Who Will We Trust?
Aug 23, 2020
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 16:13-20
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Perhaps some of you watched the Democratic National Convention this past week and were energized. Others of you avoided it like the plague but are looking forward to the Republican National Convention this week. Still, others are inclined to avoid anything to do with political wrangling – although, hopefully, you still vote. How an individual views the election of a president depends on his or her political context, which grows from life experiences, where one lives, family influences, and much, much more. That context influences how he or she answers any questions about the candidates, right?
I am using that example of political context to help us understand that in a similar way the political context of today's Gospel lesson was vitally important when Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am." If Jesus had turned to a merchant on the street, or a Roman soldier, or an elite woman, he would have gotten a different answer; that's especially true because of where he was asking the question.
We are inclined to ignore the first half of the first verse in today's Gospel reading, but it is vitally important. It says, "Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…." We could nickname that district "Caesarville." In ancient times, long before Jesus was born, it was known as the region of Naphtali; it was an Israelite place then. But then the Romans took over; Augustus gave the town and its surrounding region to King Herod, who built up the city, including a gleaming temple to honor the cult of the Caesar. After Herod died at about the time of Jesus' birth, the region passed to King Philip, who renamed it "Philip's Caesarville".
So, when Jesus and his disciples walked its streets, it was a place that worshipped Augustus, a city of political intrigue that reveled in all things worldly. It was in this setting that Jesus asked his question, "Who do people say that I am?" Commentators say it was a very intentional move, that if Jesus had asked that question in a quiet village in Galilee, there would not be the feeling of drama that was the case in Philip's Caesarville. (1)
In that place, for Peter to confess that Jesus is the Christ, was to challenge the Romans, to oppose the powerful. We know, and Peter will learn that this challenge is not based in earthly splendor or military might, but exactly the opposite. It's a different type of power, notes commentator Scott Hoezee, "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 in this world. We have a protecting force, but also a gracious and forgiving force that no one in the universe will ever be able to stop." (2) Indeed, the gates of Hades will not prevail against Jesus, nor against our confession, with Peter, that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Given that, then, who do we say Jesus is in the power centers of our time? Who is Jesus at national political conventions?
Who do we say Jesus is in the midst of the challenge of 2020? Who do we say Jesus is following the death of George Floyd and increasing racial tensions in our country? Who do we say Jesus is during an increase in gun violence in Akron, claiming multiple lives, including an 8-year-old girl last weekend? Who do we say Jesus is as a pandemic continues, lasting longer than most of us thought would be the case, with nearly 110,000 cases in Ohio and close to 4000 deaths?
Who do we say Jesus is as schools open, using new ways of educating, which impacts not just students and teachers, but families and the well-being of and opportunities for those who are disadvantaged? Who do we say Jesus is as unemployment increases and demand for help with food and housing is at an all-time high at local agencies?
Who do we at Faith Lutheran Church say that Jesus is as we strive to do ministry in new ways, wondering if the number of people in worship or doing hands-on outreach will ever go up again? Who do we say Jesus is as we take a step of faith to broaden our intentional welcome to all people as we consider am all-encompassing "Welcome Statement" at next Sunday's congregational meeting?
And then there are the personal struggles. Who do we say Jesus is when a loved one dies, the doctor gives news we don't want to hear, or our life seems to be falling apart? Who do we say Jesus is when relationships are strained, and difficult decisions need to be made? Who do we say Jesus is when being faithful means taking a stand against the status quo? Who do we say Jesus is?
Is he the one power that outstrips all other powers of the world with his gracious and forgiving presence? And, how do we proclaim the good news of Jesus the Messiah in our community, our workplaces, our nation – especially during a presidential election – and our world?
We begin where Peter did; he had observed healings of mercy, heard the sermons on justice, tasted bread multiplied, and shared with thousands. When he was about to sink in stormy waters, his Lord lifted him up. Through his own experience, Peter came to know Jesus. Yet, when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus proclaims that it is God who has conveyed that truth to him.
The same is true for us, we have experienced the power and presence of Jesus through God's Word, and our own experiences, but it is the Holy Spirit that gives us faith so that we can believe that Jesus is God with us. All that Jesus does is a revelation from God, not just to the first-century disciples, but to us too.
When Jesus asked his question in Caesarville, he wanted to know if they would be drawn to the power and wealth around them, worshipping the culture's latest idols and giving their allegiance to earthly rulers. Or, would they trust Jesus?
I guess his questions rings through the centuries to us today; Who do we say Jesus is? And who will we trust? AMEN
(1) "The Lectionary Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20" by Scott Hoezee, August 17, 2020, www.cep.calvinseminary.edu
(2) Same as #1