Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
What does it mean to be saved?
Sometimes it is imagined that salvation is a ticket to escape our own physical deaths. Maybe the timeline is brought a little closer and salvation means being delivered from some very present distress or pain – Think of those who call on God to help them when they begin a 12-step recovery programme or something like it. Salvation might be a word used to describe a great sweeping social change, as MLK jr described the transformation occurring in his day as a kind of deliverance by the power of God.
The story of Israel is the story of Salvation from which all our language and ideas of ‘being saved’ come. The God of the whole universe chose to disclose himself by name, to speak with human beings face to face, to fight for a cause. Israel were a slave race, held in perpetual contempt and subjugation to Egypt. God chose to show himself to the world through this tribe by saving them from the desperate conditions under which they suffered. God fights against the evil of the Pharaoh of Egypt when Israel could not fight for themselves, and Israel leave their prison-home and walk away into freedom.
This story of liberation is one of the most important stories our society grows up hearing. One of my favourite tellings of this story is Chicken Run. You know, the one with the claymation poultry who are inspired by the American – Rocky – to leave behind their miserable lives of laying eggs until they cannot any more and become chicken pies. It is essentially a retelling of The Great Escape, but better because it’s made by the English and also has stop motion hens. In these stories we read of a liberation of captives, we the audience generally assume that those who are imprisoned are deprived of the opportunities and aspirations that we on the outside are able to enjoy. Thus a story of liberation is often a story of people being given access to the life we enjoy.
The story of God’s liberation is not like these stories we have grown up hearing. We quite like these stories because they help us believe that the lives we lead are worthy of sacrifice and heroism in order to bring others into the wonders of our free world.
The story of God’s liberation is not quite like these stories. If it was, the Old Testament would be far shorter.
When God saves Israel from Egypt, he does not let them wander off into the sunset of their own imagined paradise. The great twist of the Exodus story is the moment where God does far more than break the chains around their wrists. He breaks the chains around their hearts. He does this by giving Israel a culture, a system of worship, and a law. The Bible is the truest story of salvation you will ever read because it does not assume that people know what they are doing when their chains are gone. The history of the West is replete with two-dimensional salvation stories. The Secularists and Atheists believed that if only people could be free from the shackles of religion then their societies would be free from tyranny and oppression. As if freedom really meant the liberation of individuals from any obligation or reference to a higher power or authority.
Clearly, the millions of dead in the twentieth century under the hands of such ideology felt extremely free.
Israel’s freedom was different. Israel’s freedom was the freedom to live a new life, with a new culture and a new law. It is the freedom to live for something, namely the freedom to live as a blessing to all nations.
The Old Testament is largely the story of the outworking of this new freedom. But the liberation and mission of this people is constantly jeopardised by their lack of faithfulness to God’s commandments and it is this faithlessness which leads the liberated slave-race to be re captured generations later by a people called the Babylonians.
In exile from their homes, subjugated again to an oppressive power, the Prophet Isaiah speaks.
To a people who are scattered, few in number, the Prophet reminds them that their ancestor Abraham was just one man when he was called and that promise given that he would be multiplied and would be a blessing to all the people of the world. No matter how much the people of God had failed, God is faithful to his promise. To this small and beleaguered community God says that their faithfulness is not in vain. The coastlands are waiting for them! The ends of the earth are longing for the blessing that comes through God’s people! What a comfort.
Look closely about how the Prophet is using the idea of salvation though. It is not as though the people of the world are captives in some prison, or chained as slaves in a foreign land. The task of God’s people is not in this instance to be instruments freeing people from some momentary bondage, but rather Isaiah says that God is sending out a law, and a justice which will be a light to all people. This small group of faithful followers will be multiplied and they will do more than win some singular triumph over some oppressor. No, it is far better, there will be a perpetual light and within that light all people will enjoy justice at last. Nations, regimes, and people will come and go. But through God’s people there will be a light which can show the whole world a way of everlasting salvation.
The Old Testament is the greatest story of liberation we can ever read because it does not make the naive assumption that in the absence of a purpose, people will live to the utmost goodness and wonder of which they are capable.
Here Isaiah reiterates the purpose given to Abraham, and he is careful to remind the people of his day that though they are few in number as Abraham was, God is faithful to his plans and will not let their hope be disappointed. They are the people hewn from the rock called Abraham, they are his heirs and descendants. The promises which were true for him, are to be fulfilled in them.
Many generations later, Jesus returns to this rock language.
In the period of Jesus’ ministry we have been reading over the past few weeks he has been showing his power to the people of Israel, teaching his disciples, and most notably he has been engaging with the other religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. As Thomas explained last week, Jesus enters in to the discussions of his day between the various opinions and perspectives on how the people of God ought to live. In Chapter 15 he enters a debate between the nature of faith being about ceremonial observation, or about inward purity. As we heard, he comes down with a decision that when reading the Law of God, the Torah, it ought to be read firstly with its emphasis on the purity of a person’s heart, and secondly with attention to the ceremonial distinctives, which was an opinion many others held in Jesus’s own day. Jesus’ ministry was not only one of debates and clever speaking, but one with many signs and miracles, yet even after feeding huge crowds of people TWICE the Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus and ask him for some kind of a sign to justify his claims. Ultimately this refusal to recognise Jesus for who he really is results in the judgement he gives in Matthew 16:11: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their teaching is faulty because they will not admit what is plainly true about Jesus.
