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Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Year A Matt 16:13-20 8/27/23

Grace to you and Peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’re at a turning point on the journey with Jesus in our gospel today. After healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter last week, expanding the mission to include gentiles, and arguing once again with the Pharisees and Sadduccees, Jesus takes a moment to check in with his disciples. These are his closest followers, the ones who have been with him since day one. He asks them the question, ‘who do people say the Son of man is?’

Jesus is checking the pulse; seeing what they’ve heard from the people they’ve encountered. Part of me wonders, why would Jesus care what people are saying? It’s possible he wants to know how his ministry is landing.

-What are the takeaways for the people healed?

-those in the marketplace?

-what resonance is he having within the communities?

At this point, I see the disciples casually munching on some grapes, taking this question in stride, not worrying too much about it as they answer their teacher. There’s still mixed reviews and some confusion. Some are saying he’s John the Baptist–who was recently killed; others say Elijah or Jeremiah–two long gone prophets and others say he is simply one of the prophets.

Understandably, the masses don’t know what to make of him and look to their legends from the past–those who could heal the sick, feed the hungry and gather crowds together with their preaching. This question about who “people” say the Son of Man is has very little stakes. It’s not a question that requires much thought from the disciples and it won’t really get them in trouble if they answer “wrong,” per say.

But Jesus may just be warming up to his more important, more intimate question for them: Yes, but who do you say that I am?

—This is the million dollar question and one that the disciples find themselves at a loss to reply; to name their faith, to connect the dots of what they’re seeing and experiencing and what is happening inside of them, what faith and trust is blossoming?

The disciples probably stopped eating at this point and stared at each other, afraid to name their wonderings, scared to get it wrong. I imagine a thick and awkward silence fell over them. They suddenly found something really interesting in the dirt or they busied themselves gathering firewood. The equivalent of “look at the time,” or “is it hot in here or is it just me?”

—Something I found interesting in my research is the place in which Jesus is asking these questions. Caesarea Philippi is where Rome’s gods were enshrined. It’s a seat of imperial power. Herod built a temple to Caesar there and often, the emperor was known and revered as the son of a god.

It's in the presence of all these competing religions and gods that Jesus looks around and asks his disciples, where would they place him in the midst of all this? When these conversations with the locals come up and they say, I’m John the Baptist or Elijah, who do you say that I am?

Peter pipes up and speaks for the disciples giving his famous confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

God bless Peter.

Bold, brash, brave, thick headed, Peter.

‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’

There it is. That moment when someone sees you, really pushes to see you and know who you are. It’s those times on the phone with a great friend who knows you well and asks, “but how are you really?” I don’t think Jesus had felt so seen since his baptism.

And yet, Jesus knows Peter doesn’t fully understand what he’s saying. Peter wants it to be true, he wants Jesus to know how much his right hand man loves him and will follow him to the end of the age–but Peter doesn’t know the half of it yet.

—This is a turning point in the gospel because even though Peter has little idea what it means to call Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God–somewhere along the lines, Jesus knows it was this same Living God who revealed this truth to Peter.

-Even if Peter doesn’t know the whole truth yet–-and won’t be able to stomach it when he does learn the truth–Jesus sees the potential for Peter to be a conduit of God’s love and grace to the world.

-Jesus sees Peter’s strength to lead the way forward when Jesus is no longer with them in the flesh.

Jesus capitalizes on Peter’s confession. He knows it’s fleeting, but he praises Peter for putting himself out there, for trying. Jesus says he will build his church on this rock.

—Church and rock are interesting in the greek. Jesus names Peter to be “the rock,” Petros--or little rock, pebble, a chip off the old block, and then he says, “on this rock” petra, or larger boulder, I will build my church; Jesus will lay the foundation for his followers on both Peter and his profound confession.

This means the community is built on the confession that Jesus is the Son of the living God, the Messiah, and it’s also built on Peter the man, the disciple--fully human, deeply flawed, enthusiastic, and broken. We are that church that started so long ago with Peter’s proclamation. Also, the Greek for church here is “ekklesia”, which actually means “to be called out.” The church was never meant to be insular, it literally means to be called out.

