standing in a place that just oozed pagan idolatry and power politics. In fact, you couldn’t have found a place in Palestine that better symbolized the ways of the world, the ways of brute force, of exploitation of the weak, of “might makes right”, than Caesarea Philippi.
It’s no small thing then that it was herethat Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” I mean, it would have been one thing for Jesus to ask the question in some quiet village in Galilee, but it’s quite another matter to ask it in Caesarea, amidst the idols and in the shadow of worldly power and all that goes along with it. The setting transforms Jesus’ question from a question of curiosity into a question loaded with implications.
You see, when Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” his answer wasn’t just revelatory, revealed by God, but also revolutionary, theological, yes, but also political. Given where they were, his confession was tantamount to standing in front of the state capital, holding a placard that declared, “Impeach the Governor! He’s a fraud!” There in King Philip’s city dedicated to Caesar, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ could be seen as a shot across the Roman political bow, a clear challenge to Roman rule. For, the Messiah, it was thought, would be an anointed military leader who would come like the heroes of the Old Testament to lead an army of Jewish freedom fighters to kick out the infidels, the Romans, and restore Israel to its former glory. That’s what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting.
But, that’s not what Jesus was about, that’s not the kind of Messiah that he was. This again goes back to where they were when he asked his question. Standing against the backdrop of the symbols of worldly power—idols and altars to false gods, pagan shrines, an imperial stronghold—in thatcontext, Jesus’ identification as the Messiah was meant to be a challenge to the powers-that-be, clearly, but not in the way that was expected. As each of the Gospels show, Jesus wasn’t just claiming to be the rightful ruler of the Jews, but also that his way of ruling is the right way of ruling, God’s way of ruling. Jesus’ just and merciful rule then not only challenges but contrasts with the rule of those in office.
Seen in this light, Simon’s confession takes on a greater significance. To identify Jesus as the Messiah is to claim an allegiance. It is to stake a claim regarding what is true and good and right. To confess that Jesus is the Christ is to declare a certain vision of the world, an understanding of things, not only of who Jesus is, but also about the world as God sees it and where we fit into it, how we are to live in it.
Notice how in this exchange Jesus moves Simon quickly from belief to action, from a declaration of conviction to an assignment, from confession of faith to vocation. And he does so using a witty play on words, though you wouldn’t know it from the translation. Jesus says “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. I tell you, you are Peter (petrosin Greek) and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.” It is the same word that he uses in both instances, first masculine and then the feminine form of the Greek word for “rock”. There is however a subtle difference between the two. Petros, or Peter—the name Jesus gives Simon—means a stone or a pebble, a small piece of a larger rock, while petrameans a great big rock or rock formation. So that makes Peter a chip off the old block, a piece of the Rock of Ages, on which Jesus will build his church.
You know, Protestants and Catholics have argued over the meaning of this passage for centuries—was it Peter, who is considered the first Pope, the rock on which the Church is build, as Catholics contend? Or was it Peter’s confession of Christ, which Protestants argue? To make a distinction is however to miss the point of Jesus’ words to Simon Peter. For, who Peter is and will be is defined by his confession of Christ, and his confession comes out of who he is as Peter, as the rock on which Jesus founds the Church. One leads to the other.
The same is true about us—who we are is directly related to who we say Jesus is. Our answer to Jesus’ question defines who we are and how we live —or at least it should. A colleague of mine tells me of a professor friend of his. This friend was born a Christian, that is to say, he was baptized and raised in the church, but, when he went to college and then graduate school, he watched the church misbehave in its response to the Civil Rights Movement and grew away from the Christian faith. He became, in his own words, “sort of a Christian, but one who didn’t actually practice Christianity, a believer but not a doer.” He ended up becoming an expert in East-West business relations. In the 1980s, at a conference on business in the Soviet Union, he had a conversation with an official from the Soviet bloc. “You are a Christian,” she said, “I’m an atheist. Tell me – what difference does your belief in God make in the way you vote, the way you spend your money? Tell me, when is the last time that you did something because you stopped and asked yourself, ‘What does God want me to do in this case?’” The professor was stunned. He said, “I realized that though I believed like a believer, I lived like an atheist.” It was a stunning moment of honest recognition for him and thanks be to God, it eventually led him back to a vibrant Christian faith.
If we believe that Jesus is, as Peter confesses in today’s Gospel, “the Christ, the Son of God,” then what difference does that make in how we live, in how we spend our time, what we do with the money God has given us, the talents we have received, the jobs we take and the friendships we maintain? Do we live as “practical atheists” or as people whose behavior confirms their belief? Sadly, I fear that we’ve become confused into thinking that “Christian” is synonymous with being a sensitive, thinking, caring American. But it means so much more.
Charles Colson was a politically powerful man, serving under President Nixon. Obedient to the President, Colson did some terrible things against the people of the United States. Then he got caught, went to prison, and there had his life turned around. In jail, he came to be a sure, certain believer. But maybe even more impressive than that, Colson became a vibrant, engaged, courageous “obeyer.” He began the world-wide Prison Fellowship that goes into prisons and reaches people for Jesus Christ. He also founded the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, was an editor of the magazine Christianity Today, and had a radio ministry, Breakpoint, which was heard on more than 1,400 outlets across the United States. In his life after prison, after his conversion, Colson showed that he not only believed in Jesus but also followed Jesus. Little wonder that one of his best books is entitled How Now Shall We Live?.Colson was all in favor of strict, careful, orthodox belief, but he knew enough about Jesus to know that such belief ought to lead to risky, courageous Christian action.
And so it has for countless Christians throughout the ages, who have committed themselves, who have not only professed their faith but also staked their life on Jesus Christ. Sometimes their faith led them to courageous actions, sometimes their profession was itself an act of courage, as it challenged the powers of their day.
As we move now to the part of the service when we recite the Creed, we are challenged to not let our confession of faith be just something we say, but something we live out, with belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, as a guide to live our lives by, as the thing that shapes who we are. May it challenge us and may it give us strength, strength to storm the gates of hell, the places where the powers-that-be reside, knowing that they cannot withstand the power of the Church, cannot withstand the power of Christ in the world. Thanks be to God!