Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2020 (Proper 16, Matthew 16:13-20)

“Jesus gives the keys to St. Peter” (1481-1482) by Pietro Perugino (1448-1523). Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Setauket, Long Island.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I have a question on my mind this morning: What is so special about Peter’s confession as recounted in our Gospel lesson today?  That probably sounds like a pretty weird question, because a number of important church doctrines rest on this portion of Matthew’s Gospel.  If you have ever been to Rome and been inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll have seen inscribed in enormous letters, each about as tall as a person, around the inside of the central dome the words “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum” – “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.”  Leaving aside the arguments between Catholics and Lutherans about what this specifically means for the source of authority in the church, apostolic succession, and a whole slough of other doctrines, this is where our understanding of the office of the keys comes from, that I as your pastor can announce to you that your sins are forgiven just as if Jesus himself told it to you.  That is an ENORMOUS thing, and you saw me this past Sunday swear to uphold that office when I was ordained and installed as your pastor.  But that’s getting away from what I want us to meditate upon today.  What I want to know is, what’s so special about Peter’s confession?  Why is it important for us?

I took this photo when my dad and I went to St. Peter’s Basilica as part of our five-day whirlwind tour of Rome back in 2010. We were part of a group going up to the cupola on top of the basilica. You can see how large the letters really are!

Remember what Peter says.  When Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, Peter responds for the group, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus commends him: “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven has revealed this to you.”  Peter says the correct answer, Jesus tells him he picked the right answer, and then Jesus tells him that his church will be built on the work of the disciples based on this confession of Jesus’ identity.  But what, of the ten words Peter says, is in any way special or radical, radical enough to have Jesus respond this way?

Well, you might say, “Pastor, it’s special because Peter and the other disciples identify Jesus correctly as the Son of God.”  All well and good, but this isn’t the first time they’ve done it.  No, the disciples have called Jesus the Son of God before, when Jesus and Peter walked on water, saying “Truly you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33).  Is it because Peter calls Jesus the “Son of the Living God?”  Well, maybe, but that’s probably implied in the previous instance, too.  Maybe it’s because Jesus says that God the Father gave Peter his answer, and not his own intuition?  That’s certainly part of it, but it still doesn’t hit the mark for me.  No, I think what makes this confession special is that Peter calls Jesus something that we haven’t heard him called yet in Matthew’s Gospel–he calls Jesus “the Christ,” and in doing so, he calls Jesus “the Messiah.”

“Saint Pierre tenant de marcher sur les eaux” (1766) by Francois Boucher (1703-1770). Cathedrale Saint-Louis de Versailles. Public domain.

You’ll notice something interesting regarding this if we look back at where the Gospel account begins.  Jesus and the disciples are wandering around in the region of Caesarea Philippi on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, a city originally founded by the Greeks and named “Paneas” because it was dedicated to the Greek half-goat god Pan. Caesarea Philippi was Pan’s place–it was a pagan, unbelieving land.  And so Jesus and the disciples are amidst the pagans, far away from the Jewish religious authorities who might have a thing or two to say about Jesus’ identity when Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say that I am?”  And he gets lots of incorrect responses—”Some say you’re John the Baptist” (and bear in mind, John was beheaded not long before this), “Some say you’re Elijah or Jeremiah, or some other prophet.”  The people who saw Jesus throughout his ministry thus far all seemed to think that he was some sort of Old Testament prophet come back, or a resurrected, re-headed John the Baptist.  But a particular title is absent.  The people who saw Jesus and heard his teaching did not pick up on the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, unlike the disciples.  And they certainly did not think to call him the Messiah or the Greek equivalent, “ho Christos” (ὁ Χριστός), “the Anointed.”  It never occurred to the crowds that came out to hear Jesus that Jesus was the promised one, spoken of by the prophets.  And why would it?  He didn’t look like any Messiah they were expecting.  The Messiah the people were expecting was going to be a military leader, or a king crowned in gold, with thousands of men at his beck and call. This expected Messiah was the sort of Messiah that would kick out the Romans and the other pagans who had set up shop in what was once God’s holy, promised land.  He would make a new kingdom in Judaea, and it would be greater than anything that the world had ever before seen.  The expected Messiah didn’t look anything like this itinerant carpenter from Nazareth.  David was a king, this expected Messiah ought to look like David did (though they forgot that David was a shepherd once).  But Jesus didn’t play into their expectations.

