The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, the 16th chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 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. 18 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. 19 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." 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Theologian Paul Tillich says that faith is the act of being ultimately concerned. In other words, the object of your faith, the one you put your trust in, is the ultimate concern in your life. So, whoever or whatever is most important in your life is the object of your faith.
Of course, his point is that we must only put our faith in the One who is ultimate. Our greatest concern in life must be about God. We believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Our lives are focused on following him.
It’s all about where our allegiance lies. So let’s keep that in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel.
Geography is important in this story. The setting is Caesarea Philippi. Today it is an archeological dig in Syria, near the Golan Heights. The name of the city has been changed several times throughout history, depending on who had political power over it.
In Caesarea Phillipi in Jesus’ time, there was a grotto, or a cave, as a monument to the god Pan. The monument included statues of a bunch of dancing goats. In Greek mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, the god of shepherds and flocks, and a companion to nymphs. He had the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, hence the dancing goat statues.
Pan’s grotto is important because it was part of a cave with a spring flowing out of it. In Greek mythology, springs of water coming out of the ground were called gates of hell, because the water came from underground, or hell, the place where the dead were.
After he annexed the city, Herod the Great built a temple next to Pan’s grotto, as a monument to Caesar Augustus. There were also temples of Zeus and of the god Nemesis.
So, picture the scene for today’s gospel. Jesus and the disciples standing in the middle of a bunch of monuments, to greek gods, one of which is called the gates of hell. This is not a politically neutral place. This was a very religious society. And in this society, religion was connected to immense political power.
In this place, in the midst of all these monuments carved out of rock, Jesus asks, “Who people say that I am?”
The people get the answer wrong. Some people choose option A. They think Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected. John and Jesus were cousins, so they probably looked alike. And, they saw John as a powerful leader and preacher, so that’s possibly why they said this.
But I have always thought that was a really dumb answer. How could John the Baptist come back as Jesus? Jesus was already alive before John died. They had been together at the river when Jesus was baptized. Doesn't make sense.
The disciples reported that some of the people chose option B. Jesus is Elijah. This is a slightly better choice. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets. He was able to perform powerful signs.
Others choose option C. They said Jesus is Jeremiah, or possibly another of the prophets. The people all got the answer wrong.
Then, Jesus asked the disciples the question, “Who do you all say that I am?” This is a critical question. Peter gets it right today and we need to give him credit for that, because he’s going to get it wrong in next week’s lesson.
So, today, let’s give Peter some credit for having the right answer. With school starting this week, we all know it feels good when you get it right sometimes. It is a cause for celebration. Especially, if you are like Peter and the first in the class to figure out the answer. Like Peter, it’s easy to miss the next problem, but at least you got the important one right and that’s worth celebrating.
I can relate to the disciples in Caesarea Phillipi. Standing there in the middle of all those temples, all those monuments to false gods, and in front of that place called the gates of hell.
You may remember that I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia half way between Washington, DC and Richmond, VA, the capital of the confederacy. If you are a Southerner, there are lots of questions about where your allegiance lies. What is the most important priority in your life? Whose side are you on?
The county I lived in was the location of four major civil war battlefields. The cannons are still there. We used to climb on them and play when we were kids.
I was on vacation two weeks ago when the white supremacists, the neo-nazis, were protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville. My mother grew up about an hour west in Lexington, the home of Washington and Lee University. My uncle used to work there. I still have cousins there. Lee is buried in the museum of the university chapel and his taxidermied horse was there, too. I was morbidly fascinated with the stuffed horse when I was a kid.
If you grew up in the Pacific Northwest, you may not be as familiar with confederate heroes. But I went to Robert E. Lee elementary school and lived in Lee’s Headquarters subdivision, so I have heard lots of stories about him and can still remember the whitewashed version from my fourth grade 1960 edition Virginia history book.
But I won’t share it, because what they taught me in school wasn’t the whole truth. This was one of the times when the people didn’t give the right answer.
I literally have cousins on both sides of the issue over the confederate monuments. And it is a complicated issue. I can see what both sides are saying. I agree with Edmund Burke, that if you “don’t know history, you are doomed to repeat it.”
So, that part of me wants to keep the monuments, but put them in a museum with big signs that tell the whole truth about them.
The other part of me remembers that these are monuments to people who fought a war to preserve the right to buy and sell other human beings. These are people who genuinely believed that only people with white skin were truly human, so it was okay to buy and sell people of color like cattle. So why would we have monuments for them?
But, here is the part where it isn’t complicated or ambiguous at all. Sometimes our cousins get the answer really wrong. The nazi party stands for white supremacy. Nazis believe that white people are superior and should therefore dominate society.
White supremacy is evil. The doctrines of the Nazi party are evil. Period.
Scripture clearly teaches that all of us, no matter what color or ethnic group, no matter what gender, no matter what socioeconomic status - all of us are created by God. We all bear the image of God. God calls us all children. Jesus is our brother and he's everybody else's brother, too.
Sometimes people get the answer very wrong. Today, on behalf of the disciples, Peter gets it right. And we, the church, get it right. We boldly confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. That statement of faith is the rock on which the church is built.
And the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. No matter what. No matter what monuments are carved out of rock to honor false gods and false heroes. No matter how long the battle lasts, no matter how much it looks like the wrong side is prevailing - we know evil can never win in the end.
Because Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He willingly went to the cross. He died and he entered those gates of hell, and he descended to the place of the dead. And he raised up all those dead people. Jesus has conquered death, and he claims dominion over death and hell itself.
And an the third day he rose. And he reigns in heaven with his Father. He is a God worthy of our allegiance. He is the God worthy of our ultimate concern, worthy to be the One who is the primary focus of our whole life, the rock solid ground of our faith. Amen.
My thanks to Bishop Mike Rinehart for his insights and ideas that contributed to this sermon. bishopmike.com