Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon; Proper 16A; Matthew 16:13-20

Today we leave the Old Testament behind (as far as the sermon is concerned) and get back to focusing on the gospel.  And as we have seen time and time again, the appointed lesson seems like it could have been hand picked for the day.  There are two things in this story I want to focus on.

The first has to do with Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah.  This particular story takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi.  We don't know exactly where in the district this happened, so some of what I'm going to say may be an estimation on my part.  Caesarea Philippi has a long and interesting history.  At the time of Jesus the city was the administrative capital of a Roman territory.  Based on that, I can make the assumption that it was a busy city with a decent-sized population.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus is no longer just another street preacher.  He has become a well-known healer, teacher and rabble-rouser.  People know him and know of him.  So, in the area of Caesarea Philippi, in public, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

He gets four answers:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  These answers are important because they aren't reflective of a popular poll.  This isn't a Judea's Got Talent contest to determine the next superstar.  Nor is Jesus playing a game of What's My Line.  What Jesus is doing here is setting up a contrast between how the world views Jesus and how faith views Jesus.

John the Baptist was a dynamic and controversial preacher.  Jesus has some of those same qualities, so people identify him with John.  Elijah is to return at the end of the age to signal the arrival of the Day of the Lord.  Jesus has spent a lot of time proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand, so people identify him with Elijah.  Jeremiah was the suffering prophet, and prophets before him spoke with power and authority proclaiming that God is doing a new thing, both of which are often identified with Jesus.

Jesus exhibits a little of each in his personality, but he is not any one of those individuals.  What the people are really saying about Jesus is that he may be exciting, but he is nothing new – same song, different verse.  And in saying that, Jesus is made into their image – easily identified, easily ignored, easily controlled.  But these are one or two dimensional answers.  Jesus is looking for something more, so he asks Peter, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter, in a moment of faith, expresses his opinion based on his relationship with Jesus.  Peter doesn't just cover the basics  – John, Elijah or Jeremiah.  Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of the living God, the Savior of the world.  He came to this conclusion based on his time spent with him, what he saw and what he heard.  And he did it in a very public place.

What this tells me is that if we sit on the sidelines, or if we allow people to tell us who they think Jesus is, we will only get a partial picture.  How do we avoid this?  We avoid it by participating in worship on a regular basis.  We avoid it by being active disciples in our worship and study.  We avoid it by working on our relationships with both God and the church.  As the Collect for Proper 28 goes, we need to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Today we have gathered to worship in the park.  We gather every Sunday to worship, but this is different.  Today we are out in the open.  We are vulnerable to being told by those passing by who Jesus is.  But by worshiping out in the open we follow Peter's example of proclaiming in a public place that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.  And if we continue to follow Peter's example of active discipleship, then we will get better at following his example of public proclamations.

The second thing I want to focus on is this whole “keys of the kingdom of heaven” business.  This, and Peter as the rock of the church, is what the Roman Catholic Church uses to justify the papacy as a whole, and Peter as the first pope in particular.  Protestants will point out that Jesus never says anything to Peter about passing on those keys to successors.  Whether or not Peter was the first pope isn't important.  What is important, I think, is the meaning of those keys.

The image a lot of us get when we hear Jesus giving Peter the keys of heaven is Peter, keys in hand, guarding the Pearly Gates.  This is, at best, a highly stylized vision.  Personally I also think it is a simplistic and overly literal vision.  I tend to think that what Jesus gives to Peter is being given to all of us as well.

Think about this:  Peter was a disciple who spent time with Jesus.  As I’ve already said, he watched, listened and learned.  He had his good times (he identified Moses and Elijah on the mountain, walked on water and proclaimed Jesus as Messiah), and he had his bad times (he wanted to stay on the mountain, he sank, and he cut off somebody's ear), but he worked at it.  And it was in that working at it, in that discipleship, where the keys of the kingdom of heaven were found.

For the past two months I have been working with officiating rookies.  We have been going through the rules book and mechanics manual.  We have discussed plays and rulings.  I have shown them how to determine if the play will be a run or a pass.  We have talked about reporting fouls.  In essence, this is a group of disciples learning something new and . . . and I am giving them the keys of becoming a good official.

The keys Jesus gives Peter aren't tools for opening up or locking down the Pearly Gates.  The keys are what Peter is, and we are, learning about Jesus through discipleship.  Those keys are to be found when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what Jesus is telling us about himself.  And those keys aren't only for Peter, but for everyone of us who allows our preconceived notion of Jesus to take a back seat while we learn about this man we claim to worship.

This is the perfect day for today's gospel lesson.  On the day Peter publicly proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, we sit out in a public park making that same proclamation.  And on the day Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, we can be assured that, if we pay attention, we will receive those keys as well.



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