“What’s Your Answer?”
A Sermon By:
David D. McDonald, Sr.
Text: Matthew 16: 13-20
August 23, 2020
NRSV Psalm 93:1-5
1The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
2your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
3The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
4More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the LORD!
5Your decrees are very sure;
holiness befits your house,
O LORD, forevermore.
NRSV Matthew 16:13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
When Jesus asked the disciples “But who do you say that I am?” he was not interested in public opinion polls. He was more interested in what each disciple thought. It was clear that more education was needed. Jesus was not looking for a crowd mentality. Jesus was searching the heart. Time and again we see this in the dialogue of Jesus with others: The Samaritan woman at the well, the Rich Young Ruler, the raving wild man in Gadrene, the woman caught in adultery, and so on.
Jesus was a mender of broken hearts, broken spirits, and broken minds. He was a healer of the whole person. To heal a leper was not just a matter of eradicating disease, it was changing the whole community and their perception. To heal the deadliest of diseases requires the effort of the world community. From Ebola, to religious extremism; the world community must act. Tragedy is no respecter of national boundaries!
Consider the context for this story in Caesarea Philippi. Imagine standing in the midst of the disciples in this ancient city where so much has taken place. In the days when Israel first inhabited this land there was a cultic site here where the worship of Baal, the god of the Canaanites, was practiced. Centuries later, during the days of the Greeks there was a temple dedicated to Pan, the Greek god of the forests, wild animals, flocks, and shepherds. Greek art work usually depicted Pan as part goat and part man. Images and language can be confusing and sometimes embarrassing. One of my mother’s favorite stories from my childhood was the day she tried to teach me the difference between a moustache and a goatee. I learned the difference in appearance, but not pronunciation. We were sitting in a restaurant and I spotted a man sporting a goatie. In my youthful zeal to demonstrate my new found knowledge, I gleefully pointed and exclaimed, “Look at the goat! Look at the goat!” My mother was ready to die. However, when this man and his wife were passing by on there way out, she leaned over and whispered to my mother, “Some days he really is an old goat.”
Let me return to Caesarea Philippi for a moment. It was in this city that Herod the Great, trying to shore up his unfailing patriotism to Rome and thereby keeping his place as King of the Jews sought to ingratiate himself to the Romans by building a temple to Caesar Augustus. Herod's son, Philip, enlarged the site and dedicated it to Caesar and himself; hence, the name, Caesarea Philippi. In a few short years, the Roman General, Vespaian, was determined to with root out any Jewish resistance to Roman rule. The general would build a vacation home at Caesarea Philippi while his army laid siege to Jerusalem. Vespasian’s son, Titus, would oversee the destruction of Jerusalem, and with consummate cruelty gathered some of the Jewish captives and any Christians present who happened to be among them, and according to Josephus, the Jewish historian, threw them to captured wild animals – lions and bears – to be devoured. The faithful were certainly under persecution.
Walking in the shadow of this city with all its sordid history and turbulent present, Jesus turns to his disciples who will walk into this dark and ominous future and asks them:
"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
"And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.'"
John the Baptist lost his head when he dared to decry the sins of the people especially the royal philandering of Herod's household. Elijah was chased into the wilderness by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel by daring to confront the idolatry of Baal and the 450 prophets of the royal court who served him. Jeremiah was cast into a cistern and left for dead for daring to defy the court priests who encouraged King Zedekiah to rebel against Babylon and trust his military alliances rather than the grace of God. The result was catastrophe, war, and captivity for the whole nation.
These people had it right, in a sense. They knew the history of the neighborhood. This was ground zero. Many spiritual battles for the hearts and souls of the people had been waged for years on this piece of turf. This was a problem of the world community brought home to the good citizens of Rome and Judah. The voices of generations spoke from the ground. Israel and Judah had been faithless children. They had often rebelled. God had time and time again called them from their ways and they would not listen. They would not remember the God who loved them, reached out to them, and redeemed their history. The gates of Death beckoned to the traveler who passed through this city. That is the way the Jews and soon many Christians understood the matter. God offered life to those who chose it. Death sought out those who followed other gods. God was coming to save, not destroy. God was opening the gates of the Kingdom. An alternative was available. Death need not have the last word. God's redemption was nigh. A new day was dawning. A new covenant was being forged between God and his people. This would be a covenant for all people. God was trying once again to redeem creation. Peter sees the new day dawning. He proclaims in answer to the question of Jesus:
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus, proclaims that this is a blessing from God and that Peter's name will no longer be Peter, but "Rock." A wonderful play on words in the Aramaic. Peter will be the "Rock" of this community. Behind the words is another image, suggestive, perhaps. The prophet Isaiah in 51:1-2 writes:
"Listen to me, you that pursue
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which
you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called
but I blessed him and made
Abraham was the rock upon which God had shaped his covenant of old. Peter would lead a people in a new covenant. God came for Jew and Greek, men and women, rich and poor, and old and young. Peter would lead the church into a new era.
