Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 23 August 2020.
• First Reading: Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10 (Moses rescued and adopted by daughter of Pharaoh)
• Psalm 124 (Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth)
• Epistle: Romans 12: 1-8 (Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God)
• Gospel: Matthew 16: 13-20 (‘Who do you say that I am?’ – ‘The Christ, the Son of the Living God’)
It was said, I think in the 1960s, that ‘The medium is the message’ and that in effect to control the message all you had to do was to control the media used to spread it.
A less flattering term for this might have been ‘propaganda’ but again it was the presentation and the perception that mattered more than the actual content that was being presented, never mind its truthfulness or reliability.
But in the church we have the same question and when people look at organized Christianity it is the church that is seen.
Jesus had a similar question for His disciples, although there were two questions to be answered.
First of all, ‘Who do people say that I am?’
Yes, there was John the Baptist and Jesus was often confused with him, even if he was in prison. Yet in Matthew’s gospel, today’s lesson is in chapter 16 while the execution of John is described in chapter 14. For the purposes of this account, John was already dead.
Then there were the prophets of old and Jesus could have been working in their tradition, and in His way, He was.
And the same question arises today. Who is or was Jesus of Nazareth? For some He was a great teacher, and for others, a wonderful example and a doer of many good works.
Again, this is true so far as it goes. But it then puts Him on par with other religious and even political leaders. What about the gurus of India, Mohammed of Mecca, Buddha, or even other philosophers like Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre?
How are we to distinguish Jesus and what sets Him apart?
So Jesus was asking a very basic question of the disciples. Yes, what did other people see in Him, how was he being represented and understood?
And this is fine for a school or university debating society where points may be scored, attitudes struck and impressions made, without commitment or personal exposure.
But then the question became personal. What about you? Who do you say that I am?
Now there would be no room for evasion, and each of the disciples was going to be exposed. Each must answer for himself.
Even in this more isolated location where there was no audience, the question was direct, penetrating and personal.
In our own time we also are being tested over the person of Jesus. Multiculturalism would make us present Jesus as one of many, with no unique features. No real difference between Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Just a body of teachings coming from a record which is now highly contested and for many, suspect if not fraudulent.
But for us there are also more answers available than for the disciples at Caesarea Philippi. We at least know how the ministry of Jesus developed and where it led Him.
We have the records of the crucifixion of Jesus and of the witnesses to His subsequent resurrection. We have the stories of Christians of almost 2000 years, spread over the face of the earth.
We have a lot of evidence to counter the skepticism of the world and of parts of the church.
So, who do you say that Jesus is? Who are you willing to say He is in the presence of family, friends and colleagues?
For this is not a question about the church. It is about you.
As we look at how the story unfolds, Jesus says several things in response to Peter’s confession of faith.
First of all, Peter is Blessed. Blessed by God who has revealed this to him but also blessed in himself for being able and willing to express that faith.
Secondly this is a life-changing moment. Jesus gives Peter a new name and a new identity. His life will never the same again. Yes, he will face challenges and in some of these he would fail. But the ‘Gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ and Peter had now been given a new calling.
Peter is to be the rock, the leader of the disciples of Jesus. His faith and commitment, his willingness to expose himself to ridicule and rejection make his example the example for the disciples of Jesus in every generation.
Where some leaders may be willing to compromise on the person of Jesus, Peter was standing firm and this kind of faith would never be dislodged, even when faced with personal cost.
But Jesus’ question to the disciples stands for all generations and all disciples have to answer it. It is not just about who other people think or speak Jesus. It is also about how we receive Him personally.
May God grant to us also in the time and place of tension – or is it pressure – the grace to own Jesus as the Messiah for all times and all places of the world.