Sermon for August 27 | The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Cultural anthropologists – those people who have given their lives to the study of cultures – claim that Americans are among the most individualistic people on the face of the earth. We seem to have the corner on just about every method to empower the self and discern the individual’s calling or career. We are trained from childhood to be self-reliant so that when we leave home, we can “make it” on our own. It is the individual, not the group, who is praised for excelling in their career. What seems normal is the autonomous individual in pursuit of personal matters.
This tendency to value the individual above all else is in sharp contrast to the culture in which Jesus was raised and lived. Anthropologists refer to his as a dyadic culture, dyadic as in duo, as in more than one, as in other-oriented rather than self-oriented. In ancient as well as modern Mediterranean cultures, one comes to discover who one is and one’s purpose or calling in life in and through others – not by oneself. Thus, it should not surprise us that Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” It’s not a trick question or a theology quiz that his followers need to pass. It is a genuine question asked in a culture that valued and values knowledge of the self through others.
The disciples’ answers are revelatory for they name John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah. John represents a spiritual movement that Herod, a political leader, could not kill, despite John’s beheading. Elijah represents the hope for God’s presence in a community tempted to worship other gods. With other prophets, Jeremiah spoke God’s word to the people with creative power. So, now Jesus has a number of answers to his question as he discerns his own identity. Some say he is the leader of a spiritual movement; that he is the presence of God in a community; and that he is the one in whom divine creative power is now stirring.
But then he asks the question directly of his followers: “Who do you say that I am?” And to this question, Simon, who is Matthew’s favorite disciple, answers: “You are the messiah.” So, to the previous answers, this fourth image is added. And to Simon, Jesus offers an honorable name: “You are Rock, and on this Rock, I will build my church.” But when we hear that word “church,” we should recognize that it is Matthew who is speaking some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus; Matthew who is writing to a spiritual movement, to a community struggling to survive, and a community discerning the creative power of God in their midst.
Perhaps you know that the word messiah simply refers to a person who is commissioned for a public task, to a person who is anointed with fragrant olive oil for a particular purpose in the world. And perhaps you know that the word “Christian” is derived from the Greek word christos, and that christos is Greek for the Hebrew word, messiah: that group which is sent into the world with a purpose. I am mindful of this: that at this year’s Easter Vigil, sweet, young, and soft-spoken Samantha McClellan was anointed with the fragrant olive oil contained in the glass jar that rests on the pillar next to the Paschal Candle [in the church]. That is, she was made a messiah, a christos, and consecrated for Christian faith and life in this world. But the same could be said for any of you who have been baptized: that you, too, in the depth of your being are a messiah, a christos, consecrated by the Spirit and made a member of a royal priesthood whose priestly work takes place beyond the doors of this building in the sometimes messy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes joyful world of daily life.
It goes without saying that since 2016, increasing attention has been given to the rise of Christian nationalism, a movement of white supremacists who claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should enshrine Christianity as the official religion of the state. Counting some members of Congress as their staunch supporters, the Christian nationalist movement frequently uses the language of warfare to describe its tactics – warfare directed against those who support reproductive healthcare, against people of color, against those who identify as LGBT, against Jews and Muslims, against the teaching of critical questioning in universities.
It is a movement that speaks of Jesus as the preeminent spiritual warrior who desires the “victory” of what is, in truth, a terrible deformation of Christian faith and life.
What is frequently overlooked in this movement and in other forms of Christianity in the nation is the last line of today’s gospel reading: “Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the messiah.” A superficial reading of this admonition might lead one to conclude that Jesus was simply protecting his identity as the anointed agent of God from those who were his critics. But there is another way to consider this exhortation: that he demands silence concerning his identity because his own disciples hold a misshapen and distorted view of what it means for him to be a messiah: that is, in contrast to the leader or messiah engaged in warfare against others, Jesus is the messiah, the agent of God, who lives a life marked by forgiveness, peace-making, service to those most in need, advocacy for justice amid life’s terrible inequities, and the possibility of suffering, of suffering for the sake of this good news. Indeed, it is in his self-giving love and death that the term messiah is defined for you and me. And so, friends, the cross hangs above the [rock-hewn] altar and does so as a constant reminder to you and to me that what we receive in this holy communion is the One who gives himself away so that others, so that you and I, might have life in this world and have life in this world now.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.