The word for church is used only twice in the Gospels - in this passage and also in Matthew 18: 17. The Greek origins of the word lead us to the phrase, “ called out”. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, would use this language to translate the community of those "called out." The people of Israel were "called out" of Egypt. Peter will lead those who are "called out" of Caesarea Philippi to be God's servants.
In every age, there are those who are "called out." The question which Jesus posed to the apostles standing in Tiberias Caesar is just as relevant today.
"But who do you say that I am?"
The answer to that question is posed in the light of our cities and in the presence of our communities of faith. Wade Clark Roof the noted sociologist of religion who has studied the surge and ebb of mainline denominations was asked in a seminar at Union Theological Seminary how we could best understand the transformation of religious life in America. His reply was to say that he could best describe the situation by the transformation of his home town in Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst was in the heart of the Puritan settlements at the inception of our nation's history. It was in Amherst that Jonathan Edwards would preach and the "Great Awakening" in American religious life would take hold. It was Edwards who would envision and begin mission work with the American Indians. Today, a Buddhist Temple stands on the site where Edwards had once preached.
Today, we are faced with questions of faith; the most important of which may be that timeless question of Christ's:
"Who do you say that I am?"
In reflecting upon that question for our time, I am struck by three things. First, the revelation of Jesus Christ to Peter as the Messiah had little to do with Peter's knowledge of scripture, his personal moral values, or his loyalty to Christ. Rather Jesus says to Peter:
"Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." Matthew 16: 17
The recognition of the Messiahship of Christ was not Peter's doing, nor of anyone else's efforts. Rather, it was God's desire to make this revelation known to Peter. Peter could not claim any pride in this matter. In fact, this revelation was not a matter of status, but of service.
Secondly, this revelation will lead Peter not only into service for his community, but also as an advocate for justice and righteousness throughout the known world. Peter will lead the Church through hard times when its people are persecuted, its churches destroyed, its beliefs challenged and ridiculed. Peter will find himself and the Church of Jesus Christ embroiled in conflict from within and without. The Church will need Peter to be a "Rock," because it is the nature of human endeavor to be contentious. There will be arguments over "who is the greatest." There will be questions over whether meat sacrificed to idols should be eaten. There will be matters of obedience to the Roman state. There will be questions over the nature of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and some will accuse others of eating the meal unworthily. There will be questions whether Gentiles should be included in their fellowship without first making Jews of them. Peter is faced with a grave responsibility.
That brings us logically to the responsibility which the Church with Peter at its helm will exercise. The Church is the gate of the living. Those who die in Christ will be raised in Him. The power and authority of these who are "called out" is to open wide the gates for the living. For many, Christian faith is absorbed, embraced and cherished; but its power and strength become poignantly visible in a time of trial. Consider the following story that professor William Willimon tells: (Pulpit Resource, July, August, September 2005, Year A, Vol. 33, #3, pps.35-36)
“A good friend of mine came by the house the other night. He said, “Let’s go for a drive out in the country.”
I got my coat and hat, knowing that he meant more than a drive out into the country.
We drove for a bit, then he pulled up on to an overlook from which you can see our town. Then, after a bit of pointless chatting about this and that, he said to me, “You know all those sermons you preach, all those ideas you spout off about from Sunday to Sunday?”
“Yep,” I replied.
“Well,” he said, “we’re just about to find out if I believed all that stuff or not. We’re about to find out if I was really on board with this faith or not.”
“Are you trying to tell me something?” I asked.
“I’ve just found out that I’ve got cancer,” he said flatly. “They think they’ve detected it early. They want to do some more tests, then treatments. But I know it’s not just the cancer and the tests. This is my day for a religious exam. We’re about to find out what my faith is made of.”
And he was right. Such times are themselves examinations on our faith, tests of the seriousness of our theology. Such times are occasions for us to speak up.”
Those of us with young people in schools are well aware that a new school year is about to begin. There have been tryouts for the sports teams, new class assignments and of course a great deal of anticipation of tests. Further, this year, there is a Covid-19 pandemic raging across the globe and our nation.
The students are not the only ones being tested, of course - so are the teachers, the school administration, the parents, the community, and lest we forget this is also an election year in which state and national candidates for office are making pitches for their programs and policy for education.
I would suggest that there is also a religious test underway, framed by the words of Jesus, "But who do you say that I am?" How will you answer?
I encourage each of us to take inventory of our answers and seek that which builds up faith ours and that of others. May the Lord bless us in such an effort. Amen!