Homily for 8.24.2014, Year A MATTHEW 16:13-20
Revised & Edited from a Homily originally posted on 8.21.2011
The Gospel Lectionary reading for today brings to a fine point what it means to follow Jesus. This text is the hinge moment in the ministry of Jesus, at least according to St. Matthew’s rendering. After this Jesus heads toward Jerusalem and the inevitable conclusion in his clash with the rulers and powers of the age.
But, what of his disciples? What of his work just birthed in them, and still so weak? Jesus now begins to solidify in the minds (if not yet in the practice) of his followers who he is and what they will do after his Jerusalem journey ends his life.
Here we see three statements coming out of the text that will help us understand what is happening here, and how this text might also apply to our own discipleship within the real world, within the struggles of the human condition:
THE CONFESSION OF FAITH
THE PREPARATION FOR THE INEVITABLE
THE CALL TO CARRY ON
THE CONFESSION OF FAITH
Jesus pulls his followers away from the grind of everyday ministry -- I suppose we could call this a moment of retreat -- and uses the occasion to ask a very serious question of them:
"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
Then Jesus gets to the actual question, and the reason for their time away together:
"But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Now, we do not know if Peter was the spokesman for the group, the only one willing to shoot off his mouth (likely) or actually the only one with this conclusion (doubtful), but what we do know is that Peter offers a confession to the reality that Jesus was the Christ, the promised one of Israel.
"own, avow, declare, reveal, or disclose what in the depths of the soul one considers truly to be the case."
He goes on to write:
"Confession of 'the faith'...far from being incidental to the truth that the discipleship community confesses, is itself an indispensable dimension of that truth. For the truth that faith confesses is always in some profound sense "hidden" apart from its disclosure to and by the confessing community of discipleship. It is not only hidden from the world at large, but also from the discipleship community itself, which must always rediscover that truth as it manifests itself under the ever-changing circumstances of its historical sojourn."
That is, the community of faith must in every age reveal what it believes to be true. In the incident given us by the text, these disciples are called upon to own, avow, declare, reveal, or disclose what they believe about Jesus of Nazareth, and so, my friend, are we.
Notice, Peter did not come to this conclusion on his own, nor will we. As with Peter, we must be persuaded by the Holy presence of GOD, which opens to us the choice to be part of what GOD is doing in the Christ, or not.
This means, out of our own experience and in the midst of the rugged and jagged human condition, we too must come to some conclusion about just who Jesus is. May I say this is basic to discipleship; it is basic to following Jesus.
To be sure, there are those who would like to avoid this owning, avowing, declaring, revealing, or disclosing the hidden truth of what they believe because to declare is to then be responsible --
“Since I believe this, how will it change my life?”
And we are right to understand a confession in this way, that a confession such as Peter gives means that our lives are irrevocably transformed forever. We set on a new course and we are called to new behaviors.
You do see this, don't you?
To name Jesus as the promised one, the one who represents GOD to us and us to GOD means the course and purpose of your life has been replaced forever. Your allegiances have shifted from self to self-less; your future is now, somehow, immersed within the time and calling of the one in whom you believe and confessed to be rejected, slain and raised; your story has become part of the story of another.
This confession, therefore, carries with it the seeds of hunger, deprivation, and even martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel. I'll wager you didn't see that in the fine print when you signed on to follow the ways of the Christ, did you?
This open confession of faith by Peter also leads to the second statement:
THE PREPARATION FOR THE INEVITABLE
By bringing Peter's confession of faith into the open, into the conversation of the twelve, Jesus begins the preparation for his departure. He was leaving them. He knew this to be inevitable, so steep was the clash between his message and the powers of darkness it could not end any other way. He knew this, but his disciples did not.
Whatever their understanding of Messiah, it did not include a dead one (N.T. Wright). This was unthinkable, really. Consequently, their world was about to be turned inside out.
This meant the Master's final task was to make solid the faith of his followers, bringing their hidden conviction to confession, a confession to be found in the clear light of day, and grounded within the experiences of his ministry.
What they needed was to be captured by his example; to see him as the model for carrying on the work.
Later he tells them:
"Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised." (from next week's text)
He knows his rising from death’s grip will be the key, but they do not. He knows that their experience of his presence after Golgotha will mean then they can carry on, but they do not.
So, the question is, why bother? These guys are clearly portrayed as dullards of the worst kind (probably not unlike so many of us). Why not just explain everything after raised-life occurs?
Could it be that Jesus really cared about these men? Could it be that his brotherly-love for them was so intense and genuine, that their relationship and friendship was so powerful in his life, that he wanted them to know that the sorrow they would feel -- that he would feel -- would not last? Could it be that the Jesus wanted them to know that the work would carry on with them, even after he had left them? That they hadn’t forsaken everything for him on the dust of a whim?
Which leads to the final statement:
THE CALL TO CARRY ON
But, how could they carry on after he left them? How would the Kingdom work happen without him? Was that even possible?
Yes, it was because Christ appointed a leader for them. Peter would be enabled to insure that the practices of the Jesus-way would be secured and taught and passed on to others.
Jesus said Peter:
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Peter would insure the truth? Peter? You mean the denier of Jesus? The deserter? He is the Rock?
Yes, and I am so glad he is. What a relief, that GOD, who choose to use people to accomplish his work (and how inefficient is that!) chose one who went so far as to deny his own Messiah. This gives me such hope, sinner that I am.
Further, through this chosen and called leadership the church would survive the onslaught of evil it would face in every generation --
the gates of hell will not prevail against it...
including even the death of Jesus, with the keys of the kingdom being used to include many people in the Christ's final work, people not usually thought of as God’s people. In his commentary on Matthew, Douglas Hare writes that this reference to the keys, which is often viewed negatively as a means to keep people out, perhaps is much more positive than we suppose, and ultimately may point toward the future inclusion of many outsiders in the Kingdom, namely the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10).
Finally, this chosen leadership responsibility given to Peter extends to what is termed binding and loosing, which we learn later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is also promised to the other disciples as well (Mt. 18:18). This speaks to the authority of called leadership within the discipleship community, those responsible for the continuation of the faith once delivered to the saints.
Again, referring to Douglas Hare’s Commentary, he interprets this binding and loosing to mean the calling of those responsible leaders to offer:
“rulings about what can and cannot be done by members of the church.”
This means, ultimately, someone (or someones) is responsible to ensure that the faith once confessed maintains fidelity to the ways taught by the Christ.
The upshot of this is the simple truth found in the old saying that the Christian faith is one generation away from extinction. We are called, therefore (in some ways all of us, but especially those given the responsibility of leadership) to offer the next generation a clean and truthful confession of the faith we believe and declare each Sunday morning --
Christ has died;
Christ has risen;
Christ will come again.