This is what lies behind Jesus’s question to his disciples when he says “who do people the Son of Man is?” Notice how Jesus does not yet ask who do you say i am, but who do people say the Son of Man is. This Son of Man is associated with that promise of a coming righteous one we have often read about in the Old Testament. John the Baptist is the most obvious candidate, a man who came preaching repentance from sin and renewed worship of God. Others want to say that the Son of Man has already come, in one of the great prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. I suppose it is easier to believe that the great ones are already dead. When someone is still alive they have the possibility of being a disappointment. But when their earthly life is over we can look upon their life with what we think is certainty and make a judgement about them. The Son of Man is some unattainable ideal, a promised one sent by God. Surely this great One can’t be standing in the midst of us. Surely they have done something heroic, somewhere else, not amongst us.
Jesus repeats the question. Who do YOU say I am? In asking such a questions Jesus opens to his closest friends the possibility that he himself, this Rabbi they have been following, learning from, and living with might actually be the greatest and most wonderful person who has ever walked on earth. Disciples, have you considered that YOU have been given the privilege of living with the Son of Man, the one promised from long ago?
When phrased this way, the question elicits a far different response. Peter opens his mouth to this man who he has heard teach, has eaten with, has slept alongside. He opens his mouth knowing all this, all the humanness and idiosycracies of his Rabbi, and says that this Rabbi Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Jesus responds saying that this is not something Peter could have known by himself. All the meals he shared with Jesus. All the lessons he has learned. All the miracles he has seen, none of these would have been enough for Peter to have realised that Jesus really is the Son of God. The rest of the watching world could not see it. How can it be that a man we see every day, who is a part of our lives, whose mother we know, could be sent from God? God only sends people to do extraordinary things in extraordinary times. This Jesus, he is too normal. That is what people thought when they saw him.
But Peter knew something very different. This Jesus, the one who he knows so intimately, is far more than another Rabbi. He is the one promised from God. How dangerous it is to think that someone you can touch and see and know and who can touch and see and know you is really someone far greater than could be imagined.
Jesus of course goes on to remind Peter just how grateful he should be to be in the presence of someone so wonderful, so important. Yes that’s right Peter, I am the Christ. Now kneel before me and do all my bidding. You should never forget just how despicable you are and how amazing I am for putting up with you for even one minute.
Only that is not what Jesus says. Jesus, the Son of God, takes an even bigger risk. Jesus looks at his frail friend and reminds him of what his name means. Peter, or in Aramaic Cephas which means rock. You are a rock, and upon this rock I shall build by church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
This is a tremendous moment between Jesus and Peter, and because we follow the faith of Peter it can be a moment between us and Jesus. Peter dares to imagine that right in front of him stands the very Son of God, the promised saviour of the world. And Jesus dares to declare that this man, and all who share his faith, will triumph over the power of hell and death forever.
Until this point the Disciples and the others who followed Jesus believed that he was another teacher of religious truths, pitted against and in conversation with the many other teachers and Rabbis with their religious truths. This kind of two-dimensional thinking was brought to an end when Jesus told his followers to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Where could it have gone from that point? If all that we are hearing is really a false and misguided way, can any of us be saved? Can anyone really become that righteousness for which the far off people, the coastlands are waiting for? This is what Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession answers.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Jesus and his disciples have been embedded in a system of binding and loosing. This is what the debates between the various sects of religious believers in the Gospels are about. What does God want? How shall we live? How do we read the law he has given? Who shall decide between all these options? Jesus’s answer to Peter’s confession of faith turns this conversation. As Peter rightly recognises Jesus for who he is, so Peter can then go on to continue to teach others a path which isn’t simply a good organisational structure for some, or a set of morals for a few who are part of their small community. Rather whatever he teaches stemming from the correct understanding of who Jesus is, is an echo and reflection of heaven, which is to say that which is everlastingly true and right. For Jesus these endless debates around the nuances of the Hebrew scripture are not enough. The ability to bring about a binding decision about how the people of God ought to live comes from the confession that Jesus Christ is the Lord, is God.
If I were writing the Gospel, I would have mentioned this part of the story after Jesus’s resurrection. Jesus very quickly leaps upon Peter’s confession filled with this incredible hope. Yet this is included in the middle of the story, and we have yet to see how Peter and the other Disciples went on to misunderstand, disbelieve, and reject Jesus in his suffering. Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ long before he has the fullest understanding of what this really means. Immediately following this elevation of Peter, Jesus calls him satan for attempting to prevent Jesus from going to his death. But I think there is an important wisdom in Matthews decision to put these two moments right next to each other. Without Jesus’s denouncement of Peter’s lack of faith we might think that Peter is being appointed as some kind of next-generation saviour. As if the role of Messiah could be passed on from one person to the next. Despite the incredible privilege given to those who confess Christ as God, we still remain faulty and fallible and prone to disbelieve in the purposes of Jesus. We the reader are caught between the wondrous elevation of our human nature to peer into the eternal things, and our propensity to oppose the very will of God we have with our mouths consented to follow.
