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.
The Gospel this morning is the account of a mountaintop experience. It is Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, read on the last Sunday before Lent. It marks a significant shift in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has gone up on a mountain and he’s taken his senior administration with him. Peter, James, and John, the same three he will ask to stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane before his execution. He has been teaching, feeding, and healing. He has made quite a name for himself and for the disciples that are at his side. If it was today they’d have been on talk shows and T-shirts and YouTube by now. But on this day, Jesus, Peter, James, and John, steal away by themselves, up on a mountain top, to retreat perhaps, take a break from the crazy pace of life down below, the crowds, the suffering, the hungry, the poor, the arguments with the local clergy and keepers of the law.
We hear Jesus preach this morning, Let your light shine before others. Do not resist evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you’re to turn and offer up the left. If they ask for your shirt, you give em your coat to. If they press you for one mile, you’re supposed to go two. Give to those who beg from you, and love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In a word, we’re supposed to be perfect, Jesus says, just like God is.
You’ve heard me confess before that I don’t care so much for Matthew’s Gospel – I really don’t care for this sermon either. They create an ideal to which I know I am unable to achieve. And which one of us sets out to be a failure every morning?
“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete.”
Sometimes Christianity can be a bit of an airy fairy business. Other times it’s more like a two by four to the head – a good hard body check to the soul. This morning we’re in for the later. “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete.” And what did those prophets have to say about God’s Law? Well Isaiah is pretty clear: This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. This Isaiah preached that message of social justice to the winners of Israel. The cream of the crop who’d made it back home to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon. They’d come home to Jerusalem to be met by the offspring of the losers who the Babylonians knew they could leave behind because they’d never amount to anything. These were the folks that the children of Israel were called to share their food with, invite into their homes, and clothe. And we think we have it hard!
If we are to take the Gospel of John seriously we have to admit that it presents us modern folk with quite a challenge. We like our theology done from the bottom up – from the human to the divine. John took the traditions he received and wrote them from God’s side. His approach has been called the theologizing of a human drama – the telling of how a man speaks and acts who is literally inebriated with the divine. John’s faith in Jesus has become our faith in so much as we affirm the Creeds and their insistence that Jesus was fully a human being and fully divine being – the Word of God in the flesh. Never not a human being, never not the divine Word of God.
It’s this knowledge that helps us make sense of how quickly the titles for Jesus come in the reading this morning. Messiah (v.41), the one spoken of in the law and the prophets (v.45). It’s this retelling from God’s side that helps explain disciples who act quickly, impulsively and follow Jesus. And it explains how Jesus can give a human being a new identity simply by speaking a word a title on Peter as the gospel closed to our hearing this morning. There is a divine mystery being played out in the telling of John’s Gospel. Clement of Alexandria writing in the very early days of the Church called John’s gospel a spiritual gospel. We enter another realm when we engage the Gospel of John. Many before us have found it to be fruitful ground for their relationship with God, in the building of a strong faith. John told stories about Jesus from God’s vantage point. So maybe we’d grasp the depths of who Jesus is to us and our world.
So we tell stories….
The baptism of Jesus, the church has always taught us, is an epiphany story and so it is fitting that we begin this short season of the church with Jesus dripping wet from his baptism. Epiphany is a time in the church in which we are invited to recognize Jesus once again. What began with a very private annunciation of the angel to Mary and then to Joseph, what was made known to the shepherds, and then the gentile wise folk, is now made clear to a crowd gathered around a poor excuse for a river. The circle is getting wider and wider. And from this day until Easter day everything that we read and hear in Holy Scripture is an epiphany of Jesus. This is an important season in the church’s year because these are the weeks in which we‘re invited to come and see who Jesus is, where he is to be found, and to understand what he is about – what is his business with you and I and our world and also important for us – how he went about that business – the manner in which Jesus led, taught, and loved.
God and Taco Bell
by Austin Thomas
If you ever want to feel really good about yourself, go spend $100 at Taco Bell. It is magic. The people working behind the counter go bonkers. I am not joking. They will do things that fast-food employees never do, at least in my neighborhood. They will call you sir, and give you free drinks — as many as you want! When they address you they will lower their eyes to the floor like they are approaching a king. True story! If you are observant, you will catch the burrito-wrappers stealing glances at you and whispering about you with their taco-making friends. I have tested this theory, too. It works everywhere I’ve done it: Jack in the Box, multiple Taco Bells. It works so well that I have considered doing it for therapy — medicine for heartache or low-self esteem. I only did that once though; the bums who got the tacos loved me more than the taco bell employees. All the other times were for the high school kids I work with. Promise.
We adults long ago learned that critical thinking was the way to go when it comes to managing our lives and world. Don’t believe everything you hear or read we learned. Plato and the great philosophers taught us that reason should be our guide. The heart just leads us into all kinds of trouble. The Romans taught us that power is the only path to peace and wealth and security. A lesson every empire since is still trying to teach the rest of the world. Critical thinking, reason, power….these are the tools of the adult…..these are the paths to mastery over our world and one another; they are the real world we adults inhabit.
Unless of course you’re a lover of poetry; or a lover of the scriptures of our tradition; especially the prophets of the Old Testament. One of the great preachers and teachers of our day Walter Brueggemann, preached it this way: Poet’s and Christians and Jews for that matter know that in poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason. Poetry gives us access to contradictions and tensions that logic simply must deny. Poetry doesn’t only remember; it proposes and conjures, wonders and imagines; it even breaks open what might be the future.
The plea of the Gospel reading this day to “keep alert or awake” has often fallen on deaf ears. The disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane couldn’t “keep awake”. For a time Christianity was kept alive essentially only in the monasteries of the dark ages – the rest of society couldn’t “keep awake.” And what of our day and age? The newspapers and media are always only too willing to spread the news of the Church’s decline and failures. Not very often do they report the good news. So we have to be honest it is all too easy to be put to sleep by the ever so well credentialed critics of Christianity. It seems we walk a slippery slope towards doubt and the giving up of all that we once believed.
One of the best preachers of the past century; Harry Emerson Fosdick, had some good things to say about doubt. Listen to part of a sermon he titled; “the importance of doubting our doubts”.
Briggs was ordained an Episcopal Priest in 1899, prior to that he served the Presbyterian Church. His view proved to be too radical and he was suspended in 1893 from his ‘home’ denomination.
Here are 3 quotes reflective of Brigg’s thought:
- “Church and Bible are means not ends; they are avenues to God, but are not God.”
- “The Bible has been treated as if it were a baby, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, nursed, and carefully guarded, lest it should be injured by heretics and sceptics.”
- “Criticism is at work with knife and fire. Let us cut down everything that is dead and harmful, every kind of dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all those dry and brittle fences that constitution denominationalism and are the barriers of Church Unity. Let us remove every encumbrance out of the way for a new life: the life of God is moving throughout Christendom, and the springtime of a new age is about to come upon us.”
I find myself in agreement with Briggs. I wonder do you? And I find it amazing that he was thinking these things outloud better than 100 years ago!