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A Strange Rock Indeed

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 6:15 pm on Sunday, August 27, 2017

A sermon preached on August 27th, 2017 based upon Matthew 16:13 – 20.

Maidie back

Our story this morning (Matthew 16:13-20) is a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. So far in the Gospel story he has been wandering about Galilee, with the power of God clearly present in the healings he performed, but in other ways as well. Twice he has fed thousands of people who have followed him out into the wilderness.  Two times out in a boat at night on the sea of Galilee, the disciples have witnessed him first silence a storm and second, and then walk on the water.  When Jesus talks to his disciples they often seem confused.  We pick up the story as Jesus puts a crucial question to them.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi – the location where the conversation we are about to hear takes place is very significant. Originally the city had contained a shrine to the pagan god Pan, but the Romans came along and established a military outpost there. Herod the Great — known to us from the Christmas story — named the city after Caesar Augustus as a tribute to the emperor in Rome.

Later Herod’s son extended the size of the city, renaming it Caesarea Philippi making it not only a tribute to Caesar, but also to his own lineage, for he had a son named Philip.  “We may not be the top dogs,” he seemed to be saying, “but in the great chain of command that rules this world, we are just a notch from the top.”

So the city represents the way of this world, where a person’s identity is established by their ability to Lord it over others – to have people look down on.

Once upon a time in this country the KKK was seen as a respectable organization.  White men of stature openly took part in its activities.  In the past forty years, however, it has been primarily an organization of poor white males. Having bought into the way this world whereby to feel good about yourself you have to have somebody to look down on, they have clung to the notion that, “well, at least we can look down on blacks and Jews.”

This is what Caesarea Philippi represents.

he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

“Son of Man” was by far the most common title Jesus used for himself. There was, it seems an intentional ambiguity to the title.  On the one hand, it is an expression of humility, emphasizing the humanity Jesus has in common with all people.  He identifies himself with all of us.

But in the Book of Daniel there is a reference to the “Son of Man” as a heavenly figure who will come in the future to exercise divine judgment. The “Son of Man” is the one we are ultimately accountable to.

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

The disciples repeat what they’ve been hearing from the people – that they are clearly impressed by Jesus, for the names they give are all great prophets of the past – people who clearly spoke for God in this world.  In particular, they spoke “truth to power” – they called out the kings of Israel when they failed to rule with justice, abusing their power by robbing from the poor.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Ah, now the conversation suddenly gets very personal. No longer is this merely a matter of repeating the gossip the disciples have heard, or an intellectual discussion.  “Who am I,” Jesus wants to know, “for you?”

The impression you get is that for a moment there was stunned silence – the disciples avoiding eye contact, examining the backs of their hands perhaps — until Simon, the impulsive one finally breaks the silence.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The claim Simon is making is bold indeed.  There are two parts.  He names Jesus as the “messiah” – a Jewish term for the “anointed one” – “Christos” in Greek — as once long ago a young David was anointed by the prophet Samuel, indicating that though in the present moment he appeared merely a humble shepherd boy, he was nonetheless the very one God had chosen to replace corrupt King Saul who had failed to rule in line with God’s will.  Jesus is, therefore, the righteous King for whom the people have been waiting for centuries.

The second expression, “the Son of the living God,” is extraordinary, because there already was one who was commonly referred to as the “son of God,” and that was the Emperor Caesar in Rome, whom the city is named after.

The assertion being made here is one if spoken openly could get a person crucified for sedition.  Simon is claiming that contrary to the appearance of this world, Jesus – not Caesar in Rome – had the real authority in this world.

And 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.

On the surface, this sounds like a compliment to Simon, but the point being made here is that Simon hasn’t figured this out on his own.  That he has come up with the “right answer” does not mean Simon has special insight and wisdom – rather, he is just a very average Joe to whom God has chosen to reveal a truth missed by others far smarter than himself.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

There is a play on words here.  “Petros” is the Greek word for “rock.”  Simon is given a new name – essentially, “Rocky” – the rock upon which Jesus’ church will be built.

The irony, of course, is that from the stories we know of Simon Peter, he is anything but “solid as a rock.”  A little earlier in the story we have heard how Simon impulsively stepped out of the boat to stand on the water, only to promptly sink when fear overtook him.

Next week when the story continues, we will hear how Simon goes directly from receiving this blessing and revelation, to being called “Satan” when he shows he completely misunderstands the way of Jesus, the only individual to be so named.

And of course there is the story that later all four Gospels contain, how on the night Jesus is arrested Simon Peter will impulsively declare how he is superior to the other disciples in that he will never abandon Jesus, only to deny him three times before the night is over.

A strange rock indeed upon which to build his church.

and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

Often “Hades” is translated “hell”, but that isn’t an accurate rendering.  Hades is simply the realm of the dead.

There is a great promise here.  The powers of death will not prevail over the church.  The church may go through hard times indeed, often losing its way.  Church buildings may close but the revelation of Jesus as Lord that is at the heart of who the church is will never be lost.

This past week, in the editorial page of the New York Times of all places, a young Chinese seminary student in Hong Kong penned a piece with the remarkable title, “I Worship Jesus, Not Xi Jinping (the supreme ruler of China.)” He spoke out in the piece of how the church in China was being oppressed and the leaders of the church were succumbing to the threats of violence imposed by the regime.

He knew that in proclaiming Jesus Lord and not Caesar, he would likely end up in prison and possibly be killed.  But he would not be silenced.  He was determined to speak the truth.  Contrary to appearances, Jesus is the one in the end before whom we will all be judged — not the Caesars of this world.

We do not have the religious oppression experienced in China in this country, but the pull of this world to get our marching orders from some source other than Jesus is nonetheless pretty powerful.

Long before apartheid was cracking in South Africa, Desmond Tutu, the little meek and mild archbishop would often speak to the defenders of apartheid. There was a constant, ringing theme of triumph in his words.  His message was this:

“We must assert, and assert confidently, that God is in charge. You are not God, you are mortals.  It is God whom we worship and God cannot be mocked.  You have already lost.  Come and join the winning side.”

Despite the threats of the powers of death and Hades, in the end, Jesus will win.

I 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.”

There are all these jokes you hear about people meeting Peter at the gates of heaven, and not being allowed to enter until they answer some question he asks.  These jokes are all based on this verse.  Jesus gives Simon Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

The jokes generally have very bad theology.  They miss the irony of Simon Peter as the rock upon which the church is built.  We don’t earn our place in the God’s kingdom; we are invited with the same grace Jesus extended to pathetic Simon Peter, who in the darkness of that long night denied Jesus three times.  I heard somebody suggest that when we think about Peter at the gates of heaven, we might do better to imagine the greeter at Walmart. This is not a place that is only open to the elite, to those who have proved themselves spiritually superior to others.  This is the place where there is room in the circle for all – for all us poor slobs on the bus.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

He tells them not to tell people that he is, indeed, the anointed one of God, because they do not yet understand the way of this messiah, which is the way of the cross.  The disciples — and all of us who call ourselves Christians — will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand the way of this messiah, because it is so different from the direction this world pulls us in.

In the end, Jesus reveals his greatness not be lording it over others, but by offering himself as a servant, who accepts death on a cross, dying for all people, not just some people, in order to reveal the extraordinary love that is at the heart of God. As he dies on the cross, the powers of death seem for a time to prevail.  But the story doesn’t end there.

The Lord rises from the dead.

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