Todays readings for 12th Sunday After Pentecost Exodus 1:8-2:10 Psalm 124 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
“But who do you say that I am?” This is one of the most crucial questions in the whole of the Gospels. Jesus, standing in the city of Caesarea Philippi, seat of Roman power and home to the great temple to the God Pan, asks his disciples to understand that he is something much greater than the earthly powers whose presence is all around them. “Who do you say I am?” is still the question for us today, in this world of aetheism, of worship of the great god Mammon, of social disruption, of indifference and apathy, of terror and of ecological suicide, who do we say that Jesus is? And does the answer make any difference?
Peter, who has had the truth revealed to him, not by his own human capabilities, Jesus says, but by God, god’s-self, answers in two parts. “You are the Messiah,” Peter says, the hope of Israel, the one we are waiting for to be our leader and to shine God’s light on our world. And in this city that is the seat of Roman power where the emperor is considered a son of God, “you are the Son of God”. And this recognition, this understanding of Jesus as both the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Son of God, which is an all encompassing concept makes the beginning of the future possible. You Rocky, are the foundation of what I am going to build. And what he is going to build is his ecclesia, his church, his body as Paul puts it.
Jesus says he will give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven but this has nothing to do with who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. Peter is not a doorkeeper.
What this means, is Jesus is giving him the authority in the house, making him chief teacher and administrator, a role that we see Peter carrying out in the early church in the book of Acts. And this is linked to that next very difficult statement. Jesus says, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. This is difficult to understand and I was pleased to discover that it was the legal language of the Rabbi. It is specifically about teaching from the TORAH or book of the law. Only some people had authority to decide what the ancient laws meant. So what Jesus is saying is that whatever Peter teaches from the first books of the bible will become binding. It is nothing to do with who is in or out in the church. Of course, we only have tiny bits of Peter’s teaching recorded, but the church has inherited its authority from Peter. So God has given us the authority to make decisions but this is not a guarantee that we will get them right. Jesus is speaking to all the disciples, but Peter obviously has special responsibility as the chief teacher. Very quickly Paul will be sharing in this responsibility. Peter and Paul are both Jews, and Paul has been taught by the best teachers or Rabbis. I heard a joke that had been told by Jonathon Sacks the English Rabbi. Apparently, he said that when a Jewish Rabbi was rescued from a desert island they found that he had built two synagogues. They asked him why and he said that this was the one he worshipped in and that was the one he wouldn’t be seen dead in! Jewish Rabbis are renowned for their differences in opinion and indeed glory in them. Jesus is giving Peter and the others permission to interpret the scriptures, and that of course is the Hebrew bible, in the way that shows Jesus as the Messiah, and on that basis the new church will be formed.
Now, the church today is still in the business of interpreting the scriptures for others. We are in the midst of a dispute that involves the interpreting of scripture both for ourselves and for our society, and sadly there is no consensus to be found. The question of whether the church, if it could find consensus, then has a right to impose that view on society is another consideration. Let me say that the interpretation of the particular scriptures, is not as straight forward as it might seem. We can be blinded by the fact that we ‘know’ how the scriptures are to be interpreted, and we have seen this in other debates, for example the one over the ordination of women.
During the last week I attended a seminar at Trinity College and as part of that we looked at Genesis chapter 2, which forms the basis of the teaching on marriage both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Together we asked some questions of the text that were questions that I had never before thought about. Let me summarise what we found in our reading of Genesis 2. God has created his glorious creation and God needs someone to look after it so makes an earth-creature formed from the humus itself, Adam. God puts this earthling in the garden and tells it to go for it. At this stage the earthling has no gender, not yet ‘man’ in the Hebrew. Then God decides that it is not good for this creature, to be alone. God makes all the other creatures, birds, fish and animals, and offers them to the earthling. The earthling looks at them, names them but does not choose any of them to be its companion. God offers solutions but earthling is free to choose. And because God doesn’t want this precious creature to be alone, God puts earthling to sleep and takes part of its own flesh. God creates another one the same as it. Now it doesn’t wake up and say, ‘Oh good, God, you’ve made me a companion who is different and complementary to me,’ A dog, or a horse, would have fitted that bill. No, earthling says, ‘at last you have made me one the same as me’. This is all about companionship, not complementarity. That says something very important, I think. When earthling who has now become Ish, has his companion Ishah, then we are told that they will cling together and become one flesh. In other words, in our society, they are married. Now it certainly says that they are male and female, that’s what Ish and Ishah means, and this brings the possibility of sexual reproduction. And the initial problem is solved which is that God requires a workforce. It depends, doesn’t it, on the questions that you ask? If humankind’s greatest need is for companionship, and so Adam chooses Eve not because she is different but because she is the same, it changes the emphasis of the text. If God doesn’t ordain who the companion will be, and allows man to choose, in that first instance, then perhaps our exclusive view of marriage should be replaced with a more inclusive one. And perhaps the celibacy that we have suggested as punishment for same sex attraction should be rethought? God has created us beings that need a companion to cleave to, so indeed I think that broadening the definition of marriage to enable that is to do the right thing, in terms of my reading of scripture.
And that is the difficulty that we all face in terms of interpretation. There is also the consideration that we, even having been given authority, need to be able to rethink our choices.
Here in Matthew’s gospel we have seen Jesus giving Peter authority. Now we all know that Peter is not the wisest of the disciples, he is passionate and hasty and often does the wrong thing but nonetheless it is on him that Jesus says he will build. In the Acts of the Apostles the church soon faces a crisis concerning whether or not they should let Gentiles in. Now you might think that Jesus makes it fairly plain that Gentiles are going to be included through his actions. It’s interesting that Jesus is always inclusive, not exclusive, even when he doesn’t think that he ought to be, as we saw last week. Peter has been speaking out bravely and leading the new group in a very strong way. He is being the rock on which Jesus is building. But Peter, doesn’t find it easy when confronted by the dilemma about the unclean Gentiles being brought into the church. He knows the law, the TORAH, he has read his scriptures, which seem to prohibit this but God has different ideas and God sends Peter a vision. (See Acts 10) I won’t tell you the story again but Peter, who knows what is right has to rethink. Peter has been given authority, but he is still under God’s authority and he has to change his mind. And you know, even when he baptises Cornelius and his household into the church that isn’t the end of it. He has an argument with Paul about Gentiles and then goes to Jerusalem and changes his mind then comes back and changes it again. It is never an easy process to change our ideas about what is right. And perhaps if you are a relativist you might say it doesn’t matter.
But, just as it matters to the beginning of the church it does matter now. We are the representatives of the Son of God. We are the disciples of our own times and we are called upon to enable God to be seen in our world. It really does matter who we are and what we say. We are, like Peter and the other disciples, the body of Christ here on earth. So brothers and sisters we need to take God’s love to our world. We need to loose on earth what will be loosed in heaven.
Who do we say Jesus is? He is the God of creation who made us and loves us and calls us to love God and do his will in our community.