January 22, 2017
The Confession of Peter
Rev Rod Sprange
Psalm 23; Acts 4:8-13; Matthew 16:13-20
When I sat down to start preparing for todays homily I remembered I had preached on the Matthew passage recently - but when I checked I found this will be the third time I have preached on this text in the last year and a quarter.
I looked back on what I had said before, and thought, “Well I still agree with all that, but surely there must be something new to say.” It was definitely time for some prayer.
In this passage we are seeing the beginning of the community that will eventually become the great community we call the holy catholic church. Not catholic in the sense of Roman Catholicism, but catholic in the sense of universality.
The people of Israel had long been awaiting a messiah - a king anointed by God who would put together a strong army to defeat all Israel’s enemies and free Israel from the tyranny of occupation forces like the Romans. He would establish a kingdom of peace and justice. Some also believed the Messiah would clean up the temple and reinstate authentic worship. Many recognized the abuses taking place in the temple and in it’s worship practices. People were required to provide animals for sacrifice - but the rules said the animal or bird must be perfect. How can you tell? Easy, the priests can tell. But strangely, the only animals and birds that turn out to be pure, are the ones the priests have for sale in the temple grounds; these official animals and birds are much more expensive than those you can purchase in the market.
Then, to buy temple animals you must use temple money. The only place you can get temple money is from the money changers in the temple courtyard. And goodness me but the exchange rate between the Roman and temple money is very expensive.
No wonder people were anxious for the Messiah to come and set everything right?
In fact quite a few men came forward in those days, representing themselves as the long awaited Messiah. They were often charismatic and gathered a following of disciples. These Messiahs claimed to be chosen by God to be King of Israel and have the title ‘The Son of God’ - in the sense of being the chosen or anointed one of God, not divine, but divinely chosen and supported by the power of God. These were seen as a direct threat by the Roman authorities and the puppet regimes they had installed, like the so called ‘King’ Herod. The authorities, when they heard about one of these messiahs, hunted them down and killed the leader. The disciples would quickly disband and the movement die. So it was critical that Jesus be very strategic in deciding when and how to talk openly about who he was, or at least who his disciples understood him to be.
Notice how Jesus takes his disciples to a rather out of the way place before asking them the two questions he asked in today’s reading from Matthew. He needed to be away from prying eyes and ears. It needed to be safe. He knew his disciples had been whispering among themselves about him. It was now time for them to confess what they were thinking. It was the next step i their relationship and his teaching about his true mission and how things had to unfold.
Using polite language he asked them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’. He gets the expected answer, people think he is one of the prophets or even John the Baptist. But then Jesus turns the question on the disciples. ‘What about you’, he asks, ‘who do you say that I am?’
I imagine there was silence. They had witnessed miracles and healings and heard some amazing new teaching, spoken with such authority. It is quite likely they had come to suspect Jesus must be the long awaited Messiah. But do they say this to him?
In every group natural leaders emerge. In this group Peter had become a natural leader. And it is Peter who steps up and speaks on behalf of the group.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus commends Peter for this recognition, and says it was divinely inspired. But just what did Peter and the other disciples think it meant?
Certainly they understood the Messiah or Christ to be the anointed one of God who would lead Israel back into prominence and overthrow the Romans and likely clean up the temple practices. They probably thought this would be accomplished by raising an army of followers and that God would give power to the Messiah to win victory over Israel’s enemies.
As to the Son of God designation - the theology of the Trinity had not yet evolved. Cesar was called the Son of God. The early church argued for a number of centuries about whether or not Jesus was God or just a very special, divinely inspired person. It is not an easy belief to be able to confess. It can be a struggle for us today.
It seems probable that at this point the disciples, including Peter, thought that God had granted Jesus special authority and power, had basically adopted him as his son. They didn’t yet worship Jesus as God. The first revelation by one of the disciples comes in the Gospel according to John, when Thomas, who had doubted Jesus’s resurrection, faced with the risen Christ, declares “My Lord and my God”.
The disciples knew that Jesus was special - they had witnessed him calm a storm “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him”. But probably thought this authority was given to Jesus by God, not that Jesus was in fact God.
Clearly Jesus welcomes this growth in the disciples’ faith and understanding, even though it was still in its infancy. The group was becoming a community centred on its belief about its leader. Today, all authentic Christian communities are based on a shared belief in the risen Christ; holding Christ at their centre.
