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Pentecost 12A Sermon
Matthew 16: 13-20
August 27, 2017

 

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Pastor’s note – during my children’s sermon I am going to talk about how the region of Caesarea-Philippi, where the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel takes place, had also been known by the name, “Paneus,” because it was the center of the worship of the Greek God, Pan. His image is on the right above. He was the god of nature and the wild, a combination of man and beast. In this place, there were niches carved into the stone cliffs with statues of Pan and other gods in them for the people to make offerings to, mostly for fertility purposes. To appease Pan and the others so that their fields and families might be bountiful.
The picture on the left is of the current day, “Baneus,” which is the Hebrew version of Paneus. It is marked by a beautiful waterfall and lush vegetation along the stream, which flows down from Mt. Hermon. It is very different from the area around Nazareth and Jerusalem, where Jesus spent much of his life. It is out on the margins. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am? And who do you say that I am?” Very different world today, but Jesus still wants us to be able to identify him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, just as Peter did in the Gospel lesson.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Who do you say that I am? Indeed, this is a very different area from where Peter and the other disciples are used to living. They are no longer among people of their own ethnic or religious group. Instead of letting their prayers rise before an unseen God as incense, they are among people who give offerings to a strange half-man, half-goat who frolics in the green fields of this oasis area looking for pleasure and mischief. Pan is sort of the epitome of individual, personal pleasure and hedonistic drives. When you come to think of it, he is kind of devil-like – even to the point of being depicted with horns and cloven hoofs! And that fact that this area which is attributed to him is so lush and green … thanks to the water run-off from Mt. Hermon … Pan seems to be a powerful force in the lives of the people in this region.
Jesus is the exact opposite of this figure. As a matter of fact, when he asks his disciples who people say that he is, they claim that he is the next coming of a couple of their fallen heroes, John the Baptist, who never cut his hair, drank alcohol or engaged in physical pleasures … who preached about the ritual washings to make us worthy before God; and Elijah, whom scripture says is the forerunner of the messiah, one of the greatest heroes of the Jewish faith; and Jeremiah, the prophet who suffered angst most of his life because of his faithfulness to speak God’s word even when it was unpopular and got him imprisoned and beaten and hated by everyone! These three had died, and yet the disciples tell Jesus that people think he is one of them, returned from the grave.
When Jesus asks who they say that he is, Peter speaks for all of them. This is the same Peter who a little while ago tried to walk out on the water to Jesus and got scared and sank; the same Peter who will deny Jesus three times; the same Peter who always seems to be going off half-cocked, only to be reeled in my Jesus.
Here, Jesus praises Peter for his confession: “Blessed are you, Simon, Bar Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven. And 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!” Jesus heaps praise on Peter for this confession, and yet we know that in the verses to follow (which we will hear next week), Jesus will rebuke Peter for protesting when Jesus foretells his suffering and death to come. There seems to be a pattern with Peter in his life of being right and lifted up by Jesus, and falling short and being rebuked or corrected by Jesus. And we really should not expect anything else from Peter in the Gospels. Why? Because in all of these incidents – the ones where Peter is worthy of praise and the ones where he seems to miss the mark – Jesus is shaping Peter to be the church leader that he will need to be! In the book of Acts, Peter faces all sorts of obstacles – going before rulers and judges, being jailed, having his life threatened, and debating the meaning of the Gospel with others. I am not sure he would have been able to do all of those things with so much conviction if it had not been for both the successes like this confession, and the failures like his three-fold denial. He was human, after all, and we humans must make mistakes if we are going to grow.

Jesus is the Christ of a different kind of kingdom than is represented at Caesarea-Philippi. Jesus is the messiah that has returned from the dead, but is also moving and working in the world today through the church, anchored on the rock of Peter’s entire life and witness. We are the modern-day manifestation of the disciple Peter as the church. Paul reminds us that we are like a body, each with different parts and gifts and talents. Yes, we are to present our whole beings as living sacrifice to the mission of Jesus, but we don’t all have to do everything individually! And we don’t always have to be successful in what we do! If we are faithful in loving God and our neighbors, then we are certain to learn from our failures and grow into the rock-like foundation of God’s people we call the church!

Friends, Jesus is shaping each one of us just as he shaped Peter in his life. Being successful at everything is just not possible for us, and the nature of being a Christian is losing ourselves for Jesus’ sake. I think that is why Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone he is the messiah. As they lost their lives for Christ then words weren’t necessary – their actions and love would be witness enough for people to know that their Lord is the messiah.

As we consider our response to Jesus’ questions to the disciples – “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” We know that there are millions of opinions about just who Jesus is from Son of God to a made up fictional character. If you are one who believes that he is the messiah, like Peter, then other people can tell it without you even saying so … by your sacrificial living and losing yourself in love for each other. In the same way that Jesus commanded his disciples, I sternly order each one of you, do not tell anyone that Jesus is the messiah; live in community with each other so that the world sees, knows and experiences Christ the messiah through you! May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.