Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost -Proper 16 Isaiah 51:1-6 Psalm 138 Romand 11:25-36 Matthew 16:13-20
One comforting lie we like to tell ourselves is that in a time of adversity and great trial we will band together, set aside petty differences, and rise above those things which keep us divided and discordant.
Amongst British people this myth is envoked by tales of the Home Front in the Second World War. Now almost completely gone from living memory, it becomes a way of convincing a rather antagonistic and parochial group of people on a damp and cold island in the Atlantic ocean to repeat the kind of collective effort it took to endure and win the terrible conflict with the Nazis and their allies.
It doesn’t matter whether or not such putting aside of differences and working with one goal to the greater good ever actually happened. What matters is that we try our best to believe in that story so that we can have some hope that what we do in the face of a crisis might make a difference.
I think one need only look around to see that such appealing to our better natures has not produced, in this day, much hope or change.
Many communities met the trial of COVID-19 with fear and confusion, not careful discernment and patience.
The wickedness of racial discrimination, and sorrow of ethnic divisions seem to be met with little more than a sympathetic shrug.
And of course we have a presidential election to look forward to.
If there were such things as our better natures, and if we were indeed capable of calling upon them, and if those things we like to believe about ourselves were true, imagine how differently this year might have turned out.
But here we find ourselves, shouldering the burden of the consequences of attempting to be our own saviors.
It’s not going well, is it?
Amongst all the many and varied peoples of the earth, those of us who follow the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ should know better. We should know better than to imagine that with a little hard work we can save ourselves and those we love from harm. We are the inheritors of a different story, one more true and more real than we dared hope.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to the followers of God in their confusion, hurt, and dissaray in today’s Old Testament lesson. They had found themselves in the midst of an empire which did not share their faith in the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt. Now, that might undersell the kind of suffering God’s people underwent in their Exile, but from other parts of the Old Testament we can fill in some important details.
The end of Jeremiah records how the Babylonians seiged Jerusalem, starving the people out with an enforced famine. The first chapter of Amos lists several atrocities comitted by the allies of the Assyrian empire when they came to subjegate the people of God, taking their land by force, abdudting people into exile, tearing open pregnant women, and betraying the covenants and loyalties that had been agreed between the people of God and their neighbors.
The book of Lamentations suggests that the seiges against Jerusalem were so severe as to cause parents to eat their own children. The kind of violence endured by God’s people is brought into perpetual liturgual memory in Psalm 137, where the Psalmist prays for vengance against those who had wronged them:
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
This part of Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to the people who are in exile, with the memories of betrayal, torture, murders, and evil still very much alive. And we hear those words “look to the rock from which you were hewn”. Sarah and Abraham, the mother and father of many nations, who believed in the promise of God when there was not yet a visible sign of its fulfilment.
Such faith is counted as righteousness, for in it we abandon our vain attempts to save or shelter ourselves, and look to God to deliver us from those things of which we are afraid.
Sin is the way we name the other way of living, where we seek to decide good and evil on our own terms, forgetting that God has made us, and knows us, and loves us.
Look to Sarah and Abraham. Look to their faith. If God can bring forth from them a people who will be a blessing to the nations, he will surely carry you and me to those places he has prepared for us, to do those things he has called us, to become what he intends for us.
But centuries come and go from the speaking of these comforting words, and that everlasting salvation did not yet appear.
Jesus walks with his friends, those who have heard him teach, who have seen him feed multiudes, heal the sick, cast out devils, and bring life to the dead. He walks with them and he asks
Who do people say the Son of Man is?
Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
This is a pretty safe bet. Nothing too serious, God has raised up another prophet like in the old days, to speak new oracles from God and to give the people comfort and guidance in their life today.
But who do you say that I am? he asks.
It is Peter who replies
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
You, Jesus, are the one who was promised from long ago to bring about eternal salvation for all people. You, Jesus, are the one for whom our prophets waited. You, Jesus, are the one to to bring about God’s kingdom. You, Jesus, are the very word of God who has gone forth to bring justice to this unjust world.