Jesus grants Peter special status within the group. Naming him the Rock, and basically saying he would be the foundation for the new church community he was building. Giving him the keys, and saying whatever he binds on earth and looses on earth will carry the authority of heaven, means Jesus was giving Peter the authority to decide on the rules for the new community. These are legal rabbinic terms and would have been meaningful to Matthew’s Jewish community.
Jesus also sternly orders them not to tell anyone else he was the Messiah. The time was not yet right for a direct confrontation with Herod, the Temple or the Romans. But that time was coming! And it seems to me, right now in 2017 is a time Christian disciples must boldly confess our faith in Jesus Christ. That means putting God and Jesus first. It means making Christ’s mission our first priority. But are you ready to do that? Do you know what you are committing to? Being a follower of Jesus is no easy path to take. It means being prepared to move beyond our comfortable lives, boldly proclaiming the Gospel by word and deed. It means living what we believe no matter the consequences. This is serious stuff!
Do you confess that Jesus is our Lord and God? That’s the first step on the road to discipleship. It affects our loyalties, our relationships - it changes everything.
What about this term confession? The confession of Peter. I think most of us, when we hear the word confession, assume it means to confess to something bad or to having made a mistake. “I confess, it was me that broke Aunt Gertrude’s ugly vase she gave us as a wedding gift.” More seriously I confess that I forgot to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer when presiding last week! And we confess our sinfulness each week at the Eucharist.
But confession can be about positive things too. In a few weeks, those of us who remember, will celebrate Valentine’s Day with our loved ones. If we are a couple we will confess our love for our husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. Or we may be ready to confess our love for someone we hope will return our love. All positive things.
Confession, as in the confession of Peter, is a religious technical term for stating a belief. Its a positive thing to confess our sincere belief. Confession is good for us - to confess our faults - that is acknowledge them, and to confess our hopes and desires and beliefs.
In our faith, as Anglicans, we are called on to make two types of confession. The humble confession of our sins. And bold confession of our faith and belief in the Gospel of Christ. Both very worthy forms of confession. The first can be either a general confession, as we do each Sunday, or a private confession between us and our priest.
The most usual and regular form for us is the general confession - meaning we all confess together that we are equally sinful. The priest, the deacon, the officiant, the crucifer, the person sitting next to you in the pew, you - we all humble ourselves before God and each other and confess that we don’t deserve God’s love; that we have thought evil thoughts, said destructive and hurtful things, done things we know we shouldn’t and not done things we know we should have. We can be strangely comforted that there is none among us who is exempt. But we should also really desire to become the people God created us to be. That’s where sincere repentance and absolution come in. Have you paid attention to the words of the absolution that the priest pronounces. ‘Almighty God have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, (but listen to this next phrase) ‘confirm and strengthen you in all goodness...’etc.
By confessing together we can support each other in trying to do better. As Christian brothers and sisters we don’t offer one another judgement, we offer one another love, prayer and forgiveness. And we try hard to truly repent, individually and corporately - meaning to really turn our lives around to do God’s will and live our lives the way God would have us. Accepting the blessing of being confirmed and strengthened in all goodness gives us the responsibility to respond and takes serious effort!
But we are also called to the other confession too. Like Peter we need to answer Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am”. We need to be bold and unashamed at confessing our Christian belief. Jesus doesn’t command us to tell no one who he is! We are called to proclaim the good news to anyone who will listen. Yet, we also need to be humble and kind in offering this confession. We won’t help others discover the wonder of the Gospel - the good news of God in Christ, by forcing it on them. Our mission is to offer the Gospel gently to others, and to demonstrate it by our example not by force. Christianity is about welcoming the stranger and in gratitude to God, generously extending our hospitality to others by openly and humbly sharing our faith in the Risen Christ.
There is great tension in the world these days. On the one hand we have the evil of Isis and the threat of terrorism, on the other hand we have the great divide among the American people over their new president. Many are fearful.
But we are a people of hope. We confess that we trust God. We confess that God sent his only Son to be the saviour of the World. We confess the resurrection of Christ and the promise of eternal life. We confess that death and evil no longer have the last word. We have a wonderful message to share with the world. But how will the message find eager ears unless we confess it loudly, boldly and with humility.
Two questions each of us might ask of ourselves today and everyday is: “Who do I know that needs to hear God’s message of love today?” “How best can I share that message with them”. Probably at first it won’t be with words. Maybe it will be with the offering of a hug, or a visit, or some other act of kindness, letting them know they are not alone, that they have worth - value, that they are loved.
Let us pray that the Holy Spirit gives us the wisdom and courage of Peter, to openly confess our love of God through Jesus Christ and that our message of love, peace and hope falls on receptive ears. Amen