Sermon on Peter’s confession of faith
21 August 2011
Matthew 16: 13-20
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
The Old Testament reading today is the passage where Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill Hebrew male babies. The midwives in the face of the enormous power and authority of Pharaoh, who was like a god, decide to ignore him and then lie to cover up their subversive behaviour. We are then told that God rewards them for their act of defiance. In the face of such power and authority they refused to bend the knee. Good for them, but it took guts and could have cost them their lives.
We can all at times be faced with big decisions of how we will behave, what drum beat will we march to, and will we dare to stand out from the crowd. In the New Testament passage today we see Jesus speaking in the shadow of Caesarea Philipi in the far north of Israel, a city which had been named Paneas in honour of the Greek god Pan, the god of Music. There was a monument to Pan in the city. Rome had conquered the entire region and in 20BC Caesar Augustus gave the town to Herod the Great. On Herod’s death in 4BC his son Philip inherited the city and named it after Casesar and himself.
So this is a place of worship and of worldly power, where men invented gods and became gods. You would walk around and see the shrines to gods and you would see the shrine to Caesar Augustus. There was a temple of white marble that honoured the cult of the Caesar. Remember ‘Saviour of the world’ was a title given to Caesar, Jesus was another competing voice for attention.
Understand this, because this is the context in which Peter makes his decision to confess his faith in Jesus. It was in the context of competing human power and authority and worship of other gods in which this confession of Peter takes.
Jesus wants to know what people are saying about him. The disciples tell him that some think of him as John the Baptist back from the dead. This underlines how Jesus was associated with John. He is also associated with the OT prophets.
Then Jesus asks who they think he is and that is when we have the wonderful confession of faith from Peter. In response Jesus gives Peter another name 'rock.' We are told that the "gates of Hades" will not prevail. We often take this to mean that the assaults of hell cannot doom the church. Gates, however, are stationary. They do not attack, they either keep stuff in or keep stuff out ; mostly they defend. The point is that the church does not defend against hell, but rather attacks and defeats it. So Jesus gives Peter keys to unlock hades or Hell. It is very important for us to realise that even Hell cannot keep out the love of God.
I want us to think today a little about this confession of Peter. At the time, titles like ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ meant a great deal and Peter knew what he was saying when he used them. To the Jewish disciples these sorts of titles made sense. When Peter says these words he means that Jesus fulfills all of his hopes and dreams and indeed the everyday hopes and aspirations of ordinary people. He is declaring his belief that in Jesus he sees God’s answer to the human condition of separation from God. The problem is that today terms like Messiah and Christ do not mean so much to people.
If you tell people that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy they are most likely to say, ‘so what?’ Today people are not looking for a Messiah. Most people have never read the Old Testament, never thought about Messianic prophecy. We often hear that phrase don’t we, that this is a ‘Christian country.’ Well our country once had very Christian values and Christianity has shaped a great deal of our country institutions over history. However today this is not a Christian country, this is largely a secular society, with different faiths. So much of our religious language and ideas are met with apathy, because they do not address the sorts of things which people are looking for. Truth be told our society is not looking for a Messiah.
If we are honest, today the great gods which people worship are designer brands, beauty, lifestyle, and the traditional pursuits of money, wealth, status, power. People are looking for and have aspirations which are very material and concern certain types of possessions. So for our confession of faith, we can say that Jesus is the Messiah, but perhaps we need to say other things about Jesus which our world will understand.
A good place to work out what we should be saying about Jesus can come from looking at advertising. Advertising reflects these gods of our age and in no small part creates values and gives credibility to certain things. We are fooling ourselves if we think that advertisements only sell products. These incredibly expensive, beguiling mini movies that we see for fleeting moments on our televisions, they sell values, images, concepts of love and sexuality and success. They are on the television in the prime moments of our lives and they therefore establish what normality is, they tell us who we are and what we should be.
As you look at advertisements you can see the problem areas of our lives where we need the teachings of Jesus. For example advertisements define what beauty is. They tell us what we and especially what women should be like. Women should achieve a certain look by spending lots of their time and energy and money on products. They will therefore have no spots or blemishes or flaws, indeed no pores. They say that women especially must be thin, so thin that the models themselves die from being so emaciated. So that now this kind of aspirational beauty can only be achieved through Photoshop and airbrushing. Keira Knightly is so thin that she has no bust, so on photographs, photoshop is used to inflate her bra size. Cindy Crawford famously said that she wished she looked like Cindy Crawford.
What the ads do with beauty they do with money so that our value, our worth as human beings is judged in what we own, what car we drive, how many material possessions with certain brands we have been able to collect. Is it any wonder that the recent riots in our country have seen looters smashing shops to steal certain branded goods.
These are the kinds of gods under whose shadow we as Christians must share good news about who Jesus is. The problems is we must fight these gods on their own terms. It is little use saying to our society that Jesus is the Messiah, or the Christ. People are not interested in these things, they are interested in wealth and material possessions and beauty. Our task is to be able to present what Jesus has to say about these gods. We have to be able to challenge these gods and show them up for their falsity.
The Christians declared the temples of pagan gods to be nothing more than empty tombs. So we must unashamedly declare the gods of our age to be leading people up blind alleys. They will not provide the food for souls which are searching for peace and fulflilment and self worth. These things will only be found in the presence of Jesus.
Our Christian teaching over the past weeks of Ordinary time has been committed to hearing the words of Jesus about lifestyle and values. These messages are important for people to hear. As we listen to Jesus we understand the real meaning of beauty, which is not skin deep. We recognise how hollow the pursuit of material goods can be and how disappointing for souls which are not filled by wealth and riches. Indeed we hear the words of Jesus which tell us that it brings more blessing to give than to receive.
It is unfortunate that salvation has largely been framed in terms of "going to heaven when we die". Salvation is not just a future hope – an evacuation from the world, salvation is about living lives empowered by God in our world to bring about change.
In every community we see the damage caused by the gods of this world and the pain and destruction can be seen easily. We see the eating disorders created in our children by the deception of the image of beauty, we see the debt which imprisons souls trapped by illusions of wealth. As a church today we declare our faith in Jesus as the answers to human need, just as did Peter. So we must go and speak these words and allow others to know so that lives and communities can be transformed.