Sermon for August 27, 2017

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

North of the Lake of Galilee, in the foothills near the Lebanese border, is the headwaters of the Jordan River. This lush area with rivers and waterfalls is a National Park that is a popular weekend destination for families and hikers.

The Romans called the area Caesarea Philippi. The Roman army used the area for R&R and it was a centre for worship of the god Pan. Shrines to Roman gods, especially Pan, dot the hillsides.

It is likely that Caesarea Philippi was about as far away from “normal” for the disciples as was possible. Miles away from their homes and comfortable surroundings, and in the middle of a Roman army centre and hub for the worship of Roman gods, being here might well have blown the disciples minds.

I wonder if that was what Jesus intended?

Isn’t it interesting how Jesus brings the disciples to this secular and foreign area before pausing and posing a question that forces them to stop and examine their very being. He turns to them and says, Who do you say that I am?

The first time that Jesus asks it, it’s the easy version of the question: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? What are people saying about me?

Here, the disciples are the eager students in the classroom:

Some say John the Baptist, says Philip. Others say Elijah, interjects James. Andrew jumps in with, still others are saying Jeremiah. Don’t forget all of the prophets – everyone is choosing a different prophet, shouts Bartholomew from the back.

Jesus turns to face them, slowly looking each one in the eye, one by one.

But…   Who do YOU say that I am?

 

There is a pause.

Every single one of them swallows, shuffles their feet, looks away…

 

This question requires something else. Something more.

It requires them to stop and decide whether to stay silent, hoping someone else will answer, or to put themselves on the line.

 

It’s a hard question. It is a direct question.

Who do YOU say that I am?

No more can we hide behind confessions or statements of faith written by others.

No more can we absent-mindedly recite the Creed, even if we are crossing our fingers at the parts we aren’t sure about.

No more can we simply parrot back what we learned in Sunday School or what our parents taught us.

 

When it is just you and Jesus, the answering the question requires vulnerability. Stepping out, despite the fact that it might feel really uncomfortable, to give our answer.

Who do YOU say that I am?

 

In the awkward group of disciples, Peter steps out and speaks up, presumably for all of them, but out of his own understanding and experience of who Jesus is. Yes, he has had time following Jesus to reflect and to gather information, but this is the first time he has had this question posed directly and it requires a response.

 

That is usually how it is. There is no perfect timing. The question cannot be put off or ignored until it is the “right moment,” the politically opportune moment, the moment that best suits our needs.

There is no more time to gather facts, weigh consequences, or check all possible outcomes.

 

Having heard the question, there must be a decision to courageously answer or to stay silent and let the moment pass by. Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail warns, “All too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows”

 

When face-to-face with Jesus, with this question hanging in the space between us, what is our response?

Who do YOU say that I am?

 

Peter speaks boldly. To declare that Jesus is Messiah in the centre of a Roman army, a militant crowd, is a courageous action. It is an answer grounded in his identity and, had he stopped to answer only when it was safe, it is an answer that probably would have tucked remained inside of him.

 

Jesus responds,

Blessed are you. You know who I am. God has given you this understanding and you have been courageous in speaking it. In this is the key of the kingdom and the heavens.

Whatever you imprison on the earth will be bound in the heavens

Whatever you set free on earth will be released in the heavens

 

Whatever we do, say, and confess in our lives has consequences. Like the concept of the Butterfly Effect, whereby one small thing in one place can have greater effects elsewhere, our response affects more than just ourselves – it affects the very heavens. I’m not talking about some place in the sky where people go after they die; I’m talking about all of humanity, our planet, the vast expanse of interstellar space, and time.

 

Who do YOU say that I am?

There can be no silence.

 

What we confess on earth matters. What we do on earth matters.

How you treat the most vulnerable is how you are treating me, says Jesus. How you treat the stranger, the foreigner, those who are imprisoned, those with no homes, those who are hungry, those without clean and affordable water – how you treat these is how you treat me. If you see them and respond to them, so you are doing to me. If you do not see them and do not respond to them, you do not see me and you have stayed silent.

 

And on THIS rock will the church be built: on this visible statement of the truth of the identity of the Christ, the living God

On THIS rock will the church be built: a church that demonstrates belief in a living, speaking, incarnating God

On THIS rock will the church be built: a church that courageously steps out and lives its statement of belief in a God of freedom, justice, love and peace.

On THIS rock will I build my church and nothing will prevail against it.

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