Preached at All Saints, Easton
24th August 2014: 10th Sunday after Trinity
Exodus 1:8-2:20; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Life is full of questions. We are asked a lot of questions over the courses of our lives. We can’t even buy a coffee in most places, it seems, without an inquisition. “What kind of coffee–Espresso, Americano, Latte, Mocha, Frappacino?” “What size–small, medium or large?” “Would you like to upgrade to a grande for just an extra 30p?” “Would you like it with milk?” “If so, what kind of milk–soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, or plain, boring old cows’ milk?” “And if cows’ milk–full fat, semi or skimmed?” “Regular or decaf?” “One shot or two?” “To drink here or to go?” And finally, they don’t let you leave without asking, “Would you like any cakes or pastries with that today?” Who would have thought getting our daily fix of caffeine would be such an ordeal?!
And yet, perhaps surprisingly for those who take their coffee very seriously, there are also a lot of other, more important questions we are asked over the courses of our lives, the answers to which are potentially life-changing; questions like: “Will you marry me?” “Why should we give you this job?” “Can you show me where it hurts?” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus puts before his disciples a question the answer to which was not only life-changing but eternal life-changing. He puts it before us as well: “Who do you say that the Son of Man?” (i.e. that I am?) There is no more important question we have to answer in our lives than that. By our answer to that one question this church will stand or fall, indeed the whole Church will stand or fall. “Who do you say that I am?” Be careful how you respond, the mission of the Church depends upon it.
Jesus and his disciples were walking together in the area of Caesarea Philippi–an area, by the way of no little significance. It was situated at the base of Mount Hermon, right at the far northern border of Israel’s territories with the pagan nations and it was a haven for all kinds of idolatry. The ancients loved the high places and Mount Hermon was the highest around. Throughout its history, shrines were set up there to the Philistine fertility god Baal, the Greek nature god Pan, before more recently Philip, Herod the Tetrarch’s son, changed the name of the place to Caesarea Philippi to honour the Caesar (who himself was worshipped as a god) and, well, I’ll leave you to work out who else… Caesarea Philippi had, then, for many centuries been a place for those trying to discern the divine.
It was on the road in this very place that Jesus asked his disciples the first of two questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In other words, “What is the word on the street? What are folks saying about me as they are queuing at the Post Office or waiting at the bus stop? What do they make of me in the pubs and the coffee shops, around the kettle or water cooler in the office? How are the opinion polls looking?” The answers were quite complimentary. “Well,” the disciples said, “there’s a strong rumour that you are John the Baptist come back to life. Others are saying you’re the returning Elijah, the prophet meant to set the messianic good times rolling. Still others think you’re Jeremiah–you know, the great prophet of the exile. A few think you’re some other prophet. Hosea, maybe–you certainly seem to hang out with a similarly dubious crowd.”
Then Jesus went a little further. He turned the question on them: “And what about you?” he said. “Who do you say that I am?” There was a deathly hush. You could have heard a pin drop. Finally, Simon, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the silence blurts something out. “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Son of the living God.” “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” Jesus says, “come and get a gold star!” The other eleven are in disbelief. James and John are muttering between themselves calling Simon a swat. And Thomas is there and he’s protesting jealously saying, “I don’t believe it! He cheated! He must have looked in the back of the book!” But Jesus replies and says, “This isn’t ordinary book knowledge, only God can give this kind of insight.”
Faith is a gift. It is God alone who gives us the grace to see who Jesus is. Ours is a revelatory faith. We come to know God only because God comes to make himself known to us. We may pray, we may read our Bibles, we may receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but it’s up to God to meet us there. They are means of grace, channels God has generously opened for us to approach him. Before emerging as the great hymn-writer, preacher and leader of the 18th century Methodist revival, Charles Wesley became aware that there was something seriously lacking in his faith–a personal knowledge of who Jesus was to him. Already a preacher, he tried preaching himself into such faith. But he couldn’t. If he could, he would, and he tried. But he couldn’t. Faith is not something we go out and get out for ourselves, faith is something God gives us.
