The Holy Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
Sermon, Preached at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church
Sunday August 27th, 2017
The Gospel passage this morning is small but mighty. There’s a lot packed into this paragraph. In order to understand all that is happening it is important, I think, that we zoom out to understand the context of what is taking place in this conversation Jesus is having with his disciples.
Jesus has been traveling and teaching with his disciples for a while now. Just before we get to Caesarea Philippi in this morning’s Gospel story, Jesus warns his disciples not to adhere to the teachings of the Sadducees and Pharisees. This is important because of what the Pharisees and Sadducees represented at that time.
They were the groups who put special emphasis on following the law. They were the religious legal experts, and not only were they experts, they also tended to be the ones in power. They were the high priests, the aristocrats, the keepers of institution, a system that also, coincidently, kept them in the position of power and authority.
Jesus is saying over and over again: “Forget those guys and what they have to say, I’m here to teach you something with more depth, meaning and truth that goes outside this single dimension of memorizing and adhering to laws.”
As they travel along, Jesus continues explaining and re-explaining to his disciples this message, that there is truth beyond the law. That God moves, lives, even works outside the law as its understood by the establishment of the time. And Jesus explains this as he simultaneously and miraculously feeds the multitudes in the towns he visits.
However, the disciples have doubt and trepidation in their attitudes. They haven’t connected the dots or fully comprehended what they are in the midst of, or who it is their teacher really is. At least not until we get to this passage this morning.
The passage this morning, is more or less, the ultimate “Come to Jesus Moment”.
I see teacher-Jesus, scratching his head thinking of how he can finally get his disciples to connect the dots and proclaim for themselves a faith and relationship with God that goes beyond conventional understandings. How can they claim for themselves that God has arrived and salvation is coming, is here, for everyone?
Finally, he looks to his disciples and says, “Okay, so, who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The disciples can easily answer this question, it’s easy to say what other people are saying and thinking. So they list off the famous names among religious circles: “Some say it’s John the Baptist, others Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
I see Jesus nodding his head, as if to say “Yes! Good, you’re aware of what everyone has been saying, but now think about all you have seen and all I have shown you…”
And then he looks to Peter: “And who do you say that I am?”
This is a pivotal moment for the disciples, because now is the time for them to come to Jesus and make their faith known.
I imagine in this moment the disciples are like a class of kids, looking down at their feet or up at the sky, anywhere, just to avoid teacher-Jesus’ eye when he turns to ask this question, “Who do you say that I am?”
This is the question, isn’t it? The definitional question, the question on which the substance of Peter’s faith rests. This is the moment when Peter, on behalf of the group, has to give an answer and make a claim, and reveal himself truly to God. He could have said anything.
Can you imagine what that must have been like for him? To be standing there, looking into the eyes of Jesus, as his community is falling apart around him.
There were lepers and blind people living and struggling alone on the streets, outcasts in the desert, women and children were starving and dying. The divide between rich and poor was severe. The poor were being starved and beaten by the laws and the rules. Their land was being occupied by the Romans, a brutal regime with a foreign understanding of the world and an unyielding power to control, colonize and dominate.
Peter’s faith leaders are not helping the people in need but saying instead “to follow the law and follow the Romans, keep your head down… ”
Peter’s world is lit on fire with chaos and strife and in an act of desperation and maybe even faith, he started following this man, Jesus of Nazareth. And now this man is asking him the question of all questions: Who do you say that I am?
I imagine Peter looking into the eyes of his teacher and seeing all the hope he has placed there, all the love he has witnessed in Jesus’ work, all the miracles, reflected back at him and he answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus is so proud of Peter, “Yes! You got it! Blessed are you Peter! For no legal experts, or authorities have told you this, you have searched out this Truth in your heart. You have learned this from your God, with whom I have taught you to have a personal and direct relationship. You have discerned this truth and it is the hallmark of your faith and the faith of all who follow in your footsteps.
“On this faith, I will build my community. On this faith, a church will grow. No power of darkness will overcome this faith. Because of your faith you now have the power to condemn and forgive, for your heart and faith are true.”
Peter just got an A++ and a gold star.
“Who do you say that I am?”
The answer Peter gives is the foundation on which we have built our church. It is the foundation on which our faith rests today; not simply because Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, not because he spouted some doctrinal truth. But because when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the “Son of our living God”, he made the claim that God heals the blind and loves prostitutes; that God cures the sick and loves the tax collectors.