The story of the first Christians can help illuminate how we navigate through this.
After Jesus ascended and sent the Holy Spirit, the message of salvation spread throughout the world. The way these first followers lived and the message they proclaimed was so wonderful people who had never heard of the God of the Jews began following Jesus. This was pretty confusing for the early church, who had become so used to a faith that was built on debates around which rules should be followed. Some thought that these non-jewish followers of Jesus should be circumcised and begin following the rules just like they had. However this old way of understanding how people should live as people of God changed with Jesus. They just didn’t know it yet.
In Acts 15 we read that the Apostles, who were the closest disciples of Jesus and those who had been appointed as Elders by the Apostles gather to make a decision which changes the church forever. They decide that the Gentiles do not need to obey all the laws of Moses, but rather they should refrain from things associated with idol worship, from eating animals which had been strangled, and from sexual immorality among other things. This decision is not clearly anticipated by any particular passage of the Old Testament, and no proof-text is given in what is called the Jerusalem Council. No, here we see an exercising of a very different kind of decision-making. The leaders of the early church gather together and take a huge step into the ministry which was announced at Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ: The authority to bind and to loose, to make decisions about how the church and its members should live.
In a few moments we will say the words “I believe in one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church”. When we do this, we are assenting to the ruling of Acts 15. We are assenting to live a faith not only as it is set forth in the Old and New testaments, but as it is given to us by the Apostles and their successors, those who in our english translations are often called Elders. This is a dangerous confession. When we say we believe in a holy, catholic, and apostolic church we are yielding ourselves to a particular community, a specific institution, and we are saying that they have authority to decide things for us for reasons which we might not always understand or agree with. We are saying that our salvation is not merely found in the removal of our sins, but in living a new and shared life which is governed by people we might not always know or like. We are saying that we will believe and live in a way which has been set forth for us not only by God and his laws, but also by the Apostles and their successors. These people are called Bishops.
One way of reading Peter’s confession and the subsequent authority given to him might lead us to think that each of us, in the privacy of our own minds, could decide for ourselves which parts of God’s revelation in the Bible is going to be important to us and which parts less so. This is not how this idea works itself out in the rest of the New Testament. How could any form of a recognisable shared life be lived by a group of people who each believe they can bind and loose whatever understanding about God they like? In the earliest days of the church, these moments of binding a loosing – such as the decision about how the first Gentile believers should live – is entrusted to those who were the closest followers of Jesus (his Apostles). The Apostles then go on and appoint people to take their place after they die and this process continues to this day. Our Bishop has been appointed to be for us a kind of Apostle, someone who can help us live into the salvation we have been given in ways which are appropriate and right for us here, in America, in the 21st Century. Being a part of one Holy Catholic and Apostolic church means admitting that in and of ourselves we do not know what to do with the freedom we have been given. It means admitting that on the other side of the prison wall, we are no more liberated than we were before because we do not default to some idillic paradise when left to our own devices. As the first Christians experienced, there were many views about how those who had been saved ought to live. The Apostles, Peter and Paul included, made decisions which excluded some of these views and affirmed others. There is no point at which the need for these kinds of decisions will end. Not in this life. Our world changes, our lives change, our needs change. The people who have professed faith in Christ have amongst them a living body of Apostles who exercise for us that authority to bind and loose, to bring clarity and vision to our new life in Christ.
The scattered people of God to whom Isaiah spoke were encouraged to look to the rock from which they were hewn. Today we have a rock from which we were hewn, and that rock is Peter who could be called a new kind of Abraham. Though he was just one when he confessed Jesus as the Christ, now there are as many of us as sand on the seashore. Isaiah reminds his people to look back to that, and be amazed at how much God did with that one individual. The Prophet also foretells that God will send out a new law and a new justice, because the people of the world are in need of God’s ever-present voice. This is a living law, not old rules in stone but a light for all people. For us who say the Creed together, this living law is given clarity and shape in every place and in every generation by the Apostles and their successors, who gaze into the face of Christ and to the best of their ability will make decisions which will shape our faith today.
It is safe to trust the dead to be right. They can be heroes in old stories, stories about other people, in other places. It is the risk of faith to believe that people who are living now, whose faults we can see, whose failures hurt or disappoint us, that those people might have an insight and authority to guide our way of salvation in the world. But this is the very risky thing which Jesus handed to Peter when he gave him the keys of the kingdom.
Remember though, if you find it hard after this to say that you believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, that Jesus promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against it. And so long as we can trust our Bishop to cling fast Jesus as the Son of God, we can be assured that Jesus does not lie and that the saving message we live and proclaim together WILL triumph even over the death we see around us.
That is why despite the frailty of our nature and yes even the nature of those who are called to lead God’s church, I can with boldness confess not only that I believe in the Father, Son, and Spirit, but also in God’s Church of which Christ is the foundation and cornerstone, and which is built stone by stone in every time and place by the faithful work of the Apostles and all who come after them.