Note: Because this sermon was given at our last outdoor worship of the summer, no video or audio recording is available.
The sermon is cross-posted at the lectionary page of the Ekklesia Project.
Proper 16 (21), Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
27 August 2023
A friend of mine is the chaplain at the hospice residence a few doors down from the church. As he is about to go on a leave of absence, he encouraged me to apply for the part-time position posted for the time he is away. It would make my life busier for those four months but it is a connection to the community. God knows whether I will get the position, or an interview. But I think of myself as qualified and at least I think that I should get it. But then, I understand that nine out of ten pastors believe that they are good preachers, myself included. Self-deception may be our biggest issue.
While nothing that Peter says about Jesus is something we haven’t read earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, it is something that seems to elude others. Or maybe Peter was just the quickest. He is impetuous. But given how little Peter understands of what he has said, we may wonder why him. How did he become the teacher’s pet? How come he has been entrusted with such responsibility, or perhaps we’re just glad that Jesus didn’t pick us. Or did he?
And that gets us a little closer to what is happening here and elsewhere in our readings. Leaving aside the ecumenical question of the primacy of Peter, this passage is less about Peter than it is about the church, for the tasks of binding and loosing, are tasks entrusted to the church. Besides, this is the first of two occasions when Matthew uses the word ekklesia.
Speaking of church, as so often, there is a parable hidden here. It is easy to miss for people like me whose sense of biblical geography is underdeveloped. And maybe it was intended to be missed by ancient state censors as well. Wherever Caesarea Philippi was and whatever it looked like (forgive my ignorance) it was named after the emperor, at times known as the living son of god, as well as named after Philip, puppet ruler appointed by the Romans. So to speak of the church in this context, makes it clear that the church is to be something different. It is not to oppress but to set free, and it it not to be self-serving but to serve God and others. This is not a story just about Peter, but a story about what the church looks like. Not a theocracy or an empire, but a community committed to loosing the bonds of injustice and to letting the oppressed go free. Though in no way dependent on the empire, this church is cast in opposition to it.
Peter’s confession then says exactly that. There is only one Son of the living God and his name is Jesus, and Jesus the Messiah came to inaugurate the reign of God to which the disciples are bound.
I am struck by Peter’s confession. Not so much because he gets it right when often he does not, and not because, as is his habit, he speaks before he thinks. What strikes me about his confession is that it is in tune with God. Peter speaks the truth less because he knows it but because ‘our Father in heaven has revealed this to him.’
I know that I have said things that were true not necessarily because I knew them but because – and I am hesitant to say this – because God dwelled in me. I just wish this were the case more often.
This is not an argument against theology or discernment but rather the recognition that the goal of our lives is that God dwell in us (I am not denying the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit), which includes surrender. It is also the acknowledgment that there are plenty of things that can distract us as the next scene will show.
But when Peter makes his confession, I cannot help but think that his confession does not come from any kind of knowledge other than love. Peter knows because he is fully known. To speak of love makes sense here because love is gifted while it is also an invitation.
And so this ends up being more than a catechism class for the disciples but becomes the vocation into which Peter and the church are called.
And if it is true that Jesus’ commissioning of Peter is not just the commissioning of Peter but of the church, then our vocation is not individual but collective, then the community of the church is where our sense of vocation is nurtured and strengthened, and then our vocation is accomplished not at once but we are invited to grow into our vocation, as was true for Peter, and all who have gone before us.
Our reading from Exodus celebrates the civil disobedience of midwives and of Pharaoh’s daughter. Psalm 24 knows that our life can only be found in God: “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; … Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (7+8)
Isaiah names not Peter as the rock but the Lord and promises that God’s deliverance will never end. Psalm 138 tells that the kings shall praise the Lord, yet their praise is counter-intuitive, for God regards the lowly and the haughty God recognizes from afar.
And finally, Paul not only calls on us to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect, and Paul has already told us what that looks like, namely, to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. In the voice of Paul, Brian Walsh says, “If it is true that all things are from God, through God, and to God, and that all true glory is God’s and God’s alone, if all of this is true, …. I urge you with everything that I have, … I beg you, …. to offer up your bodies; not simply your piety, and your devotional life, your online signature, but your very bodies. Put your bodies on the line for the sake of the Gospel.”1
It would be too easy to think that the vocation of Peter was Peter’s alone. Already Origen saw Peter as representative of all followers of Jesus, and says that a rock is every disciple of Christ who drinks from the rock who is Christ.2
Thanks be to God.
2 See Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, vol 2 (Matthew 8-17), Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, Benzinger (Zürich and Braunschweig) and Neukirchner (Neukirchen-Vluyn) 1990, page 474