When Peter answers, “You are the Son of the living God”, he is proclaiming that our God is one of fierce and unconditional love; a love that spans all classes, races, genders, incomes, and stations of life.
Peter is claiming that God is a God beyond all human categories and “isms” of social domination. That God, in fact, came to heal that broken-ness which separates and wounds us. That God is beyond all rules, authorities and institutions.
Peter is proclaiming his faith in a God who will not settle with this broken-ness that exists in creation. He is proclaiming that God joins us in our suffering and works with us to heal the world.
It’s a come to Jesus moment.
“Who do you say that I am?”
“A come to Jesus moment” is the moment we are called to place on the altar of God, who we truly are and what we truly believe, especially in times of strife and conflict.
You may have noticed that we are currently in the midst of a “come to Jesus moment.” America is in the throes of a major “come to Jesus moment.”
Police brutality, white nationalism, nazis, riots, racism, sexism, slander, ignorance, hunger, human-trafficking, depression, drugs, pain, war, suffering, violence…
Among all the conflict, hate and pain, we are being asked “Who do you say that I am?” In other words: What do you believe in? What do you stand for? And what will you do about it?
It’s no longer acceptable to keep our heads down and try to accept things as they are. Things as they are, are clearly not good enough. We are being asked, as followers of Jesus, the big question in the face of all we are witnessing:
“Who do you say that I am?”
What a vulnerable thing it is to answer this question. Because when we answer this question we are stating what it is we believe is ultimately True about our world, our existence and the part we will or will not play in this life.
Answering this question with the words of Peter, “You are the Son of the Living God”, means we take up the cross and claim our role in the work Jesus set out to accomplish: The work of making known and accessible to others the healing, saving grace and unconditional love of God.
Jesus, this child born in a manger amongst animals, who grew up to be a carpenter, who left home to teach that the poor are really rich, the outcasts are righteous; who loved the unlovable, saved the unsaveable, who did everything the high priests and authorities said he shouldn’t; who sacrificed everything and died for us… This is the man who Peter sacrificed everything to follow.
This is the man in whom he has put his faith. This is the man whom God has chosen to realize salvation for the world. And it is on this we have built our church.
“Who do you say that I am?”
When Jesus looks into the eyes of Peter, I imagine Jesus sees the men of Peter’s village being beaten down by the Roman police, the women and children starving in the streets, the poor, the sick and the needy people.
He sees all the hardship and hopelessness in Peter’s eyes, and he knows these scenes of pain and suffering do not belong to Peter alone, but to all of us, past, present and future.
When we look into the eyes of Jesus, who stands before us every day, who is standing before us now, what does he see reflected in your eyes?
Your pain? Your suffering? Your fear?
In mine, he sees all this. He sees war, poverty, sickness. He sees the harassment of and violence against women and their struggle for a voice. The lynchings and murders, past and present, of innocent African-American men, women and children. The refugees fleeing from war-torn countries. The children born addicted to drugs, writhing and crying, as they go through the pain of withdrawal. The sadness and depression that grips so many, the suicides….the hate crimes…the fear…. the suffering.
And when I look into the eyes of Jesus… I see the cross. That is to say, I see the promise of hope, love and new life.
I see the reminder that God comes down to earth and walks among us, again, and again, and again, and again… and as many times as it takes.
I see the reminder that God journeys with us through pain, suffering and death. The reminder that we are never alone and that the unconditional love of God can truly save this broken world.
In the eyes of Jesus, I see thousands of candlelight vigils across the country for all who have died in senseless acts of violence over the years. I see local communities coming together and responding to the pain and suffering of our time with acts of kindness, generosity and love. I see neighbors putting up signs in their yard that say things like “You are welcome here. I am your friend.” I see people of all races, faiths and classes coming together to work for justice, peace and love.
When I look into the eyes of Jesus, I see you.
I see Good Samaritans. I see you making sack lunches for the homeless, wrapping Christmas presents for the children of teen moms, harvesting food for those who are hungry, doing random acts of kindness around the community.
I see you working to house and make welcome two refugee families. I see you standing against hate and standing for love.
I see you coming to Jesus and answering the big question “Who do you say that I am” with all the work you have done, and all the work we will continue to do. And we certainly have work to do.
It is a come to Jesus moment.