23 August 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Pentecost 12 A 23 August 2020

Matthew 16:13-20

Isaiah 51:1-6

Psalm 138

What is the foundation of your faith? This is a very good question to ask ourselves when times are tough. Are you consciously leaning on your relationship with God at this time, during the Pandemic, or is it more of an unconscious certainty of God’s care for you as a person? Both Isaiah and Jesus use the metaphor of rocks in terms of foundation, and indeed if we were able to go and look at the foundations of this church we would find something very solid underpinning its weight, maybe not rock, but over the millenia rock has been the foundation for so much of civilisation.

The other question that is raised for us by this reading from Matthew, is- who do people say that the Son of Man is? And, with a bit of a twist, who do you say that he is?

And again this is a very good question for us in the midst of pandemic. Over these weeks in Pentecost we have seen Jesus of Nazareth as teacher, as healer, as the one who feeds, as the one who looks with deep compassion on the frailties of mankind. The disciples have experienced all that we have read about and, unlike us reading or hearing of it very much at second hand, they have experienced it for themselves. They have heard the words from Jesus own lips, they have seen the healings, they have tasted the bread, they have reached out their hands and felt Jesus’ saving touch on them personally. Judging by Peter’s reaction they are beginning to get it- they are starting to understand who Jesus is. Those around them have had many views, all of them somehow in the right ball park- everyone knows he is pretty special. He asks them how they personally are reading the situation and we have Peter’s response, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’.

It is important to understand that Peter is saying two different things here. We tend to read it, I think, as if the two statements are equivalent but they really aren’t. The Messiah, who is of course, an Old Testament figure, literally means the anointed one, someone ordained for a task, and viewed in the light of the Intertestamental Period as a political saviour. The Jewish people of Palestine were hoping that a leader would emerge to rid them of the Roman conquerors, and there were a number of contenders for that title. The idea of Jesus as Son of God is very different. We have grown up with the idea of Trinity, and whether or not we understand it, or however we understand it, the idea that Jesus can be part of God, and God’s Son seems quite reasonable. But for the Jews, who separated themselves from the surrounding nations by the fact that they were fiercely monotheistic, this was a very big step. At the moment of saying this they are in Caesarea Philippi with its temple to Pan and inscriptions to other Gods. The Jews defined themselves against these polytheists. This statement of Peter’s is not yet Trinitarian, but it is an acknowledgement of  a bigger picture of God.

And the disciples, it has to be remembered did not yet know the end of the story. Even at the end of the gospel, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they were still growing into an understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth was in relation to God and the Christ, or Anointed one. 

The beginning of their understanding has come from journeying with Jesus. Jesus has shown himself to be both man and superman, of you like, to quote George Bernard Shaw, in his acts of generous abundance, whether in healing or feeding or even teaching. Jesus has also shown himself to be the outworking of God’s plan to bring all people to God’s-self in his healing of Gentiles, Canaanites and others. Jesus, in Chapter 15, has just fed the 4,000 a number symbolising the whole world. Jesus of Nazareth is revealing God’s agenda of love and salvation for the whole world.

So this idea of Jesus as Son of God is a revolutionary one, then, and dare I say it, now. So that is the first revelation for the disciples and indeed for us as the readers. And then there is a second. It is that through human beings, Peter first, and then others, that God’s purposes will be done through the church or gathering of God’s people. Built on Peter it will be formed and endure. The revelation, from God is the basis for the church. But it requires a human being to be the foundation, a rock to build on. And Peter who is a very imperfect person is to be that starting place, and indeed as we look at his work in the Acts of the Apostles we see that he grows into the task, enabled, as he is by the Holy Spirit.

Peter is the first in a long line to have authority for God’s people. And the authority given is fairly specific. The language Jesus uses here is Rabbinical language and the authority is to interpret the scriptures. It does need to be said, however that Rabbinical interpretation was very different to the way some of us  try to find a definitive interpretation that becomes the only truth. Rabbis argue for the love of the different opinions it produces, and they say put 12 Rabbis in a room and you have 24 different opinions. And by and large they are much more interested in other people’s opinions. I think I have told you before that I heard Rabbi Sachs, when I was in London and he told the story of a Rabbi, who stuck on a desert Island built two synagogues. When he was rescued he was asked why and he replied, ‘well, that is the one I go to and that is the one I wouldn’t be seen dead in.’ There is an acknowledgment that you can take different positions on things in Jewish thought. So Peter who recognises something about Jesus is given authority to read scripture and bring out some ideas about God. The revelation is ongoing.

So the church is to be the outworking of the relationship between God and humans. We are still, like the disciples, discovering and learning, having things revealed to us, in the vehicle of the church. And week by week  our sermons and services try to reveal God so that you might grow in relationship with God. We worship together and sing God’s praises as the Psalmist says and experience God together and we grow.

And, as I keep saying, this God being revealed to us is a God of righteousness, justice and mercy. This is the foundation of who we are to be as God’s people here. In the wonderful Isaiah passage Isaiah speaks again of light, and justice and salvation for all. This is still being revealed for us in our current situation. And it is our job as the church to bring this to fruition. This church that Jesus built on Peter and continues to this very day is the agency of God for truth and justice in the world.

 We are to be a light to the nations in God’s great plan of salvation for all.

So these passages today help us to not only understand something about Jesus of Nazareth, and about the Godhead, but also about ourselves.

As we walk on through these difficult days it is important that we keep our focus as people who care for others, people of generous abundance, people of justice and mercy peace and most of all, love.

Rev. Roberta Hamilton