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And I no longer have to try and save myself.
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
In this response we see that this confession of faith isn’t a static fact, but it is the moment where we could say that Peter enters into Jesus’ purposes
- God had given Peter this knowledge. Peter didn’t figure it out on his own. But God had chosen him to be the one to be the first to confess this, our Christian faith.
- This confession is the foundation of Christ’s church, which will be the people who will triumph against the evil of the world.
- And to this Church Jesus gives the dignity of participating in his divine ministry, such that their decisions here on earth will be ultimate, that those who confess Christ will not simply be one more sect trying their best to figure out how to live, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, but will have authority on earth to proclaim God’s ways without ambiguity and without guessing.
This confession of faith is the faith we confess too. That confession of Jesus as the Christ and Son of God finds its liturgical expression in the Creeds we recite together. It is this encounter with Jesus by rightly confessing who he is that forms the center of our worship on a Sunday. All that God reveals to us in Scripture is to cause us to know who his Son is, and all that we recieve from the Lord’s Table is recieved through faith that the Son of God is who he says he is.
When Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, he becomes a participant in God’s purpose to save the world. This is the gift of grace available to all who believe, to recieve a new life through faith, a place in God’s coming kingdom, and a vocation to live as part of his Church now.
But Peter doesn’t deserve it.
It is a preacher’s trope that St Peter is quick to speak, and quick to make mistakes. He’s often thought of as silly, or goofy, or awkward.
We say this because we find St Peter relatable. But he is relatable not because of his impulsiveness, but because in the darkness of the night before our Lord suffered a vile death for our sake, he fails to keep this faith.
This confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is overcome in the despair and hopelessness of the late night capture, of the sham trials, of the political manuvering, and the manufactured condemnation leading to Jesus’ execution.
Peter, beloved and priviledged above all the Apostles in being the one to become the foundation of the Church, rejects his Lord and his friend. He hides in the dark. He denies ever knowing him.
This is Peter’s sin. And it’s ours too.
But when Peter confessed Jesus’s true identiy, Jesus confessed Peter’s right back at him. You are the Rock upon which I shall build my Church.
The heavens will vanish like smoke and the earth will wear out like a garment, says the Prophet. But God’s salvation will be forever.
God has magnified his Name and his word above all things, even this.
After Jesus rises from the grave he meets Peter on the shore of the sea of Tiberias and he asks him “do you love me?”. Three times he asks, and three times Peter is hurt by the question. But three times did Peter deny him and now three times he is given the opportunity to turn away from his doubt and fear.
Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?
Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.
Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.
Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.
That word which Jesus spoke to Peter endures even when the word Peter spoke to Jesus did not.
To confess Christ as Lord, as Messiah, as Son of God, is not some ethical commitment to try and live out his teachings. It isn’t to come to the reasonable conclusion after a period of inquiry. It isn’t to differentiate our faith from other religious or spiritual understandings of the world.
To confess Christ is to give up trying to be our best selves and to admit that we need a savior.
And this is what we have come here today to do.
We aren’t here because we are good or because we are smart or because we have something to offer.
We are here because we are hungry and in need of food. Hurt and in need of healing. Sinners in need of a savior.
We believe in one lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God. For us and for our salvation he was made man. For our sake he was crucified. And on the third day he rose again.
When we confess this faith let us remember the rock from which we were hewn, St Peter, who though he was the first to see Jesus for who he truly is, he was not faithful. But Jesus was faithful to the word he declared to Peter.
And when we confess this faith, let us also humbly acknowledge that our best efforts have availed little to bring a better future and a brighter hope to our neighbors in this time. We confess that we need a savior, not just to try and be our best selves.
Let us always be bold to confess our faith whether it be when we say the creed together or whether it be a whispered hope when we are beset by many trials, because the one in whom we have placed our hope has won for us an everlasting salvation, and he has determined to bring us with all his saints into the joy of his everlasting kingdom.