Only God can open our eyes to see that Jesus is God. Only God can make us look upon a homeless, wandering Jewish preacher and healer from an obscure little town in Galilee who ended up being condemned to die like a common criminal, half-naked on a Roman cross, and say he’s the Saviour. You’ve got to say, it’s not an answer you would arrive at on the basis of common sense. Jesus isn’t exactly what we would expect God to look like, is he? Therefore, if anyone can look at that Jesus and say that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God, it must be a gift of faith and not something we’ve come to by Sherlock Holmes style rational deduction. Jesus certainly does not fit the typical profile of the Christ. And despite confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed and divinely chosen King, Simon (as we find out just a few verses on from here) clearly still had a lot to learn as he unwisely tried to rebuking Jesus for saying that he would have to suffer. He had not yet understood that the Saviour we need is not one who will wrest control of political authority, but one who will wrest control of our hearts by dying for our sins.
Nevertheless, Jesus turns to Simon and says, “From now on I’m calling you the Rock (that is, Peter, petros in the Greek), because you’re the Rock on which I’m going to build my Church.” I don’t know about you, but that fills me with confidence. If Jesus will build his Church on someone like Peter–impetuous, misunderstanding, stuttering Peter, maybe he can build his Kingdom on earth with someone like me too. I remember preaching on this passage a few years ago and a woman came up to me after the service and said, “You know, it wasn’t Peter himself Jesus said that he would build upon, but his confession.” She was concerned lest I gave the impression that Jesus gives authority in his Church to mere mortals. The scandal is: he does. Jesus gives his authority to people who know him and who he is, to men and women like you and me. The Church is built upon ordinary people who know Jesus, ordinary people who know Jesus personally as their Saviour and as their Lord–the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Muslims think of Jesus as a prophet (one of their top seven prophets) through whom God’s truth has come–nabi Issa they call him. They don’t believe that he’s the Son of God, that he rose from the dead or that he’s God’s final messenger (that, for Muslims, is Mohammed), but nevertheless he is still very well respected, even though he taught some things seemingly contradictory to Mohammed. I wonder though, how many people in Church on a typical Sunday don’t think much more of Jesus than Muslims do. They see him as just an historical figure, someone we learn about in books and documentaries on TV, not as the living Lord. They see him as the founder and teacher of a new moral code espousing a non-judgmental love and acceptance for all people, no matter what they may believe or say or even do. Others see him as a revolutionary of the political left who championed the cause of the poor and dispossessed and who was willing to die challenging the power of the elites. Still others think of Jesus as someone whose job it is to give us what we want–someone we write a shopping list to in prayer and expect him to fill it for us.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus still asks his disciples the same question. Do we know him as the Christ–as our Saviour, the King whose job it is to rescue and restore the whole world to God, who came to tackle not simply the symptoms of sin and evil, but the root cause of it–the selfishness and greed and inwardness which is so ingrained in us and which we so often do not even notice? Do we know him as the Son of the living God–as God in the flesh, as Lord and Master of all, the one whom we not only love but choose to obey in love, whose ways we follow not simply because they profit us but because they are his ways and because that is reason enough. Can we, even if we do not quite understand all that it means, say with Simon, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and with Simon be made into a rock on which Jesus may build? The Church needs people who know Jesus. Only then can we make Jesus known. Nemo dat quod non habet. You cannot give what you do not have. If the mission of the Church is to grow, it must grow from people who know him whose Church it is.
Peter’s confession didn’t come out of the blue; it came from spending time with Jesus, as a gift of God’s own self-revealing. So it will for us also. Spending time with Jesus is the only way we get to know who he really is. So are we doing that? Are we meeting him regularly where he may be found–in prayer, in reading the Bible, in the Eucharist, in acts of loving service? Peter may have known that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, but he still had a lot to learn about what that means, that Jesus is our crucified Lord and Saviour, and that because and not despite his death on the cross.
Who we say that Jesus is matters. Who we think Jesus is will affect how we relate to him and what place we allow him to have in our lives. If we think of Jesus as the epitome of Mr Nice Guy, our discipleship will just consist in trying our best to be ‘nice’. If we think of Jesus as just a great moral teacher from yester-year, we might take some of his teachings on board, but we won’t let him take control of our lives in the here and now, reshaping us and saving us from the sin that comes so naturally to us.
The Jesus the world needs is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. The only Jesus who can redeem the world is God incarnate, who goes to the Cross on our behalf to save us from our sin and to follow whom means taking up our own cross and having our self-seeking, self-will and self-centredness crucified with him in order to live the lives God has for us. So who do we say that Jesus is? What do our lives as individuals and as the corporate life of this church say that our answer is? Are we as shaky as sand or solid as a rock?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.