So the Jews of Jesus’ day wanted to have a political messiah, a king who would grant them temporal greatness and temporal glory, who would bring an end to their hardships.  They did not expect that their messiah would be the Son of God, who would save his people from their sins.  But Peter is the first to connect the dots when he speaks up on behalf of the disciples.  This is why his confession is so special.  It’s a confession that Jesus is the savior of God’s people, that he is their deliverer.  That he is the one who will deliver them from sin, hell, and every evil.  “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah!”  Or more appropriately, “saved are you!”  To call Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, is to call him Savior. To believe that he is the Christ is to be saved from sin and granted eternal life.  And to be saved from death and given the promise of eternal life is to be blessed.

Peter and the other disciples recognized that Jesus is the Messiah.  But what does it mean to confess that he is the Messiah today?  How does that speak to the world you and I are living in?  Maybe we ought to think of where we are right now.  We’re sitting (in person or virtually) in Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Setauket, New York, in the midst of the pagan landscape of the postmodern West. Who do we think Jesus is?  What comes first to our minds?  Who do we confess him to be?  Is he someone who will destroy all our enemies for us?  Is he someone who will grant us our every desire, who will give us material wealth and health?  Is he some sort of guru who will teach us the secrets we need to know in order to slip the bonds of this crummy reality to reach a higher, more transcendent plane?  Is he some kind of angry judge who hates us for our inability to be who we’re called to be?  Or is he more of a companion and friend who would never dream of judging us but instead encourages us regardless of what we’re doing? Does he agree with all of our political positions?  We see a lot of Jesuses like this in popular culture, and we even see Jesuses like this preached in some churches.  But when we put our faith in a Jesus who is NOT the Messiah, that is to say, who is not the Savior who takes away the sin of the world, whose death does not destroy the power of sin, death, and hell, and who does NOT reconcile man and God, then we aren’t “blessed” like Peter.  When we make Jesus into someone who isn’t the Messiah, we put our faith in someone other than the One who saves us.

But when we confess rightly along with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, then what a great blessing that is for us, especially in times like these, when there is so much fear and uncertainty.  The world still doesn’t look redeemed.  There’s still violence and hatred, theft, exploitation, disease, pestilence, murder, sexual immorality, strife, and all other manners of sin and death still stalking the world today.  A current example of this is the coronavirus pandemic that we’ve been living through.  Some of us have lost friends and loved ones to it.  It’s certainly made it difficult for us to come together to worship God as we are accustomed to doing.  And having to live in fear of potentially contracting the disease or giving it to others has put us all on edge and subjected us to all manner of stress and worry.  But oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, while this worry is very real, it will not last long.  It will not last because Jesus our Messiah has already guaranteed that all of this life’s pain will cease.  What we experience now are just the death throes of sin, death, and the devil.  As we sing on Easter, the strife is o’er, the battle done.  Jesus your Messiah came and lived a perfect life on this earth and then died in our stead so that we might be saved from our sins, and he rose again on the third day to show us that death no longer held dominion over him, and by extension, those who trust in his saving work.  The confession of Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, is the central confession of Christ’s church, and against this confession the gates of hell cannot prevail.  When we place our trust in Jesus to be our anointed Savior, this is likewise our confession, and nothing that comes against us–no tempest, no calamity, neither death nor life nor any power, and certainly no pandemic–can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ who died and rose to save us.

Woodcut illustration by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677) for Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. Public Domain.
“Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc.” (AC VII)

On a final thought: this morning’s Gospel lesson ends on an odd note.  Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.  That seems antithetical to us, but at the time it made sense–the people weren’t ready to learn who the Messiah was, and they probably would have tried to make Jesus out to be someone he wasn’t–a rebel leader or a king or a mere prophet.  The time to tell that about him would come later, after the resurrection on Easter.  But now, as we wait for his second coming, Jesus’ command to his disciples doesn’t apply.  We can tell everyone that he is the Messiah.  It is good news for a hurting world, and we, being the body of Christ, can share this good news with our neighbors, so that they too may hear from Jesus their Messiah, “Blessed are you!”  Amen.

And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

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