Sermon preached by Revd Canon Lesley McCormack on 27th August 2017 at St Michael & All Angels
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?…..But who do you say that I am”
When Jesus puts these questions to that very mixed bunch of people who were closest to him, he knew there was a buzz spreading about him – people were talking and speculating about this man who was clearly more than a simple carpenter or itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. And so Jesus takes his disciples away from the crowds, away from the attention of the authorities and potential hostility – the Roman ruler, Herod Antipas, has eyes and ears everywhere, and fear of uprising or rebellion – even a hint of it – brought swift and brutal response.
And so this morning we find Jesus and his disciples in the wooded hills at Caesarea Philippi, a gentile town well outside the territory of Herod Antipas about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee – a good two days walk away. It was a place steeped in pagan religion. In ancient times, the city had been called Balinas, signifying that it had been a centre where Baal, the Phoenician god of fertility and nature, had been worshipped. Later the name would change to Panias, because the Greeks believed that their god, Pan, was born in a cave in the hills above the city. But there was also a marble temple built above the city on the slopes of Mount Hermon, to honour Caesar Augustus, also worshipped as a god.
And so it was to this place, a city devoted to the worship of idols and manmade gods that Jesus takes his disciples to ask them the question, that monumental question recorded not just in Matthew, but in Mark and Luke also.
To begin with, Jesus asks them ‘Who do people say that I am?’ The disciples report the general reaction of the people – some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah and still others one of the other prophets. And the response says much about the way Jesus was perceived by the crowds who had seen him teaching and healing. And what they have seen and heard leads them to think about the great figures of their faith from the near and distant past, people who had stood up and spoken passionately, fearlessly against wicked, rebellious and unjust kings, people who had challenged injustice and wickedness at the highest level. These great figures of the past help the people to make sense of what that see and hear in Jesus – to give him identity, to define him.
But Jesus pushes the disciples, taking them beyond this general speculation about his identity and asks them, the group who have lived closely with him – day in, day out – eating, sleeping, arguing, laughing – ‘But you, who do you say that I am?’
I imagine them in almost stunned silence, looking at one another, wondering perhaps how to voice, how to express the wonder and mystery of what they feel and experience; a silence borne of the certainty that they have never heard or known anyone quite like Jesus; a silence that speaks volumes about how he moves their faith experience beyond the prophets who had come before him; a silence that struggles to articulate, how to give name to all that they experience and feel – deep within their very being.
It is Simon Peter – bold, impetuous Simon Peter, who finds words for what is going on in that silence when he declares “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here, in Caesarea Philipii, against a backdrop of paganism and false religion, Simon Peter saw in a humble carpenter from Nazareth, a man with nowhere to lay his head, a man who ate with sinners and tax collectors, the very essence of God himself. Simon Peter looked and saw the Messiah, the anointed one – but he also recognised in Jesus something of his divinity, recognised him as Son of the living God. A stunning profession of faith proclaimed in a place surrounded by lifeless gods and idols.
And yet, while it is impossible to know with any certainty, I don’t hear these words uttered by Peter as a cast-iron, rock-solid faith, but rather a heart-felt response to what God has enabled him to glimpse in Jesus; a glimpse borne out of Simon Peter’s prayerful attentiveness to God. We know that all too soon, he will once more put his foot in it and be sternly reprimanded by Jesus; all too soon he will profess undying loyalty and faith and within hours deny even knowing Jesus. And yet, and yet…….in spite of his impetuosity and human frailty (and perhaps because of it), Jesus recognises in Simon Peter a faith that will continue to grow, to flourish and mature; recognises Peter’s dependence upon God; recognises in Simon Peter qualities, strengths and potential that the man himself is completely unaware of at this moment. And so Jesus blesses him – “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” and gives him a new name – Peter – or in his native Aramaic, ‘Cephas’ meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’. Peter would be the foundation stone of the new temple which Jesus builds. But unlike the temple above them on Mount Hermon, this new temple would not be built of stone or marble; what Jesus is building is a new community, a community to which each one of us here, and all those people past and yet to be born who profess Jesus Christ as Lord, Son of the living God belong. The building of this community starts then and there, at Caesarea Philippi, with Peter’s declaration.
But for the time being, Jesus urges Peter and the others not to say anything. A premature public declaration could set off hostility and revolt. There is still has much to do before they will understand what Jesus as Messiah, Son of the living God really means; and what it would mean to truly follow the One who called them. Like all of them, Peter has much to learn and many failures to overcome. As do we all!
We can so easily reflect on this story, focus on Peter and the others and forget that the question put by Jesus to his friends at Caesarea Philippi he puts to us also; we forget to ponder Jesus question to us – ‘Who do you say I am?’ And as we hear that question, we should remind ourselves that we too are surrounded by false gods whom we are tempted to worship.
- The god of consumerism that tempts us to buy, buy, buy, not because we need, but simply because we want; a consumerism that seeks to satisfy those wants at the cheapest possible price, usually at the expense of people forced to work half a world away in shocking, life demeaning, life threatening conditions.
- The god of success – that tempts us to see the accumulation of wealth or power as a mark of success, while ignoring or discounting so much else that enables people to flourish.
- The god of beauty, that lures us to aspire to unrealistic ideals of what it means to be beautiful; a god that demands physical perfection and ignores inner beauty; a god that encourages us to idolise youth, ignoring the wisdom and beauty of age.
- The god of nationalism, at whose altar every stranger is an enemy.
In a world of false gods, Jesus took his imperfect, fallible friends aside and put to them a question; it was a moment that would bring forth that great affirmation of faith. They still had much to learn and failures to overcome, but that moment marked a new beginning, and what was begun in Ceasarea Philippi is the reason we are here this morning.
In a world where false gods abound, Jesus draws us as aside to meet him; and in a few moments we will approach the altar, hands outstretched, to receive Christ himself, the living Son of God among us now. As we approach, we hear Him say to each one of us ‘Who do you say I am?’ He waits longingly for our answer; like Peter and the others, we too still have much to learn and failures to overcome, but through it all, God in Christ will do wonderful things through us!
In the life of faith, as in so much of life, our actions speak louder than words and are often the indicator of what we hold to be true in our hearts. When we ‘Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord’ may the ways in which we are experienced as a community here, the way in which we live and move in this world and relate to our neighbours – those close to us and those across the worlds’ oceans, reveal what we believe in our hearts and profess with our mouths. Amen