Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: August 23, 2020
Year A, Proper 16: Psalm 124, 16-22, 45b; Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
In our gospel reading from Matthew today, perhaps the teachers among us noticed a subtle shift in the teaching technique Jesus used to make his disciples understand. Instead of preaching to them or telling them a parable to explain who he is and what he wants them to do, he uses what some of you will know as the Socratic method. He peppers the disciples with questions.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And “who do you say that I am?”
The disciples brainstorm and answer the first question by listing a few of the names from the past, heroes of their faith, or great prophets who had come back to life: Elijah, John the Baptist, or Jeremiah. These, of course, aren’t the answers Jesus is looking for so he probes further as a good teacher would do.
He asks again, “Who do you say that I am?” The emphasis here is on the you? It’s as if Jesus is standing in front of us pointing his finger and asking us the question. Peter states, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Now we know that’s important. Peter has just identified specifically who Jesus is beyond an important prophet. But the Gospel of Matthew is unique in this identification of Jesus. Neither Mark nor Luke includes the identification of Jesus as Son of God.
Something outstanding has happened. Something hidden has been revealed. The title Messiah would be expected – it’s a Hebrew title meaning “anointed”. The “Son of…(you can fill in the dots) had a very specific meaning in the Greek world. Being the “Son of” in Greek was a Greek title for a ruler, a divine leader.
Bible scholarship and preaching techniques have shifted significantly in the last thirty-five years. I read a paper about this passage, which gave me a detailed analysis of three points to make in a sermon on this passage. I’m sure it would take at least thirty minutes to preach. I promise not to preach that long.
There’s a lot in here. Jesus asking questions. The disciples answering. Jesus telling Peter that “you are the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”
So many ways to go.
Yet, Jesus’ identity is at the heart of everything we do in life so I feel virtually impelled to focus on that question and also on how we respond to it.
Peter! Impetuous, impulsive Peter. Peter, who jumped out of the boat and walked across the water to come to Jesus, only to start to sink when he felt the wind and began to doubt.
But Peter is right on target today with his answer to Jesus. When Jesus asks the disciples the second question, Who do you say I am? Peter blurts out, “You are Messiah, Son of the living God!
Jesus wasn’t interested in what other people said about him, he wasn’t taking a survey of the diverse theological and historical ideas people of Palestine held. He wanted the disciples to understand what was going on. He wanted them to understand who he was and what was going to happen.
But Peter wasn’t ready for the implications that Jesus was quite aware of: “He would undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day be raised.” That is what is in next week’s gospel.
Peter had not considered the sacrifice that was included in being the Messiah, the fact that the evil in this would not tolerate the purity of Jesus’ healing compassion – Jesus’ insistence on compassion for the poor and marginalized and his refusal to sanction the dishonesty that people use to protect their power and cover up their cruelty.
The messiah was not expected to be a healer or a person who taught in parables. The Messiah the disciples expected was going to come like a warrior with a sword, taking down the oppressive powers. He was going to be the one who purifies, burning away the evil and rotten parts of the world.
But Jesus comes as a peasant, a son of a carpenter, not a warrior. And instead of being the one who purifies and throws out what is bad and unclean, he sits with those who are unclean and eats with sinners and tax collectors. He draws near to the outcasts; he does not throw them out. And he certainly did not topple and destroy the oppressive powers of his day. Instead, he is the one who is destroyed, killed on a cross by the Roman regime.
Christ presented himself a sacrifice for the whole world. He knew the cost would be on insisting on justice and love, even if the disciples did not yet know.
As followers of Christ, we are signing up to take part in the costs of Christ’s love, not just the benefits. That context becomes even clearer when Christ tells us disciples, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Christ is telling them, indeed telling us, that we are called to speak on behalf of justice whenever we see injustice. We are not to conform to the world around us just because we see things as they are and feel we can’t change them.
That, of course, is contrary to human inclination and self-preservation. Conforming to the world is the kind of advice that people give and get all the time. Haven’t we always heard – listen; play by the rules; do what you’re told; keep your head down.
There’s a time and place for that. There’s also a time and place to not be conformed to the world.
Conforming to the world can certainly lead us to despair and being on the wrong side of history.
In his book, Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois wrote about Alexander Crumell, a priest and mission of the Episcopal Church. One episode in that account tells about the seminary from which I graduated.
“A voice and vision called him to be a priest to be a seer.” To be that priest, he applied to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. Because of his race, his admission was denied. DuBois writes of it in this way: “they were not wicked men, the problem of life is not the problem of the wicked, they were calm, good men, Bishops of the Apostolic Church of God, and strove toward righteousness. They said slowly, “It is all very natural – it is even commendable; but the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church cannot admit a Negro.”
The Bishops involved were worldly and successful and they conformed to the world around them.
My desire to tell that story comes from asking ourselves how do we live out Jesus’ call to each of us. How do we live out our identity as Christians in the world around us?
Peter’s answer was just the beginning. Jesus asks each of us today, “Who do you say that I am?” What is your testimony of me? Where have you seen me at work in the world? What is your experience of the living God? Have you seen/known my presence in the face of suffering? What does it mean to proclaim that Jesus is Messiah in our communities, in our work, our nation, the world?
Where has The Messiah been during this past week with all its distressing news events?
What can you witness to? What specifically can you do in tangible ways to proclaim that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of the living God?
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.