Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2020
Matthew 16:13-20 Commentary
Matthew 16:13a is not important, right?
We can just skip to verse 13b, yes?
We can just start with the question “Who do people say that I am?” That’s the core if it all here, right?
We cannot skip the geographical marker in this incident. If we do, we miss the key piece of information that ends up informing what happens in this important exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Because where are they as this pericope opens?
Once upon a time it was known as the region of Naphtali. It was an Israelite place. A God place. A Promised Land place. But even as the Soviet communists could not stand to have a town named “Saint Petersburg” (and so changed it to “Leningrad”), so the Romans changed names when it suited them better.
The translation we have in Matthew 16:13-20 says it was “Caesarea Philippi,” but literally in the Greek it is “Caesarea of Philip.” That distinguished it from the older city of Caesarea, which was south and west of there a ways along the Mediterranean Sea. But it also pointed to the more immediate history of the place. Around 20 B.C. Augustus had given the town and its surrounding region to King Herod. Herod built up the city, including a temple of white marble that honored the cult of the Caesar. After Herod died in 4 B.C., the region passed to King Philip, who further built up the place and renamed it “Philip’s Caesarville” so as to flatter and honor his patron, Caesar Augustus.
In other words . . . this was a place that oozed the unctuous nature of politics as usual. It was a place that worshiped Augustus, a place filled with political patronage and a reveling in all things worldly. The very name of the town pointed to the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” give-and-take of the kingdoms of this world. Translated to a twenty-first century context, this would be a place that would be crawling with highly paid lobbyists in $1,000 suits earning $700 an hour to shill for AARP or the National Rifle Association or any number of high-octane single-interest groups that work the system for influence and manipulation.
So it was no coincidence that it was here that Jesus asked his famous question, “Who do people say that I am?”
Don’t skip verse 13a.
You see, to ask that particular question there, in the shadow of power politics and all that goes along with it, transforms the query from an idle question of curiosity into a loaded question bristling with implications. It would have been one thing for Jesus to ask this in some quiet village in Galilee, but it’s quite another matter to ask it in Caesarville. Even today, a question that sounds perfectly natural to ask in Pella, Iowa, would sound very different if it were asked in the well of the Senate.
Jesus’ famous question is fraught with background. So to ask it there in Caesarville only heightened the drama of it. When Peter gives his clarion confession that Jesus is the Christ, there was more than a touch of revolutionary zeal in what he said. Given where they were, that confession was like going to Washington D.C., standing outside the White House, and hoisting up a placard that declared, “Impeach the President!” There in King Philip’s city dedicated to Augustus, Peter’s saying that Jesus is the Christ was a shot across the Roman political bow.
For his part, Jesus knew deep in his heart that political pomp and circumstance, earthly splendor and glory were neither his destiny nor his goal. His warning to the disciples in verse 30 to keep his identity a secret did not stem from some fear that they’d be arrested for sedition. Jesus simply did not want to get swept up in a political campaign in which he did not want to be a candidate for secular office.
Still, it was good for Jesus to know that at least his disciples could get this right. And Peter’s having gotten it right resulted a huge set of promises from Jesus. True, and as is noted in the “Textual Points” in this set of Lectionary sermon starters, we probably err if we make this all about Peter. Jesus is establishing his entire Church as the place of forgiveness.
But what this incident makes clear is that whatever power the Church has to forgive sins or point out sins, it all stems from one thing alone: knowing who Jesus really is. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said, then no matter how modest the church may look in any given time or place, no matter how imperfect the church always is, what we have at the core of it all is a power that outstrips the political powers that be in this world. We have a protecting force but also a gracious forgiving force that no one in the universe will ever be able to stop.
I wonder if we in the church—including those of us who preach each Sunday—appreciate how much flows out of that most basic Christian affirmation that “Jesus is Lord!” One of the simplest prayers of the church has for a long time been known as “The Jesus Prayer.” It goes like this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If Jesus is who he said he was and who Peter affirmed him to be, then that short prayer packs more power than the most eloquent sermon, the most lyric psalm, or the best hymn ever written. That is itself a point worth savoring!
Of course, there is then also that other half of this passage. We cannot ignore the immediate sequel to Peter’s grand confession when Peter takes it upon himself to teach his Master a little theology. I mean, if you’re going to take over the world, talk of death and sacrifice was a sure-fire ticket to the bottom. Nobody gets elected to office under the campaign slogan “Dead Man Walking” or “This Year, Vote for a Loser.”
We might be tempted to deal a bit harshly with Peter for his lack of understanding that comes on the heels of Jesus’ cross-shaped words (and those words were a sneak preview of coming events). But honestly, the Church today is often no better. We still want to utilize Jesus as a pawn in power politics, still want the church to receive some privileges and perks that are not accorded to other religious faiths, still think that we can legislate and strong-arm people into behaving better. To a lot of Christian people, America feels more and more like some kind of Caesarea Philippi, too, and we’re pretty sure we know how to deal with that kind of secular influence: through power!
We, too, need to hear Jesus say—especially in the Caesarvilles of life—that what is most important for the sake of the Gospel is that we do our Spirit-led best to keep in mind “the things of God” and not the things of business-as-usual politics.
As noted by Frederick Dale Bruner, in verse 18 the first-person singular subject of the sentence is key. Jesus says Peter is a rock but then says, “And on this rock I will build my church.” Our confession of Jesus as God’s Christ and our proclamation of Him invite people into the church and the kingdom, but it is finally ever and only Jesus who builds up the Church, not the rest of us who are his servants. There is no denying the gospel centrality of this passage: it serves as a kind of hinge point. As John Calvin wrote in his commentary, Peter’s “confession is short but it embraces all that is contained in our salvation.”
How vital, therefore, it may be to understand this correctly!
Since Jesus asked this famous question in the shadow of the elite powers-that-be in his day, here is a possible illustration to display how the gospel can look/appear/sound in a similarly high-end setting:
Frederick Buechner grew up among the elite of the very sophisticated East Coast. He rubbed elbows with very urbane people, many of whom fancied themselves too mature as modern-day folk to engage in anything resembling traditional pious talk about God or spirituality. Indeed, when as a young man Buechner mentioned at a high class dinner party that he was going to seminary to become a pastor, his hostess for the evening fixed Buechner in an incredulous gaze before asking, “A pastor? Really. Tell me, was this your own idea or were you ill-advised?”
Many years later, Buechner taught a semester at Wheaton College. At lunch one day, sitting with some students, he overheard one student very casually ask another, “What has God been doing in your life lately?” Buechner observed that if a question like that were asked in New York City, the ground would open up, buildings would crumble, and grown men would faint dead away.
Many times how a question sounds depends on where you are!
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