As Jesus praises Peter and gives him a special blessing, Peter doesn’t realize Jesus is making a succession plan with Peter at the center. Peter doesn’t know the cost for being the Messiah, to live and die as the Son of the Living God. And as soon as Peter realizes this reality, the rock who is on top of the world will tumble down and become a stumbling block for Jesus.

The question at the center of our text today calls out to me: who do you say that I am? I wonder how many of us have faced this question in our lives? How many of us go about our days like the disciples, listening to what others say about Jesus and taking our faith at face value, rather than wrestling with who Jesus is and what he means to us?

–I’m struck by the fact that we ask our Confirmands a similar question in their culminating essay for their confirmation. We ask them to confirm their faith, profess how they have learned and grown in Christ by answering: what does it mean to be a Christian? In order to answer that question we have to first think about who Jesus is and what makes us want to follow him?

I always say I won’t ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. So as someone who was born and raised in the Lutheran church all my life, it hasn’t always occurred to me to take apart my faith and dissect what it all means to me. As many also experience, our faith is often a part of our culture, how we live and how we approach our lives. For some, it has been there all along and is simply who we are and what we do.

Apart from what we do and how we live our lives, who is Jesus to us and what difference does it make?

Of course we can give the creedal answers, Jesus Christ was born and raised of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again. He is seated at the right hand of the father to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

-That is all most certainly true, as Luther would say–but how does this affect our lives?

As I think about this question, I know there is no real ability to completely arrive at an answer. We are meant to live the questions; but we also want to have an answer when someone asks us, whom do you believe in and what does it mean to you?

—How do we know what to say that’s not been spoon fed to us over the years? Who is Jesus to us today, yesterday and tomorrow? Our answers change over time; and God knows that they will. Our relationship with Jesus ebbs and flows. Some days we feel close to him, other days we only see glimpses of him working in our lives.

For a lot of people growing up, Jesus is the most important person in the stories of the gospel. He loves us and came to this world to heal the sick and be there for those especially left out. He is God’s Son as we witnessed God cracking the sky open at Jesus’ baptism to shower down his belovedness.

-Jesus is compassion embodied to the hoards of the hungry,

-he is grace to the woman accused of adultery,

-he is a teacher of profound mysteries and wonders,

-he is forgiveness to the so called bandits crucified on his left and on his right, -he is hope for the hopeless and peace for those who crave calm.

I think as we get older and our lives are placed into perspective, especially when we near the end of our days, we recognize Jesus as the conqueror of death–as the one who has gone before us–who has made holy all places and spaces.

Who is Jesus to us? It depends on what we’ve experienced in our lives and how Jesus has impacted each of us.

-We know who Jesus particularly through the stories of the bible, where Jesus was found and where he was not. He didn’t spend much time in one place and would go from place to place spreading the gospel of God’s good news.

So if Jesus is all of these things we’ve named and thensome, who are we, the church built on Peter’s confession and the fickle, flawed person of Peter and his understanding of Jesus? Who are we called to be as followers of Christ? I think we’re called to keep searching, keep questioning, keep opening our hearts and lives to who God is revealing Jesus to be for us today.

I think we’re invited to live the questions. Theologian Debie Thomas offers these thoughts to ponder as a faith community?

-What stories of Jesus have we inherited?

-What truths about him do we need to say goodbye to?

-What religious assumptions are we clinging to simply because they’re familiar, or safe, or easy?

-Is Jesus merely the Messiah or is he our Messiah?

“To love what is unsolved is not to deny Jesus his Lordship. It is to allow Jesus to enter more deeply into our hearts than any impersonal claim will ever do.

Today through Jesus’ questions and complex answers, Jesus invites us to live the questions and make space for God to speak into our wonderings. So tell me, dear church, who do you say Jesus is? Think about this, live the question over and over again–the Living God will be with you in the questions and in the answers.



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