Sunday 23rd August 2020, twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev Dr John McCulloch
Isaiah 51: 1-6
Romans 12: 1-8
St Matthew 16: 13-20
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, stood in the line of the prophets of Israel. The prophets denounced injustice, went to places of danger, confronted the powers of the day, and did not remain silent in the face of evil.
Author CP Snow once said:
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.
Prophets did not follow the crowd, and were prepared to disobey rather than comply with orders that were contrary to what God was calling them to do. Think about Daniel and his friends refusing to bow down to the gold statue, and how as a consequence they were cast into the fiery furnace. Think of modern day prophets like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and bishop Oscar Romero (to name only a few).
It is little wonder then, that when in Matthew 16: 13 Jesus asks his disciples ‘who do people say that the Son of man is?’, they respond: ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’.
― Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination writes:
“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
The prophets imagine that another world is possible, and then, through their lives, mobilise to bring about that world. They raise awareness of injustice and denounce systems of oppression that mar God’s creation.
Jesus’s parables and ministry devoted considerable time explaining how the kingdom of heaven was different to earthy kingdoms. Many parables begin with the refrain : ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’.
Through his ministry and teaching, Jesus not only proclaimed the advent of a new kingdom, but embodied it incarnation-ally.
But it is not only Jesus’s words that are important here in the context of Matthew 16, but the place where he said them. In verse 13 we are told that Jesus had travelled to the coasts of Caesarea Philippi. Why was this significant?
Because Caesarea Philippi was the gateway to the underworld, to hell. In OT times this northern part of Israel had become the center for Baal worship. When the Greek empire arrived centuries later, it became the place where the god Pan was worshipped. There was a cave at Caesarea which was believed to lead to the underworld, it was the gate to hell itself where the gods lived. Baal was a fertility god who also was believed to control the weather patterns, crops and rain. Pan, was half God half goat, an lived in the underworld. By going to that place with his disciples, Jesus is engaging in a bold prophetic act that challenges the powers of evil head on.
‘Who do people say that I am?’
Peter responds in verse 16 ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. And Jesus responds in verses 17 onwards:
17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not [g]prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth [h]will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus tells his disciples that his kingdom is one that challenges the false gods and idolatry that promise material well-being.
The church is founded as the agency of God’s kingdom here on earth, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Peter’s words showed a deep revelation from God about who Jesus was when he said ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. And yet, we cannot read these words and not think about Peter’s very different reaction some time later, when Jesus was facing crucifixion.
Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination says:
“The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one.
This was certainly true of our Savior, and at Jesus’ crucifixion, when Peter is asked if he knew him, fearing for his life, he denies him three times.
But before we become too critical of Peter, before we point the finger, we need to be honest with ourselves. For do we not at times do as he did? Do we not proclaim to know Christ, and yet in our daily lives deny him, by what we say and do, and by what we don’t say and don’t do? We too, like Peter, can claim one thing and yet, when the temptations of this world come our way, we do the opposite. We bow to the gods that promise personal well-being and protection, rather than following in the footsteps of our saviour.
But thanks be to God that there is always grace when we come to God in humility. Jesus gives Peter, the one who would deny him, the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Christ comes to us and forgives us, even when we deny his presence in our daily lives…
In our OT reading from Isaiah chapter 51 there is also mention of a rock, as we read in verses 1-3
“Listen to Me, you who [a]follow after righteousness,
You who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
And to the hole of the pit from which you were dug.
For the Lord will comfort Zion,
He will comfort all her waste places;
He will make her wilderness like Eden,
And her desert like the garden of the Lord;
Joy and gladness will be found in it,
Thanksgiving and the voice of melody
The church is built upon the rock, and called to bring about the kingdom of God in our world, bringing comfort in the wastelands of despair (as the prophet Isaiah says), and a garden of Eden in the deserts and dry lands.
This is a picture of creation restored to what it should be. A garden where the voice of melody can be heard. A place of flourishing and growth. It is a picture of the kingdom of God here on earth, and we his church, are called to proclaim it’s coming amongst us, to embody it.
Our epistle reading from Romans 12 urges us in verse two:
2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Jesus stood at the gates of hell, and proclaimed a different kingdom.
He promised to build his church, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
Do we believe this to be true?
Can we look out onto our world of suffering and pain, where so many are trapped in a living hell?
Can we embody and proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, which comes to heal, restore and make new?
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.