A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
Simon said to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’. Jesus said to Simon, ‘You are the Rock’. This is a story of how we discover who Jesus really is – and how in answering that question we are never the same again. Jesus takes his disciples to the northern borderlands, to a place with a significant name. It was called Caesarea Philippi. That’s to say the first part of the name was the name of the Roman Emperor, Caesar, sometimes known as the living Son of God, the self-styled saviour, protector and deliverer of his people. The second part is named after Philip, ruler of the region, lapsed Jew and puppet of the hated Romans. You may recall Philip’s wife went off with his brother Herod Antipas, the story that led to the death of John the Baptist.
So the name Caesarea Philippi represents all that was wrong with the way Palestine was governed in Jesus’ time. And the town was also known, and still is by the way, as Banyas, after the Greek god Pan, who had a shrine there. So Jesus is on the border with the Gentiles, the border of Jewish faith and culture; and he’s at the heart of the question of where authority lies in Israel. Jesus understood that old real estate lesson – location, location, location. And from all that geography we shouldn’t be surprised that something big is about to happen. Jesus turns and asks, ‘who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And the disciples talk about John, Elijah, Jeremiah – all of them prophets who proclaimed repentance and judgment. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ says Jesus. You can imagine the silence. Then Peter says ‘you are the anointed king Israel has been waiting for these past 500 years. You are the very presence of God among us. You are the one who will restore the intimate companionship of God and his people.’ And Jesus blesses Peter, and says ‘Peter, you didn’t discover this for yourself – it was God who gave you the vision to see what you have seen, and say what you have said.’ And Jesus announces that this is the moment, this is the place, and this is the conversation, on which his Church is to rest.
You could call this quite a Genesis thing to do. God said to Abram ‘I will make you the father of many nations’, and promptly changed his name to Abraham, meaning ancestor of many. Later God fought with Jacob all night and then said ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed’. In just the same way Jesus marks a new beginning for the people of God by giving a new and descriptive name, Peter, the rock. And the people founded on this rock are to be Jesus’ own people, for he calls them my Church.
We all knew that – what we sometimes forget is that Jesus knows Peter is a willing but impetuous follower, who promises more than he delivers. He knows Peter is on occasion stupid, selfish, scared, and just plain wrong. But he nonetheless founds the Church on him, and promises that the forces of evil and death combined will never be stronger than this fragile rock.
Finally Jesus announces that he will give Peter the keys of God’s empire, the swipe card to the universe. He will trust Peter with knowing when to constrain people and when to let them go, when to shape the Church along the contours of human limitations and when to set people free to explore the boundless possibilities of life in the Spirit. And Jesus tells the disciples to keep these secrets to themselves just for now, because they haven’t yet grasped that the cost of all this wonder and glory is the cross, and the cross is still way beyond their imaginations.
So that is what this story meant in the first century. Against the backdrop of pagan religion, Roman domination, and Jewish collaboration, Peter names Jesus as the embodiment of God’s purposes for his people, and Jesus names Peter as the rock on which the new form of companionship with God will be founded. Peter says ‘Israel, God’s people, will never be the same again’. Jesus says ‘Neither will you, Peter’.
So much for 2000 years ago. What does this story mean for you and me ? Well, let’s start with the context. If the Caesar of Caesarea is those forces that dominate our lives while claiming to be our defender, our saviour, the bringer of peace, that Caesar is all around us. If the Philip of Philippi is those institutions that epitomize the collapse of fine traditions and noble ideals into shoddy compromises and shameless backhanders, then Philippi is sadly no distant nightmare either. And Banyas, the shrine of Pan: surely we can see that we live today in a marketplace of faiths. We are all on the road to Caesarea Philippi.
In this context people still admire Jesus, whether as a controversial firebrand like John the Baptist or a miracle-working maverick like Elijah or a kill-joy doom-monger like Jeremiah.
But the further we get from the messianic expectation of the first century, the bigger Peter’s claim about Jesus seems to become. Where Peter would have said ‘Jews’, we would say ‘everyone’. Where Peter might have said ‘people’ we would say ‘all creation’. Where Peter might have said ‘world’ we would say ‘universe’. Where Peter said ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ we might say ‘You are the epicenter of the universe, the purpose of creation, the meaning of existence, the bond that joins humanity to God for ever.’
If this is who Jesus is we humans have no scientific or deductive capacity to identify him. Science largely works by mapping repeated phenomena, and Jesus is a one-off. So the evidence of Peter’s five senses could not have told him who Jesus was because you can’t recognize something if neither you nor anyone else has ever seen it before. This is a recognition that can only come from God: it is revelation.
If this story tells us exactly who Jesus is for us today, then it also tells us what the Church is. The Church is still Peter. That is, the Church is a fragile people inspired by God to speak the truth about Jesus. Peter spoke the truth about Jesus; so does the Church. But Peter was not infallible. Neither is the Church. If Peter spoke the truth, it was because God inspired his words; so it is for the Church. Peter was sometimes stupid, selfish, scared, and just plain
wrong; so is the Church. But Jesus chose Peter. And Jesus still chooses the Church. Who are we to differ? Fallible and clumsy it may sometimes be, but the Church will never be overcome by death or evil. So long as it continues to live as a fragile people inspired by God to speak the truth about Jesus, the Church will never be extinguished by evil or death.
Meanwhile Peter gets to bind and loose. Many of the controversies in the Church today come down to binding and loosing. One bunch of people say the Church is doing too much binding, and is commanding people to live a certain way when they can’t see how they can or can’t see why they should. Another bunch of people say the Church is doing too much loosing, and it’s about time people were told they had to be bound to certain patterns or expectations of life. What both sides need to remember is that the point of binding is to set people free to live disciplined and therefore flourishing lives; while the point of loosing is to bind people more closely to the free Spirit of God. Discipline is for freedom; and freedom is for God.
So it’s a creation story we heard this morning. For centuries the church has been the steward of the mysteries of Christ – and you and I are part of that unbroken river that has weaved it’s way through the history of humanity. The church is imperfect but that doesn’t change the fact that we love it; that we miss it when we don’t make it to church on a Sunday. That we give lots of our hard earned money to keep the church going; and that we’re proud of the good things that church has accomplished in the world right here at St. Margaret’s and around the world.
We’re part of a beautiful tradition that began with a simple question; “ Who do you say that I am.” Peter got the answer right way back there in Caesarea Philippi. And we are still trying to catch up to him. For me that is one of the best parts of faith – it makes me think, struggle, and work. Christianity captures my imagination and challenges my intellect. The Church is a challenge that demands my very best to meet it. And while I’m no better than Peter if even that good – I know that faith and the Anglican tradition has and is making me a better more whole person.
And the best part of it all is that whatever our anxieties about our own worthiness, whatever our doubts about the holiness of the Church, no matter how cloudy our personal history might be, we have been called to be like Peter, a fragile people inspired by God to speak the truth about Jesus. I can not conceive of a more worthwhile endeavor to give my life to. At the cross roads of life Jesus stands and asks, “ Who do you say that I am ?” So very often just as it was for Peter in our answer we find our true God given selves. Amen.